Tag Archives: Vayishlach

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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Commentary for Vayishlach

27 Nov

In this week’s parshah, Jacob reconciles with his brother Esau. Fearing Esau’s wrath, Jacobs sends messengers ahead of his camp as they return to Canaan with an extremely extravagant gift of no less than 550 cattle and beasts of burden, hoping that such a tribute might quell Esau’s anger that has surely built up over the last twenty years. As it turns out, Jacobs has nothing to fear, as when he meets Esau the next day, Esau embraces him.

The two brothers then have a very interesting exchange. Esau tells Jacob that he does not have to appease him monetarily because “I have plenty (Gen. 33:9).” After buttering Esau up a bit in 33:10, in 33:11 Jacob responds, “Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have everything,” at which point we are told that after this statement, Esau accepts the gift.

Jacob fears that Esau’s refusal of this gift is a sign that Esau still intends to kill him, as accepting the gift would be accepting an apology and ending the dispute, so he changes the terminology he uses. The tribute, which had previously been referred to as a “gift” is now called a “blessing,” using the same word used to describe the birthright that Esau claimed Jacob had stolen from him. Esau is swayed by this change in terminology, and despite previously turning down the offer because he did not need it as he already had “plenty,” he now accepts it, feeling that the birthright that he thought should have been his was being returned to him.

This once again displays the fundamental misunderstanding of what the birthright truly is that Esau has shown since the very beginning of this saga. The important part of the birthright was not the monetary wealth of their father’s estate, but rather the mantle of spiritual leadership of the Jewish religion. Whereas Esau originally declined the offer because he had “plenty,” Jacob is perfectly willing to give up all of this wealth because he already has “everything”- not in the physical sense, but in the spiritual sense. He has a family and enough money to provide for them, and he has an important role to fulfill in his service to God. What more could he need?

After the two brothers part ways, Jacob and his family head for the city of Shechem, and the Torah makes the point of telling us that Jacob arrived feeling “shaleim (Gen. 33:18).” This word, from the same route as “shalom,” literally means “full” or “complete,” but when it is used to describe a person, it conveys a sense of inner peace.   He has his family and can be sure they will not go hungry, and that they will not be threatened by Esau. He has his studies, and his important spiritual role and relationship with God. The enormous loss of wealth he has just suffered does not seem to bother him at all. This is because while Esau might be the one with more money, it is Jacob who is truly rich. As Ben Zoma said, “Who is rich?   One who is content with his portion (Pirkei Avot 4:1).”

Commentary for Vayishlach

10 Dec

It used to be that one of the most dangerous things a woman could do was give birth. Thankfully, great strides have been made in science and medicine that have monumentally reduced the rate of maternal mortality over the past hundred and fifty years, but for most of human history, it was a very real danger. Given this, it seems surprising that in the entire Bible, which covers thousands of years, there are only two recorded cases of maternal mortality. The first is that of our matriarch Rachel, which occurs in this week’s parshah.

The dynamics of Rachel‘s marriage to Jacob and Jacob’s marriage to Rachel’s sister Leah were very unfortunate. Jacob loved Rachel and had worked out a deal with his uncle Lavan, the girls’ father, in which he agreed to work for Lavan for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. On the day of the wedding, Lavan pulled a switcheroo, replacing Rachel for her older sister Leah, whose face was concealed under a veil. When Jacob confronted Lavan over this, Lavan cited a local custom that the older daughter must always be married off first, which he had conveniently forgotten to mention to Jacob at any point in the past seven years. So great was Jacob’s love for Rachel, though, that he agreed to work another seven years in exchange for her hand in marriage. Even upon discovering that she was barren while Leah was fertile, Jacob still spent most of his time with Rachel causing Leah to often feel ignored.

This dynamic would come to define the relationship between the three of them. Even though she was the wife Jacob had never wanted, Leah was the one who was able to bear children to carry on the legacy of the Jewish People, and yet Jacob still spent most of his time with Rachel. Leah’s feelings are made clear to us through the names of her children, especially the first three, as detailed in Gen. 29:32-34. The eldest, Reuven, is so named by Leah because it derives from the phrase “Ra’ah Adonai b’onyi” – “’the Lord has seen my affliction’ (and now my husband will love me) (Gen. 29:32),” but the name itself literally means “look! A son!”

