Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

December 10, 2011 – 14 Kislev 5772

Annual: Genesis 32:4-36:43 (Etz Hayim p. 198; Hertz p. 122)
Triennial: Genesis 34:1-35:15 (Etz Hayim p. 206; Hertz p. 127)
Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1–21 (Etz Hayim p. 222; Hertz p. 137)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser


In anticipation of a tense reunion with Esau, Jacob dispatches messengers to his brother. When they return to report Esau's approach with a force of 400 men, Jacob assumes that his brother's intent is hostile. He 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 fight, 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. Although at first he declines, finally Esau accepts Jacob's substantial gifts. 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. As the men of Shechem, still incapacitated, recover from the surgical procedure, Simeon and Levi attack the city, slaughtering all of them, including Shechem and Hamor. Jacob's other sons plunder the fallen city of its 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 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, where 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 parashah concludes with genealogical lists of both Jacob's and Esau's descendants.

Theme #1: "Just call me Ben"

"Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. When her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, 'Have no fear, for it is another boy for you.' But as she breathed her last – for she was dying – she named him Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath – now Bethlehem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel's grave to this day." (Genesis 35:16- 20)

Derash: Study

"Rachel wants to name the child Ben-Oni, 'child of pain' or (according to Maimonides) 'child of mourning.' Jacob overrules her deathbed wish and names him Benjamin, 'child of strength' (or perhaps 'child of long life'). He wants the child to remind him of Rachel's strength and courage, not of her pain and death, and does not want Benjamin to grow up feeling responsible for his mother's death." (Humash Etz Hayim)

"Ben-Oni. The name has been almost universally understood to mean 'son of my sorrow.' It could also be 'son of my vigor,' a euphemism for 'son of my debility.' Jacob either reinterprets ben-'oni or replaces it by a more auspicious name. The meaning could be, 'son of my right hand,' the right being a symbol of dexterity, power, procreation." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

"Ben-Oni. The name can be construed to mean either 'son of my vigor' or, on somewhat more tenuous philological grounds, 'son of my sorrow.' Given the freedom with which biblical characters play with names and their meanings, there is no reason to exclude the possibility that Rachel is punningly invoking both meanings, though the former is more likely: in her death agony, she envisages the continuation of 'vigor' after her in the son she has born (the tribe Benjamin will become famous for its martial prowess)." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"The element 'oni may signify 'my vigor' and this sense is supported by the orthography; the context, however, favors (at least symbolically) 'misfortune, suffering' (from a different root), and this interpretation is preferred by tradition. The other name, Benjamin, is ascribed to the father. It means literally 'son of the right (side, hand, or the like),' that is, one on whom the father expects to count heavily for support and comfort; or, alternatively, one who promises good fortune, a propitious turn of events." (E. A. Speiser, Anchor Bible Commentary)

"Ben Yamin -- Jacob also adds the nuance, "son of my right hand," since Rachel was at the same time the true source of his strength as well as his right-hand partner, soul-mate and beloved." (Rabbi Shlomo Riskin)

Questions for Discussion

It is quite remarkable – and perhaps unfortunate – that the name Ben-Oni has "been almost universally understood to mean 'son of my sorrow'" – despite the fact that "son of my vigor" is the "sense supported by the orthography." That is, as the name appears in our verse – spelled with an initial aleph – the plain meaning of the text is vigor, not sorrow (See 'oni in Genesis 49:3 – "Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigor ['oni]"). The interpretive reading "son of my sorrow" is imposed through a long history of readers bereaved at the death of their matriarch. Even Professor Sarna insists that reading 'oni as "vigor" is but a euphemism for debility. How would restoring the literal original meaning – "As she breathed her last – for she was dying – she named him Son-of-My-Vigor" – change our understanding of Rachel's character?

What is the most plausible or most appealing understanding of Jacob's selection of Benjamin as his youngest son's name? Did he find Ben-Oni objectionable (although, of course, he was not influenced by the long exegetical tradition of reading Ben-Oni as a negative)? Was he paying tribute to his beloved Rachel, "his right-hand partner, soulmate and beloved?" Was he suggesting a special role for Benjamin within the family, or in his own emotional life? If he was indicating by the name that he was bereft at the death of Rachel, haven't we subverted the narrative -Benjamin is the doleful name, while Ben- Oni evinces defiant strength?!?!

Why did Jacob essentially deny Rachel's deathbed instructions, her final wishes? Rachel's tomb is still a sacred site, drawing visitors and pilgrims for prayer and reflection.

On Rachel's yahrzeit (11 Cheshvan) in 2010, some 100,000 Jews visited the tomb. Rachel's tomb is associated especially with intercessory prayers for fertility and, ironically, safe childbirth, as well as with the restoration of the Jewish people to the Promised Land. What makes this holy site especially appropriate to the Zionist cause, as opposed to, say, the cave of Machpelah, where the other matriarchs and patriarchs are buried?

