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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayishlah
December 5, 2009 – 18 Kislev 5770

Annual (Gen. 32:4-36:43): (Etz Hayim, p. 198; Hertz p. 122)
Triennial (Gen. 35:16-36:43): (Etz Hayim, p. 214; Hertz p. 130)
Haftarah: Etz Hayim, p. 222; Hertz p. 137

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

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 bringing 400 men to his meeting with Jacob. 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. God appears to Jacob there, 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 180 and Esau and Jacob bury him. The parashah concludes with the genealogy of Esau’s descendents.

1. This Is My Legacy

Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day. (Genesis 35:20)

  1. The text does not read “It is the pillar of Rachel to this day,” for Rachel herself did not need a monument. “One does not rear monuments to the righteous, for their words are their memorial” (Psalms). Righteous men and women do not need pillars of stone to perpetuate their memory. Thus the pillar that Jacob set up was intended only as “the pillar at Rachel’s grave,” marking the site of the grave so that those of her descendants who might wish to visit the grave and pray there might know where it is. (Homat Esh (Rabbi Menahem Asch), 19th century, Hungary)
  2. Rabbi Yose ben Kisma said: At the time of a person’s death, neither silver, gold, precious stones, nor pearls will accompany him, only his Torah and his good deeds. (Pirkei Avot 6:9)
  3. There is a lovely Jewish custom, one that is unfortunately not sufficiently known in our time, of writing what is called an ethical will. Parents would write a letter to their children in which they would try to sum up all that they had learned in life, and in which they would try to express what they wanted most for and from their children. They would leave these letters behind because they believed that the wisdom they had acquired was just as much a part of the legacy they wanted to leave their children as were all the material possessions... An ethical will is not an easy thing to write. In doing so, one confronts oneself. One must look inward to see what are the essential truths one has learned in a lifetime, face up to one’s failures, and consider what are the things that really count. Thus an individual learns a great deal about himself or herself when writing an ethical will. If you had time to write just one letter, to whom would it be addressed? What would it say? What would you leave out? Would you chastise and rebuke? Would you thank, forgive, or seek to instruct? (Introduction, Ethical Wills: A Modern Treasury, edited by Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer)

Sparks for Discussion

Homat Esh says that the words of the righteous are their memorial. What “words” did you receive from your parents, grandparents, teachers and others? Did they come in the form of an ethical will or other written document? If not, how were they transmitted? How have they affected your life?

Do you have a legacy you hope to leave? What have you done to assure it? Have you written an ethical will or wills? If so, when? If not, do you plan to write one?

2. The Mosaic Mosaic

Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz. (Genesis 36:12)

  1. Timna was a princess, for her brother was a prince. She wanted to become a proselyte, and she went to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they would not receive her. So then she became a concubine for Eliphaz, the son of Esau, for she said, “better to become a handmaid of this nation than a princess of any other.” Her son was Amalek, who wrought great trouble to Israel. Why? Because they ought not to have repelled her. (Sanhedrin 99b)
  2. On another occasion, it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, “Take me as a proselyte, but on condition that you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.” Shammai instantly drove him away with a builder’s measuring rod he happened to have in his hand. When the heathen came before Hillel, Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah, all of it; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” (Shabbat 31a)
  3. The majority of Jews in the United States are Ashkenazi, mainly from Eastern Europe. However, even the great variety of European cultures from which most American Jews descended is understood only in a cursory way. Few realize how complex and varied the communities were from place to place, the distinct nature of Hungarian Jews, Polish Jews, Greek Jews, and many others... Just as Ashkenazi Jews are a mix of many peoples encountered during centuries of wandering throughout the Diaspora, Jews of color have different backgrounds, different life experiences, and different perspectives on their relationship to Judaism. These differences include geography, socioeconomic class, ideology, culture, skin tone, language, paths to Judaism, and so on. What language can be used to describe multiracial and multiethnic Jews? What about those people who are adopted from Asia by Ashkenazi parents? How would you categorize Indian Jews? Some African Americans whose families have been Jewish for over 100 years prefer to be known as “Hebrew Israelites,” feeling that “Jews” means whites. Still other African American Jews have joined mainstream synagogues. What about the Anusim (known also as Conversos or Crypto-Jews), who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal over 500 years ago. (Be’chol, Institute for Jewish & Community Research, San Francisco, CA)
  4. Song-and-Dance-Man Sammy Davis, Jr. was teeing off on the golf course one day when his opponent asked him what his handicap was. “Handicap?” wisecracked Davis. “Talk about handicap – I’m a one-eyed Negro Jew.” (“Religion: Jewish Negro,” Time Magazine, February 1, 1960)

Sparks for Discussion

The passage from Sanhedrin points out the terrible consequences of shutting out those who want to join the Jewish people. We hold up Hillel’s example as the one we should emulate. Today, while there are still significant difficulties for non-Orthodox (and even some Orthodox) Jews by choice in Israel, we are doing better in North America. Do Jews by choice feel welcome in your shul and community? Are you sure?

What about Jews of color? According to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, slightly more than 7 percent of America’s Jews say that they are African-American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, or mixed race. How comfortable do they feel in your shul? When you see an African-American couple or an Asian family enter the sanctuary on Shabbat morning, do you automatically assume they are non-Jewish guests of the bar mitzvah family? How would you feel if your child brought home a Jewish fiancé of another race? How do we learn to embrace an increasingly diverse Jewish community?

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