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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayishlah
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)

Study: Derash

"'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 Hayim)

"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 family?

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 strategy?

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)

Study: Derash

"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 Commentary)

"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, Good Book)

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 alone?

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?

Historic Note

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 Sword Beach.

Halachah L'Maaseh

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."

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