Rachel, for her part, takes no joy in the attention she receives from her husband, or really from anything else in life because all she thinks about is the fact that she is barren while her sister is fertile. Years later, when Jacob already has ten sons, God finally answers Rachel’s prayers and blesses her and Jacob with a son. Rachel declares, “God has taken away my disgrace” of childlessness, and then names this long awaited child “Joseph,” meaning “may the Lord add another son for me (Gen. 30:24).” God grants this as well, and when a midwife tells her to “have no fear, it is another son for you (Gen. 35:17),” to which Rachel responds by naming the child “Ben-Oni,” meaning “the son of my affliction.” Even after God answers her prayers for a child twice, Rachel still sees herself as suffering from an “affliction.” Her family lives comfortably, she has all of her husband’s love, one healthy child, and now a second one as well, but Rachel ignores all of the good that God has done for her, and as a result, God uses the danger of childbirth to end her life. Jacob then gives the child the much more positive name Benjamin, meaning “son of the right,” which was a symbol of strength and success.

Interestingly, the other case of maternal mortality occurs under very similar and yet opposite circumstances. The fourth chapter of the first book of Samuel starts off with the Israelites suffering a grave defeat at the hands of the Philistines, after which the Israelites decide to bring the Ark of the Covenant along with them into battle, hoping that it will give them a better chance to win next time. It doesn’t work, and not only do the Israelites lose, but the Ark is captured by Philistines as well.

Among the casualties of this battle are Chofni and Pinchas, the sons of Eli the High Priest. When Eli hears the terrible news of both the capture of the Ark and the death of his sons, he dies of shock. The next person informed of this news is Pinchas’ wife, who is in labor. Her attendants tell her “fear not, for you have borne a son (I Sam. 4:20).” Rather than take comfort in this miracle of childbirth and having a child to carry on her family’s legacy, “she did not take it to heart. She called the boy ‘Iy Chavod’ (“there is no glory”) meaning ‘Glory has been exiled from Israel because the Ark of God has been captured and because of [the deaths of] her father-in-law and her husband (I Sam. 4:20-21).” She, too, then dies in childbirth.

While Rachel was only interested in bearing children and paid no attention to all of the other good God had done for her, Pinchas’ wife was so affected by the tragedy around her that she did not notice the blessing God had given her when it was almost literally right in front of her nose. We all suffer many hardships in our lives, and it can feel overwhelming, but if we are to get through those hardships, it is essential to remember all of the goodness in our lives so that the hardships do not consume us.

Commentary for Vayishlach

15 Nov

Names have a lot of meaning in the Bible. When an important character is born, especially in Genesis, we are not only told the character’s name, but why he or she was given that name. When a name is changed it is even more important because it marks a fundamental change in the character. In this week’s parshah Jacob spends all night wrestling an angel, and afterwards insists upon being blessed by the angel. The angel blesses him by giving him a new name, saying “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed (Gen 32:29).”

This change of name marks a newly-renamed Israel. Previously, as Jacob, he had spent most of the past twenty years concerning himself with worldly, material matters. He fled from his brother Esau for fear of his life, and spent twenty years working for his uncle Lavan to earn the right to marry Lavan’s daughters and start a family, and then to earn money to support that family. He then left Lavan’s household and is heading back to Cana’an, but is now concerned with having to face Esau again, having heard that Esau is bringing and army to slaughter him.

The night before his encounter with the angel, Jacob prays to God to protect him and his family from Esau. The next day Jacob sets off alone bearing a large gift of flocks for Esau and at night he encounters the angel. As they wrestle, Jacob puts all of his faith in God’s promise to protect him, and because of this he manages to defeat the angel, even ignoring a serious and painful thigh wound. Having put his faith in God’s protection rather than the physical limitations of his body, Jacob merits this blessing from the angel, and emerges from the ordeal as Israel, a man who has faith that God will help take care of his worldly material needs, and is thus able to focus much more on the spiritual aspects of life.

Then, in the very next verse after his re-naming, the Torah refers to Israel as “Jacob” again.
When Abraham’s name is changed, the name “Abram” is never mentioned again, and the Gemara even records a debate about whether to do so would be violating a commandment (Berachot 13a). Israel, on the other hand, is still often called Jacob throughout the rest of the Bible (even God does so in Gen. 46:2). This is done to teach us that both the material and the spiritual are important and neither should be focused on so much that we completely ignore of the other. In order to lead a healthy life, we must find the right balance between Jacob and Israel.