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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VAYISHLACH
November 24, 2007 – 14 Kislev 5768

Annual: Genesis 32:4-36:43 (Etz Hayim, p. 198; Hertz p. 122)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 32:4-33:20 (Etz Hayim, p. 198; Hertz p. 122)
Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1 – 21 (Etz Hayim, p. 222; Hertz p. 137)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Returning to Canaan after 20 years away, Jacob nervously prepares for a reunion with his brother Esau. The messengers he sends return with the report that Esau is coming to meet Jacob with 400 men. Jacob divides his family and flocks into two camps, hoping that one will survive if the other is attacked. Jacob sends his brother a lavish gift of animals. That night, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious “man” who injures his thigh and blesses him with the new name Israel. Jacob and Esau meet without incident and then go their separate ways. Jacob arrives at Shechem, where the local prince, Shechem son of Hamor, rapes Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Dinah’s brothers take revenge, killing all the men of Shechem, taking the women and children captive, and seizing all their property. God tells Jacob to go to Bethel and build an altar. There, God appears to Jacob, confirms his new name, and once again reaffirms the covenant. Rachel dies in childbirth and is buried on the road to Ephrat. Reuben lies with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. Jacob finally returns to his father’s house. Isaac dies at the age of 180 and is buried by Esau and Jacob. The parashah concludes with the genealogy of Esau’s descendents.

1. Be Prepared

Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.” (Beresheit 32:8-9)

  1. He prepared himself for three things – for a gift, for prayer, and for war. For a gift: And so the gift went on ahead (32:22). For prayer: O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac (32:10). For war: the other camp may yet escape (32:9). (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. The proper way is for man to keep both in mind, to make his own plans, as far as possible, not to shun industry and self-help neither relying on merit (i.e., Divine reward for his merits) nor giving himself up to despair, but doing as much as is humanly possible in furthering his interests, not trusting however in the success of his own efforts but in the will of God in Whose hand is everything. (Akedat Yitzhak [Rabbi Yitzhak Arama, 1420-1494, Spain])
  3. If prayer does not succeed, of what use are the gift and the battle? What it means is that Jacob prayed that the gift would be accepted and appease Esau or that the battle would succeed. For that is the way of the righteous, they do not rely on miracles – they do whatever they can and pray to God that their efforts will succeed. Nifla’ot Chadashot (Rabbi Noah Mindes Lipshutz, d. 1797. Lithuania)
  4. Rabbi Yannai said: A man should never stand in a place of danger in the expectation that a miracle will be wrought on his behalf. Perhaps it will not be wrought, or if it is wrought, his merits will be diminished as a result. (Shabbat 32a)

Sparks for Discussion

God had promised Jacob that He would be with him and it was God Who had told Jacob it was time to return to Canaan. Even so, Jacob could not sit back and wait for God to protect him from Esau. Was Jacob’s “bribe” an appropriate gesture to an adversary? Was Jacob right to consider war an option? Was there anything else that Jacob might have tried to effect a reconciliation with his brother (who, of course, had a legitimate grievance)? Do you think the resolution of this story was the result of Jacob’s actions or God’s? How do you see human efforts and God’s providence working together in our lives today?

2. What's In A Name?

Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed. (Beresheit 32:29)

  1. God said to him, “You whose name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more but Israel shall be your name.” Thus He named him Israel. (Beresheit 35:10)
  2. It will no longer be said that the blessing came to you through guile [akva – similar to Yaakov] and deceit, but through prevailing and openly. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  3. Bar Kappara said: Whoever calls Abraham “Abram” violates a positive commandment. Rabbi Levi said: A positive and a negative commandment: And you shall no longer be called Abram (17:5) – that is a negative commandment; but your name shall be Abraham (17:5) – that is a positive commandment... Again, by analogy, if one calls Israel “Jacob,” does one infringe a positive commandment? It was taught: It was not intended that the name of Jacob should disappear, but that “Israel” should be his principal name and “Jacob” a secondary one. Rabbi Zechariah interpreted it in Rabbi Aha’s name: At all events, You whose name is Jacob save that but Israel shall be your name. Jacob would be the principal name – Israel was added to it. (Beresheit Rabbah 78:3)

Sparks for Discussion

Once God changes Abram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah, their original names are not used again. But even though Jacob is given the new name Israel, first by the mysterious “man” and then by God, the Torah continues to call him Jacob. Beresheit Rabbah and other commentators make it clear – since there is no alternative – that Jacob’s name was not changed but added to. Rashi explains that Jacob refers to Jacob’s past – the trickster and deceiver – and Israel refers to his present and future as ruler and prince. Does the continued use of the name Jacob mean that the patriarch has not changed his character? Does it mean that he has changed but that his past cannot be forgotten?

Most of us have things in our pasts that we regret. If we’re lucky, the things we regret are merely embarrassing and foolish. Sometimes, however, we regret acts of recklessness and cruelty. Even if we have changed and “grown up,” what we once did cannot be forgotten. How can we best deal with the negative aspects of our pasts? Can they, in fact, make us better people?

Halakhah L'Ma-aseh

32:33 to this day. Nikkur achoraim, removing the sciatic nerve and prohibited fat from the hindquarters of kosher slaughtered animals, is extremely difficult and requires special training and supervision. As a result, Ashkenazi and some Sephardic communities do not consume the hindquarters but sell them to non-Jews. In Israel, however, nikkur achoraim is performed under both Ashkenazi and Sephardic supervision, so next time you’re in Jerusalem, feel free to enjoy a tasty kosher sirloin or filet mignon.


 
 
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