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Torah Sparks

November 20, 2010 - 13 Kislev 5771

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 Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Reading Summary

In anticipation of a tense reunion with Esau, Jacob dispatches messengers to his brother. When the messengers return to report Esau's approach with a force of 400 men, Jacob assumes that his brother's intent is hostile. He strategically divides his family and flocks into two separate camps, hoping that at least half his entourage will survive if they are attacked. After intense prayer and a tense night, Jacob sends his brother propitiatory gifts. Sending his wives and children to safety across the river Jabbok, Jacob spends the night alone. During the night he wrestles with a mysterious “man.” (An angel? His conscience?) Jacob's hip is injured in the altercation - an event linked by the text to the prohibition against eating an animal's sciatic nerve. Jacob demands a blessing from his opponent, who refuses to identify himself but gives the patriarch a new name: Israel.

Jacob's reunion with Esau is without incident: they kiss and embrace, and Esau is introduced to his brother's family. Esau first declines, but finally he accepts Jacob's substantial gifts at his brother's insistence. The brothers part ways peacefully. Jacob arrives in Shechem, where he buys land. Jacob's daughter Dinah is raped by Shechem, who subsequently expresses the desire to marry his victim. Shechem and his father Hamor propose a diplomatic arrangement whereby Jacob's clan and the Hivites will join together and intermarry, permitting the union of Shechem and Dinah, for whom they offer an exorbitant bride price. Jacob's sons duplicitously consent to the arrangement on the condition that the men of Shechem undergo circumcision. These terms are accepted. While the men of Shechem recover from the surgical procedure and are incapacitated, Simeon and Levi attacked the city, slaughtering all its men, including Shechem and Hamor. Jacob's other sons plunder the fallen men and city of their wealth. To Jacob's expression of dismay, Simeon and Levi respond indignantly: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” Jacob travels to Beth El, where he builds an altar and rids his entourage of idolatrous religious articles. Rebekah's nurse, Deborah, dies and is buried. Jacob receives a divine revelation and blessing, during which his new identity as Israel is affirmed. Rachel dies in childbirth. She calls her son Ben-Oni (Son of my Suffering), but Jacob wisely and sensitively adjusts the name to Benjamin. Reuben consorts with his father's concubine, Bilhah. The unseemly, perhaps politically motivated liaison is reported in a single verse. (The traditional cantillation of the passage, in Genesis 35:22, joins this verse to the one that immediately follows, to dispense with a salacious matter as delicately and expeditiously as possible!) Jacob travels to Hebron. There Isaac dies at the age of 180, and is buried by Jacob and Esau in a memorial tribute reminiscent of Isaac and Ishmael's funerary rites for Abraham. The parshah concludes with genealogical lists of both Jacob's and Esau's descendants.

Theme #1: Kiss Me Late

“Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)

Derash: Study

  1. “‘They both wept.' The verse comes to teach us that at that moment Jacob was moved with love for Esau. So it is throughout time. When the descendants of Esau are moved by a spirit of purity to recognize Israel and their proper stature, we, too, are inspired to recognize that Esau is indeed our brother. In this manner, Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi truly loved the Roman Emperor Antoninus, and so in many similar cases.” (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, Haamek Davar)
  2. “‘He kissed him.' This word is marked in the Hebrew with diacritical marks over each letter. There are those who interpret these markings to mean that his kiss was insincere. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said: ‘It is a given - an established halachah - that Esau hates Jacob. But on this one occasion he was overwhelmed by compassion and sincerely kissed Jacob with all his heart.' According to Rabbi Bar Yochai, the diacritical markings indicate that this was an extraordinary occurrence, in no way reflective of Esau's nature or character, whose mouth is misleading and whose heart is deceit - to act in such a sincere manner.” (Rabbi Yehoszua Trunk of Kutno)
  3. “Read not ‘he kissed him' but rather ‘he bit him.' (Yalkut Shimoni)... When Esau wants to kiss Jacob, that is the most dangerous kiss of all. A kiss from Esau is a bite to Jacob.” (Sefat Emet)
  4. “Esau's kiss, undoubtedly sincere, appropriately signals the final resolution of the chain of tragic events precipitated by that other kiss, Jacob's deceitful kiss (given his father, Isaac), that played a crucial role in the original blessing scene.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)
  5. When Jacob was about to meet his brother he gathered up gifts without number, hoping thereby to placate Esau and defuse Esau's retaliation. In other words, having displayed the cruelest cunning Jacob now displayed the crassest manipulation. At the moment of their meeting, however, Esau didn't slay Jacob. Esau didn't even demand compensation from Jacob. Instead, we are told, ‘Esau ran to meet Jacob, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept.' Jacob, overwhelmed at Esau's forgiveness, cried, ‘Truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God, with such favor have you received me.' (Genesis 33:10) ...Esau's kind of kissing is a most important kind. It's a kind of kissing we should come to be good at ourselves. After all, the people whom we meet in the spirit of Esau - the spirit of forgiveness - are people who will find that seeing our face is like seeing the face of God. (Rev. Victor Shepherd, How Good at We at Kissing?)
  6. “What lies lurk in kisses.” (Heinrich Heine)
  7. The sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a great deal longer. (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., The Professor at the Breakfast Table)

Questions for Discussion

The Sefat Emet's assertion of the danger inherent in the “kiss of Esau” reflects a profound truth about the collective Jewish psyche (if not necessarily about political reality). It often seems that the Jewish people is suspicious of those who offer us friendship - consider the tepid Jewish response to eager Zionism of Christian evangelicals. Our abiding skepticism also has led to lamentable political alliances - consider Israel's warm relations with apartheid South Africa. Are we overly cautious? Who are the true friends of the Jewish people? How should our communities act to cultivate prospective friends, even if they seem (fairly or not) to resemble Esau?

