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Torah Sparks

December 9, 2006 – 18 Kislev 5767

Annual: Genesis 32:4-36:43 (Etz Hayim, p. 198; Hertz p. 122)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 35:16-36:43 (Etz Hayim, p. 214; Hertz p. 130)
Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1 – 21 (Etz Hayim, p. 222; Hertz p. 137)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

On his way back to Canaan, Jacob prepares to see his brother Esau. When Jacob had departed 20 years earlier, Esau had wanted to kill him. Now Jacob prepares to mollify his brother, and to defend his household if the need should arise. Jacob follows a route that will bring his family directly toward Esau, lest Esau feel that Jacob is purposely avoiding him. In order to achieve this, Jacob brings his family across the ford of the Jabbok River at night – a rather hazardous procedure. Having successfully crossed the river, and while still anticipating the unavoidable meeting with Esau, Jacob is surprised by an “angel” who wrestles with him.

On the next day, a surprisingly amicable reunion takes place with Esau. Relieved, Jacob heads for the north of Israel, settling for a time in Shekhem. It is there that Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a young local man, and two of her brothers exact revenge from the community, to Jacob’s great dismay.

Jacob then undertakes a pilgrimage to Beth El to express his gratitude to God at the very spot where he had prayed for divine protection twenty years earlier, when he had been fleeing from Esau. This is apparently an opportunity for a religious rededication on the part of Jacob’s entire household.

As they are moving south from Beth El, Rachel dies in childbirth. Before her passing, she is aware that a healthy baby boy (Benjamin) has been born.

Isaac dies at a ripe old age. He is buried by Esau and Jacob, who are apparently coexisting amicably. Curiously, the Torah provides no information about the passing of Rebecca.

God renames Jacob with the new name Israel.

The balance of the parashah occupies itself with the genealogy of Jacob’s descendants and then with the genealogy of Esau’s descendants.

Issue #1: Anticipating a Confrontation with Esau

Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed. (Genesis 32:8)

The apparent redundancy within this text caught the eye of Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, who lived in second-century Palestine under Roman rule. Rabbi Judah looked at each component separately (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 76):

“Was greatly afraid” – lest he be killed.

“Was distressed” – lest he kill.

What tactics did Jacob adopt to protect himself and his family from these twin perils? Why was the second, “lest he kill,” significant?

Issue #2: Jacob in Wrong Place

Much has been written about Jacob wrestling with the “angel.” It has been debated whether this is an account of an actual episode in the patriarch’s life or, perhaps, an account of a significant dream of Jacob’s.

For the moment, let us back up a step or two to see how it came about that Jacob was alone and physically vulnerable. The text of the Torah spells out (Genesis 32:23-24) that after Jacob had brought all the members of his family safely across the ford of Jabbok, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was then left alone.

It was at this point in the procedure that the conflict with the stranger took place, resulting in the wrestling episode.

There is a puzzlement embedded in this text. If Jacob already had seen to the transferring of all his possessions across the river, then what business could possibly have brought him back across the river, away from his family, especially at this time, when protecting his loved ones was clearly Jacob’s top priority? A comment in the Talmud (Hullin 91a) suggests that Jacob remembered some small vessels that had not been brought across, and he returned to retrieve them.

It is suggested that Jacob focused his attention on “small vessels” rather than on the big picture. Was Jacob motivated, perhaps, by nostalgia?

In our own lives, how do we attempt to strike a balance between careful attention to small details on the one hand, and seeing the big picture on the other hand?

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