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Torah Sparks

November 27, 2004 - 14 Kislev 5765

Annual: Genesis 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 H. Prouser
Little Neck Jewish Center, Little Neck, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


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 hostile intent. He strategically divides his family and flocks into two separate camps, hoping to effect the survival of half his entourage in case of attack. Following 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 the sciatic nerve. Jacob demands a blessing from his opponent, who refuses to identify himself, but bestows a new name on the Patriarch: 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 accepts Jacob's substantial gifts only at his brother's insistence. The brothers part ways peacefully. Jacob arrives in Shechem, where he purchases land. Jacob's daughter Dinah is raped by Shechem. Dinah's rapist 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 thus 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 (Genesis 35:22) joins this verse to the one which immediately follows, so as 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 joint memorial tribute reminiscent of Isaac and Ishmael's funerary rites at Abraham's passing. The Parshah concludes with genealogical tables documenting the descendants of both Jacob and Esau.

Theme #1: "Hero Israel"

"Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed." (Genesis 32:29)

Derash: Study

  • "It will no longer be said that the blessing came to you through deceit and trickery (as implied by the name Yaakov), but through open and rightful authority (deriving Yisrael from sherarah - authority)." (Rashi)
  • "Striven. Sarita, connected with the first part of Yisrael. But the word may at first have been Yashar-el, the one whom God makes straight, as opposed to Ya-akov-el, the one whom God makes to limp." (W. Gunther Plaut, citing J.L. Benor)
  • "Israel. The name is best explained etymologically as 'May El persevere'. But both Jacob and Israel are treated here symbolically, to indicate the transformation of a man once devious (Jacob) into a forthright and resolute fighter." (E.A. Speiser, Anchor Bible Genesis)
  • "Jacob after wrestling with the angel and receiving the name Israel, exclaims "I have seen God'. The etymology may derive either from reading Yisrael as a contraction of 'is raah 'el - 'a man who saw God' - or the equivalent of yasur 'el - 'he sees God.'" (David Winton, citing Philo, Philo of Alexandria)
  • "Israel is not just Jacob's name but becomes the name of the people who trace their lineage back to him and to this moment. Israel is the God-wrestler, the brother-wrestler, the self-wrestler, who has known what it means to be alone… Israel is the paradigm for a soul that in its aloneness grapples with the most profound issues of its existence and wins a blessing that leaves it marked, infirm with a glorious infirmity." (Peter Pitzele, Our Fathers' Wells)
  • "In names formed by a verb combined with 'el, the divine element is usually the subject of the action, not its indirect object. Yisra'el, therefore, should properly mean 'God strives,' not 'He strives with God.'" (Nahum Sarna, JPS Genesis)
  • "(Yisrael.) God-Fighter: The name may actually mean 'God fights.' Buber further conjectured that it means 'God rules,' containing the kernel of ancient Israel's concept of itself, but he retained 'Fighter of God' in the translation." (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The meaning of Yisrael is a question of considerable moment, since it is both the name of a nation and, in Rabbinic Hebrew, the technical term for "Jew." How do the various theories of etymology reflect the political aspirations and theological concerns of the Jewish People?
  2. What elements inthe biblical account of Jacob's dream support Buber's "translation" of Israel as "God rules?" What other elements of Jacob's life lend credence to this theory?
  3. How is Jacob's transformation from "Devious" to "Forthright" a spiritual model to be emulated? Was Jacob a willing, active participant in this change? Does viewing Jacob as a model imply that human beings are by nature duplicitous and flawed?
  4. If, as Sarna states, Israel means "God strives," what divine goals, challenges, or obstacles are intended? What is the connection between "Yisrael," so understood, and "Yaakov?" How is a "striving" God appealing to the People Israel?

Theme #2: "Violators and Vigilantes"

"Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob's sons, brothers of Dinah, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem's house, and went away. The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been defiled." (Genesis 34:25-27)

Derash: Study

  • "Simeon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness. For when angry they slay men… Cursed be their anger so fierce." (Jacob's deathbed "blessing," Gen. 49:5-7)
  • "All the citizens of Shechem were liable to death by the sword. For Shechem kidnapped Dinah, and they saw and knew what he did, yet they did not bring him to judgment." (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 9:14)
  • "Each of the two brothers had a separate motive for setting this 'fire.' One came with the human emotion of avenging the family honor. Such a fire is to be considered a foreign fire (esh zarah - an unacceptable offering; compare Lev. 10:1). The other came with zeal for God and without any personal considerations, and this fire is the fire of the Lord. Nevertheless, even with such a fire, one must exercise extreme care in its use and timing. Otherwise it can do incalculable harm. (Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin)
  • "Why should all the men of the city suffer for the misdeed of one of their number? The sons of Jacob certainly acted in a treacherous and godless manner. Jacob did not forgive them to his dying day." (Joseph H. Hertz)
  • "One cannot explain away the massacre with the simplistic claim that 'Simeon and Levi were barbarians.' Quite the contrary: they were religious, intelligent, and knowledgeable in the Torah. The lesson is that even such people are liable, by virtue of excuses… to sink to a level where they are capable of wiping out an entire city without sensing that they committed a moral crime of the worst order." (Shammai Leibowitz)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Were Jacob's objections to his sons' acts of mayhem based solely on moral grounds? If his negative reaction was merely self-interest - "You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land" - can it fairly be used as a moral indicator?
  2. Dinah never says a word in this chapter or elsewhere in the Bible! She neither consents to, nor rejects Shechem's "proposal" - or her brothers' response. How does this affect the narrative and the attending moral questions?
  3. After slaughtering the men of Shechem, her brothers remove Dinah from Shechem's house. Does this suggest she was being held captive? Would this justify her brothers' duplicity? Would it justify the killing of Shechem? Hamor? Their fellow citizens?
  4. In his 1936 commentary, Hertz describes the behavior of Simeon and Levi as "godless." What contemporary realities might have influenced his perspective? How might his earliest readers have responded to this characterization of Jacob's sons? How does the assertion of "godlessness" compare to the reaction of Shammai Leibowitz (of Bar Ilan University) regarding moral crimes by religious believers, "knowledgeable in the Torah?"
  5. How do this Parshah and its commentators speak to the issue of violence committed by religious fundamentalists of various persuasions?

Historical Note

In Parshat Vayishlach, read on November 27, 2004, we learn of critical events in the life of Jacob's family: the birth of his youngest child, Benjamin; the death of his beloved Rachel in childbirth; Simeon and Levi's response to an assault on their sister Dinah. On November 27, 1978, President Jimmy Carter, addressing a Mormon Church gathering, stated: "a family is a mutual improvement society."

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