December 1, 2012 – 17 Kislev 5773
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: Ovadiah 1:1-21 (Etz Hayim, p. 222; Hertz p. 137)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)
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. 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 parashah concludes with genealogical lists of both Jacob's and Esau's descendants.
Theme #1: "A Code of Many Cowers"
"Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last." (Genesis 33:1-2)
"'And the two maids.' His intention was to put them first, so that they would
sustain the attack, should it come." (Netziv, Ha'amek Davar)
"Jacob's arrangement of the mothers with children in the order of increasing
dearness could be motivated by considerations of security – Rachel and Joseph
are last and hence most sheltered. But given his own conduct, it is just as likely
that they arranged for the purpose of formal presentation before Esau, the best
saved for last." (Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom)
"In this arrangement, Jacob betrays his feelings of whom he is prepared to
sacrifice if necessary and whom he is determined to protect." (Humash Etz
"Clearly, Jacob was acting pragmatically. He did not want to rely on miracles,
so he devised a strategy. The strategy was predicated on the assumption that
Esau would be less interested in the handmaidens and their children and, by the
time that Esau reached Rachel and Leah and their children, he would
undoubtedly be assuaged." (Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald)
"It's not politically correct to say that you love one child more than you love
your others. I love all of my kids, period, and they're all your favorites in
different ways. But ask any parent who's been through some kind of crisis
surrounding a child -- a health scare, an academic snarl, an emotional problem --
and we will tell you the truth. When something upends the equilibrium – when
one child needs you more than the others -- that imbalance becomes a black
hole. You may never admit it out loud, but the one you love the most is the one
who needs you more desperately than his siblings. What we really hope is that
each child gets a turn. That we have deep enough reserves to be there for each of
them, at different times. All this goes to hell when two of your children are
pitted against each other, and both of them want you on their side." (Jodi
Picoult, Lone Wolf)
Questions for Discussion
Is this Jacob at his worst? Is he assigning relative value to the lives of his wives
and children based on personal preference, affection, and social standing? If he
feared an imminent attack by Esau – as the text suggests he did – what other –
perhaps morally more defensible – steps might he have taken in protecting his
If Jacob did not expect an attack, but was simply arranging his family for
presentation to Esau – "the best saved for last" – what do we learn from this of
the Patriarch's character and personality? How does this foreshadow subsequent
events in the life of his "favorites"?
Is Jodi Picoult understating the case? Is it merely politically incorrect – socially
obtuse – to love one child more than others? What reasonable behavioral limits
must a good parent put on such feelings of favoritism? When is it, indeed,
proper to devote disproportionate attention to one child over her or his siblings –
"a health scare, an academic snarl, an emotional problem"?
What textual evidence might be cited in support of Rabbi Buchwald's theory?
What are the weaknesses in his defensive explanation of Jacob's defensive
Theme #2: "Happy Fathers Détente"
"Isaac was a hundred and eighty years old when he breathed his last and died. He was gathered to his kin in ripe old age; and he was buried by his sons Esau and Jacob." (Genesis 35:28-29)
"Esau and Jacob buried Isaac: they are mentioned in order of their birth. Earlier
it is said that ‘Isaac and Ishmael' buried Abraham (mentioning the younger first)
because Ishmael was the son of a concubine." (Ibn Ezra)
"Jacob returns to see his father Isaac… Nothing is said about his mother
Rebekah, whose death is never reported… Estranged brothers come together to
bury their father. Nothing is recorded as to whether they also bury their
differences." (Shawna Dolansky, Risa Levitt Kohn, The Torah: A Women's
"The brothers do not live together happily ever after. Almost immediately after
their reunion, they separate again—Esau goes to Seir, Jacob heads to Succoth.
They come together only once more, to bury their father Isaac. This is not a true
reconciliation, but rather an uneasy détente like that between the former Soviet
Union and the United States in the final years of the Cold War. For two
countries separated by oceans, like the two brothers divided by long distances,
this may have been the most reasonable first step." (Carol Towarnicky)
"Riddle me this: Isaac was blind and near death when Jacob stole the blessing, eight
chapters and twenty years ago. Yet he does not die until this chapter." (David Plotz,
Questions for Discussion
Consider Ibn Ezra's explanation of our text. What else might explain the
mention of Esau before Jacob in this verse? Why did Ibn Ezra cite birth order
Political journalist David Plotz raises an important point! How does Isaac's
long life – extending decades after "mistakenly" blessing Jacob – reflect on his
intentions during that critical incident? Did he believe he was dying? Or was he
directing family affairs in full command of his faculties?
How do you imagine Jacob and Esau at Isaac's burial? Were they estranged?
Reconciled? In a state of détente? Civil throughout the event out of deference to their
father's memory and social convention? Does the presence of both brothers at the burial
necessarily imply cooperation in that effort? To what extent is Ms Towarnicky's cold
war analogy applicable? Does the geographical separation following the burial reflect on
their emotional relationship?
It is odd that Rebekah's death is not recorded in the Torah (though her burial place is
mentioned after the fact). Is this a coincidence? Was the tradition recording her passing
lost to Scripture? Is the conspicuous absence of this information an "editorial" statement
about her relationship to her sons… and possibly to Jacob? Had she knowingly and
willingly sacrificed her relationship to her sons in order to assure that Jacob would
succeed his father?
In Parashat Vayishlah, read on December 1, 2012, Shimon and Levi – Dinah's full brothers –
launch a plot to attack Shechem, avenging their sister's rape and captivity: "They put Hamor and
his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem's house, and went away" (34:26). On
December 1, 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin agreed to
Operation Overlord – the D-Day Invasion. One of the five main landing areas was code-named
While the mourning period following the death of a parent is twelve months (as opposed to the
prescribed 30 day period of mourning for all other relatives), it is a widespread custom to recite
kaddish for a parent for only eleven months. A full year of kaddish, it is traditionally asserted,
might seem to imply that the parent's soul requires the fullest possible measure of liturgical and
filial redemption – that is, that the parent was an inveterate sinner (See Shulchan Aruch Yoreh
Deah 376:4, Rema ad loc.). Rabbis Mayer Rabinowitz and Richard Plavin, however, in a 2008
responsum adopted by a majority of the R.A. Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, argue that
the full twelve month period of kaddish – which they identify as the original practice – "should be
reinstated and taught as a valid alternative." They further suggest stopping the recitation of
kaddish a full day before the first Yahrzeit, so that that observance will not appear simply to be
part of the year-long routine of kaddish. They explain their ruling, in part, as based on an
emphasis on the "positive spiritual benefits of kaddish recitation for the mourner in place of
benefit for the deceased."