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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayishlah
November 16, 2013 – 13 Kislev 5774

Annual (Genesis 32:4 – 36:43): Etz Hayim p. 198; Hertz p. 122
Triennial (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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Finally free from serving his father-in-law, Laban, Jacob is informed that Esau and 400 men are on the way to visit him. Jacob springs into action in three ways: He separates his traveling party into two groups, prays to God for safety and prepares gifts for his brother. Jacob, now standing alone, is met by a mysterious being, and the two wrestle until daybreak. Jacob proves to be stronger and demands a blessing, and the unknown being changes Jacob’s name to Israel, because he had “striven with beings divine and human, and ... prevailed.” Esau arrives with open arms, kissing Jacob and speaking of journeying together. Jacob, however, insists that Esau accept his gifts and asks to travel at a slow pace behind Esau’s company. Jacob and Esau reunite only once more: to bury their father, Isaac.

Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, is raped by Shekhem, the son of the Hivite chief. Shekhem wants to marry Dinah, and Hamor asks Jacob to promote marriage between the Israelites and the Hivites. Jacob approves, provided that Hivite males are circumcised. Simeon and Levi slaughter the Hivites recovering from their circumcisions, and pillage their camp.

God tells Jacob to return to Bethel, where he is blessed once more, reminding him of the covenant promising his offspring the land of Canaan. Rachel gives birth to her second son, Benjamin, but dies immediately afterward.

Theme #1: Jacob’s Mid-Life Crisis?

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. … Then he [the man] said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he [Jacob] answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:25-29)

On the eve of his encounter with Esau, Jacob’s life appears to be at a crossroads. His angst seems to be on full display during his wrestling match in the wee hours of the morning.

Psychologists speak of the “dream work” that we all accomplish at night at some profound level of our being, which enables us to look at issues that our conscious, daytime self finds impossible to face. Perhaps in some deep reach of his memory, Jacob recalled his wrestling match with Esau in the womb, as he internally prepared for his meeting with his brother in the morning. When he woke, he felt profoundly “blessed,” and empowered. (Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning)

The identity of [Jacob’s] opponent is called into question. For his response to Jacob’s answer to his question about his name is to change Jacob’s name to ‘Israel,’ with the explanation that ‘you have struggled with God, and with me, and have prevailed’ … But wasn’t Jacob wrestling with a man, and just one? … Are we to read the possible transformation of Jacob’s opponent in this episode as mapping Jacob’s own developing awareness of who and what this figure is — from man to God? (W. Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis)

We are no closer to knowing who it was that Jacob wrestled with than we are to knowing who the demons are that we ourselves fight in the gray hours before dawn. Jacob, at least, earns a change of name, even as he also suffers a wound. … Although he limps from the scene, he has received what Homer scholars like to refer to as an enabling wound. (Burton L. Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics)

Questions for Discussion:

Should the identity of Jacob’s wrestler matter to us? We know that Jacob’s state of mind is impacted by the (supposed) threat of Esau’s imminent arrival? Does our reading of this story change if the wrestler’s identity was something other than what we originally thought? Did Jacob knows who wrestled with him? Does the encounter impact his approach to his meeting with Esau the following day?

Could it be, as Armstrong suggests, that Jacob’s wrestling match hearkens back to his struggles with Esau in the womb? Or was this more of Jacob’s reaction to finally being independent after 20 years of servitude to his father-in-law? Is this indeed a crossroads in which Jacob must confront his freedom?

Is there something symbolic about the fact that Jacob becomes “Israel” while simultaneously suffering an injury? Does that foreshadow the future challenges of the children of Israel? Or does it say more about Jacob himself? Can life ever involve a “wrestling match” of some sort before facing a new challenge? Were the matches beneficial, or were more an obstacle? Do we walk away from such matches “wounded” in some way? And, to use Dr. Visotzky’s phrasing, were such wounds enabling?

Theme #2: Do We Treat Esau Fairly?

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. …He himself went on ahead … Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. … So Esau started back that day on his way to Seir. But Jacob journeyed on to Succoth (Genesis 33:1-4; 16-17)

Esau is one of the most vilified characters in rabbinic literature. And indeed, Esau certainly has his fair share of nefarious moments. But the character of Esau might not be as cut-and-dry as the rabbis thought. His encounter with Jacob does not, on the surface, reveal an angry man, which leads to some controversy regarding Esau’s motivation.

What is surely most important and revealing about Esau in this reunion scene [with Jacob] is his extraordinary graciousness. His refusal of [Jacob’s] gift — which, we must keep in mind, was actually a bribe — gives concrete expression to his unconditional acceptance of Jacob. The elder brother does not so much as ask for an apology from the younger brother who has so callously and outrageously cheated him. (Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider)

“And Esau ran to meet him … and kissed him.” The word is dotted. Rabbi Yanai said to [Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar]: Why is the word [“kissed” written in a Torah scroll with dots above the letters]? It teaches, however, that he wished to bite him, but that the Patriarch Jacob’s neck was turned to marble and that wicked man’s teeth were blunted and loosened. (Genesis Rabbah, 78:9)

Even if Esau’s extreme hatred does not return, the two ways of life represented by the two brothers are not compatible. The way of Israel needs separation from the way of Edom — and Jacob knows it, at least intuitively. … Jacob’s caution, it turns out, is not misplaced. The score between Jacob and Esau has not been permanently settled; the hatchet is but temporarily buried. Four hundred years later, Israel, returning after the exodus from Egypt … will be forced to face Edom (the nation of Esau), which will refuse to allow it passage. (Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom)

Questions for Discussion:

Dr. Spina’s interpretation of Esau’s state of mind comes from the text alone. The midrash from Genesis Rabbah represents a common rabbinic view of Esau. Is it possible that, after 20 years, Esau could be so forgiving of Jacob, as Spina suggests? Does the rest of the text from Genesis 33 indicate that Esau still wished to harm Jacob, as Genesis Rabbah claims?

Dr. Kass’s interpretation takes a long-term view of Jacob and Esau’s relationship, suggesting that the meeting in Exodus 33 is merely an intermission before tensions between their descendants arise. Did Jacob’s refusal to walk alongside Esau foreshadow this subsequent history? Or was Jacob’s insistence on separation is more of a statement of his personal trepidation vis-à-vis Esau?

Was Esau truly ready to let bygones be bygones and forgive his brother? Does the fact that he and Jacob eventually bury Isaac together indicate that we should trust Esau’s kiss to be genuine, or is it a temporary respite of deep-seeded hatred? What really happens at the meeting of people after years without contact because of an old argument? Was either person ready to move on? How would one determine whether to forgive that person?

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