Commentary for Vayishlach

23 Dec

This week’s parshah begins with Jacob steeling himself and making preparations for his confrontation with his brother Esau that has been thirty-four years in the making. En route to this confrontation, Jacobs famously wrestles an angel and is given the name by which not just he himself, but also his family, and all of his descendants and their homeland through the present day would be known by: Israel.

Esau has a name that serves a similar function: Edom. While we were first introduced to this name of Esau’s two weeks ago, it is in the last chapter of this parshah, a genealogy of Esau and his descendants, where it becomes clear that this name is not just a nickname of Esau’s, but rather the name that he and those descended from him and their territory would be come known by, just as his brother’s descendants would be known by Israel.

Esau’s genealogy is abnormal because it lists his descendants each as “chiefs” and describes the specific region of Edom of which they are chief. While this might sound similar to the Israelite tribal system, it is important to note that in genealogies, the Israelites are never described as chiefs of their regions. The Israelite’s tribal presidencies are only brought up when it is relevant to the function they are fulfilling in the story. Also, the word used to describe the Edomite “chiefs,” “aluf,” carries with it a much more military connotation than the word used to describe the Israelite tribal chiefs, “nasi.”   Rashi uses this to infer that soon after Esau’s passing, his descendants split into different tribes, only loosely affiliated due to their familial connection and at war with each other as often as not, with the only times they were united as one people under one king being when one of the chief’s factions was strong enough to dominate the others. This is a sharp contrast to the Israelites tribes who, while sometimes apathetic towards each other’s plight, were generally amicable and helpful to each other, and still shared a sense of cultural unity, even when the kingdom split into two.

When Jacob and Esau finally meet, the Torah tells us that they embrace and Esau kisses Jacob, with all being seemingly forgiven, but the Torah gives us several clues that this was not the case. The word for “he kissed him,” “vayishakeihu,” shares the same route as the word for “weapon,” and a set of mysterious dots appear above this word, which the rabbis interpret as a sign that an alternate meaning should be applied in addition to the basic one. One such opinion about this set of dots teaches that it is meant to weaken the meaning of the word and betrays Esau’s true feelings about his brother.

Similarly, when the Torah speaks of brotherly or fatherly embrace, the idiom it uses literally translates as saying that one person “fell upon his [the other’s] necks.” Obviously people only have one neck, so this idiom is the only time this odd word meaning “his necks” is used. While tradition teaches us that the word as it appears in this story (Gen. 33:4) is to be pronounced in the usual manner for the idiom, it is actually spelled in the text in the singular as “his neck,” as it would be spelled outside of the idiom, which Al Keri U’chetiv uses to teach that Esau was not sincere in his display of emotion.

This incident teaches us about an important difference between the two brothers. Jacob wished to end the feud, so when he met Esau, he came prepared with lavish gifts, which he knew Esau, would like. Jacob understood his brother and he loved him and thus was willing to give of himself in order to end the quarrel. Esau, on the other hand, was willing to be appeased by Jacob’s gifts, but he never truly forgave him. Jacob wanted to sign a peace treaty, but in Esau’s mind all he ever did was accept Jacob’s gifts as sufficient reason to agree to a ceasefire. Each brother passed his mindset on to his descendants. Thus the Edomites warred with each other often, willing to be appeased or agree to a strategic end to hostilities, but never willing to forgive, while the children of Israel learned to love each other and forgive each other, for it is only through forgiveness that a quarrel can truly be put to rest.

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