What alternative explanations might we offer for the diacritical marks highlighting “He kissed him”?

Rev. Shepherd, a contemporary Presbyterian minister and theologian, treats Esau as the very model of forgiveness and reconciliation, in a fascinating, dramatic contrast to the common Jewish understanding of Esau although quite in harmony with Nahum Sarna's commentary. To which perspective on Esau does a close reading of our parshah lead us? How might Jews (to whom Esau, especially in the Middle Ages, represented the church) read Rev. Shepherd's analysis in the context of the currently strained relationship between the Jewish community and the Presbyterian church?

Theme #2: Jacob's Altar Ego

“God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Beth El and remain there; and build an altar to God there who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.'” (Genesis 35:1)

Derash: Study

  1. “An alternate reading: ‘Build an altar to God, who appeared to you because of your avoidance of your brother Esau' - A person's worthiness for receiving Divine revelation is determined by the extent to which he shuns evil.” (Rabbi Wolf Landau, Zer Zahav)
  2. “We find no instance of God commanding a person to build an altar other than Jacob in this single case. It seems that this is related to the verse, ‘I, the Lord, hate robbery with a burnt offering.' Jacob feared perhaps he was in possession of goods from the despoiling of Shechem. For this reason the Holy One assured him that his offering would be accepted, and that it was permissible for him to build an altar and bring sacrifices.” (Rabbi Mayer Simcha of Dvinsk, Meshech Chochmah)
  3. “The Rabbis, in general, breathe no word of disappointment for any of Jacob's apparently more dubious acts. The harshest criticism - and the suggestion that he was terribly punished - is leveled against Jacob's delay in fulfilling the overt thrust of his vow at Beth El. God finally has to tell him, with some exasperation: ‘Arise, go to Beth El.' On this, Rashi comments… ‘Because you delayed on your journey, you were punished by this, your daughter's fate.' What are the repercussions of this vow? And why is delay in fulfilling it considered so gravely as to be punishable by the agony of his daughter?” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire)
  4. “If after frequent visits to places of worship, you have experienced nothing of the nearness of God in your houses, then you may safely doubt whether you have truly been in a house of God. It is the home which is the final and supreme test of the altar. A synagogue, for instance, that teaches a Judaism which finds no reverberating echo in the Jewish home, awakens there no distinctive conscious Jewish life, has failed in its mission, and is sure sooner or later to disappear as a religious factor making for righteousness and holiness. It may serve as a lecture hall or a lyceum, or as a place in which people in their ennui repair for ‘an intellectual treat;' but it will never become a place of worship, a real altar for acceptable sacrifices, bestowing that element of joy in God… which is the secret and strength of Judaism.” (Solomon Schechter, Altar Building in America (1904))
  5. “An Altar in life alters our life.” (H. H. Swami Tejomayananda)
  6. “Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists.” (Joseph Marie de Maistre)

Questions for Discussion

Schechter's plea that the validity and viability of an “altar” (or congregation) is contingent upon its impact on the households and private lives of its worshipers reflects Jacob's first response to God's command. “Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midst, purify yourselves, and change your clothes.'” How can we similarly effect meaningful change in our households, bringing them more into sync with the ideals espoused on our altars?

Rashi's suggestion that God punished Jacob by allowing (arranging?) the rape of his daughter is profoundly disturbing, perhaps even blasphemous (see Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's comment). Could this indictment of Jacob - beyond all reasonable proportion - be the convulsive consequence of the similarly exaggerated - and sustained - refusal of the rabbis to discuss legitimate concerns about the patriarch's character? An explosion of exegetical exasperation?!

How, in the twenty-first century, can we best defend de Maistre's contention that religion is a consistently civilizing force? How do our own religious institutions affirm this vision?

Halachah L'Maaseh

Genesis 32:33 establishes the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve, even from a permissible animal. Since it is difficult and therefore expensive to remove this nerve, some of the choicest cuts of meat (filet mignon, sirloin steak) generally are not available to kosher consumers. An animal's hindquarters typically are sold off to non-kosher butchers. Very fine and kosher filet mignon is theoretically possible, however, and readily available in Israel.

Historic Note

On November 20, 2010, we read in Parshat Vayishlach of God's blessing to Jacob: “Israel shall be your name…Be fertile and increase; a nation, yea an assembly of nations shall descend from you.” On November 20, 1949, the State of Israel reported that its Jewish population had reached one million. (On November 20, 1967, the United States reported that its population had reached 200 million.)

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