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-
"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
Theme #2: "Endgame Endogamy"
"Timna was a concubine of Esau's son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz." (Genesis 36:12)
"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?
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-
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.