Theme #2: "Endgame Endogamy"

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

Derash: Study

"Desiring to convert to Judaism, Timna went to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, 'I would rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.' From her was descended Amalek, who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have rejected her." (Talmud Sanhedrin 99B)

"As punishment for rejecting Timna, the Jewish people were cursed with the eternal enmity of Timna's son, Amalek. Haman, the enemy of the Jews, was a descendant of Amalek. Haman's hatred of the Jews and his decree to destroy them in fact originated in the failure to convert his great-grandmother Timna. But this error was redressed in the time of Mordechai and Esther, when 'Many of the peoples of the land became Jews' (Esther 8:17)." (Rabbi Abram Isaac ha-Kohen Kook, Moadei Reiyah)

"Eliphaz. In rabbinic legend he is the worthiest of Esau's descendants; he was trained to pious living under the eyes of Isaac; the Lord had endowed him with the spirit of prophecy, for he was none other than Eliphaz the friend of Job." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz) "Eliphaz was among those who conquered the Land, and he took Timna, the sister of princes, forcing her into concubinage." (Sforno)

Questions for Discussion

The stated descent of Amalek from Esau is the Torah's most damning comment about Isaac's hapless firstborn. Yet the rabbis seem to place the blame for Amalek's hatred of Israel not on Esau but on the patriarchs themselves. What in the biblical text might be considered exculpatory evidence about Esau's character? That is, what are Esau's best qualities and achievements?

Timna's name appears to be derived from the Hebrew root man'a, to withhold or restrain. This may in part have inspired the midrash about withholding access to conversion from her. What else is unfairly withheld or restrained in the Esau narrative that might be suggested by Timna's curious name? Might these acts of withholding and denial also account for the connection to Amalek and his anti-Israel attitudes?

The text in Sanhedrin is a remarkably timely comment on intermarriage and conversion. The lenient attitude underlying this comment – as, too, much of rabbinic literature regarding conversion – contrasts dramatically with the increasing stringency toward standards of conversion today, especially in Israeli politics and the official Israeli rabbinate. What accounts for this strictness, this pattern of withholding conversion? What can we and our congregations do to be more welcoming to prospective converts, aspiring converts, and those who have joined the Jewish people through conversion?

Rabbi Ovadyah Sforno (15th – 16th Century Italy) gives a very different context for the significance of Timna and the origins of Amalek. Here Eliphaz is not the prophet, the insightful counselor to Job, but a soldier forcibly taking a concubine as the spoils of war. Sforno, too, may be basing his interpretation in part on Timna's name – she was, he asserts, restrained and held against her will. Is this a more satisfying explanation for Amalek's hateful ways? How does Sforno's comment relate to Israeli life and international politics today?

Halachah L'Maaseh

Woven into the narrative describing Jacob's encounter – his wrestling match – with an angel, is a mitzvah prohibiting consumption of the sciatic nerve (Genesis 32:33; see also Talmud Chullin 101B). In preparation of kosher meat, the sciatic nerve (gid ha-nasheh) must be removed in a de-veining process known in Hebrew as nikkur and in Yiddish as treiberen, which also removes other prohibited fats and veins. Due to the expense involved and the expertise required for this process, at least outside of the state of Israel the hindquarters of beef and lamb typically are sold for no-kosher consumption. As a result, various cuts of meat are widely unavailable to kosher consumers: notably, filet mignon, sirloin steak, and leg of lamb, all of which could be kosher, provided nikkur is executed executed. Cuts of meat lower than the twelfth rib generally are not used for the kosher market. (Leg of lamb typically refers to the hind leg, though it is certainly possible to find kosher lamb forelegs, technically still a leg of lamb in the anatomical if not the most fashionable culinary sense. Similarly, kosher "sirloin" is taken from the 11th rib; connoisseurs define sirloin as taken from the 13th.) In the state of Israel, where it becomes costeffective to undertake the complexities of preparing the hindquarters for kosher consumers, all the cuts that are nowhere to be found in the diaspora are available readily. (See also Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah chapter 65. This prohibition is #183 in Maimonides' list of 365 Negative Commandments. The Chofetz Chayim lists it as Prohibitive Commandment #1 in his Sefer Ha- Mitzvot Ha-Katzar.)

Historical Note – a personal message from Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

In Parashat Vayishlach, we recall: "Isaac was 180 years old when he breathed his last and died. He was gathered to his kin in ripe old age." We read this verse on December 10, 2011 – corresponding to 14 Kislev 5772. This Shabbat is the third yahrzeit of my father and teacher, Melvin Prouser, of blessed memory, who died at the age of 91 (a venerable age, fully half of Isaac's lifespan). As the long-time gabbai of Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton, Massachusetts, my father – by his own accounting – called an estimated 25,000 friends, neighbors and guests to the Torah over the years. I gratefully invite those using this week's Torah Sparks to dedicate their study to his memory.

Yehi zecher Yehoshua Mayer ben Eliyahu l'vrachah – May his memory continue to be a blessing.

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016