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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayishlah
December 6, 2014 – 14 Kislev 5775

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Finally free from serving his father-in-law, Laban, Jacob is informed of a new challenge: his estranged twin brother, Esau, is on the way to visit him with 400 men at his side. Jacob is fearful, and with good reason; the last time Esau was nearby, he was threatening Jacob’s life. Jacob springs into action in three ways: he separates his traveling party into two halves (to reduce the risk of total destruction should Esau attack), prays to God for safety, and prepares gifts for his brother.

But no matter how much energy he expended preparing for his brother’s approach, nothing could have prepared him for his midnight encounter. Jacob, now standing alone, is met by a mysterious being, and the two wrestle until daybreak. Jacob proves to be stronger, but not before his opponent strains Jacob’s hip socket. Victorious nonetheless, Jacob demands a blessing, and the unknown being changes Jacob’s name to Israel, because he had “striven with beings divine and human, and ... prevailed.”

Limping back to his camp, Jacob sees Esau and his party approach. But instead of attacking, Esau arrives with open arms, kissing Jacob and speaking of journeying together. Jacob, however, remains polite yet cautious, insisting that Esau accept his gifts, and asking to travel at a slow pace behind Esau’s company. Jacob and Esau reunite only once more: to bury their father, Isaac, who dies at the age of 180.

At Jacob’s next encampment, his daughter, Dinah, is raped by Shekhem, the son of the Hivite chief Hamor. Shekhem desires to make Dinah his wife, and Hamor asks Jacob for an even deeper arrangement, proposing that the Hivite and Israelite clans marry one another. Jacob approves the request, provided that Hivite males be circumcised. Little does Jacob know that two of his sons, Simeon and Levi, would slaughter the Hivites recovering from their circumcisions, and pillage their camp.

God speaks to Jacob a second time, asking him to return to Bethel, the site of Jacob’s initial encounter with God. There, God blesses Jacob once more, reminding him of the covenant promising his offspring the land of Canaan.

But tragedy strikes in two ways. First, Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, dies while journeying back to Canaan. And Rachel gives birth to her second son, Benjamin, but dies immediately afterward, thus leaving Jacob without the love of his life. In spite of being blessed with so much, Jacob shows signs of unraveling, as evidenced by Reuben’s rebellion against him.

The portion concludes with a complete genealogy of Esau and his descendants.

Discussion Topic #1: Jacob in Decline?

Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, "You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed." But they answered, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?" (Genesis 34:30-31)

The rape of Dinah reveals Jacob at his worst. His relative lack of action in the aftermath of this crime is confounding, and it is fair to wonder whether the days of the pro-active Jacob are long-gone.

And where was Dinah? [Jacob] placed her in a box and locked it, so that Esau should not lay eyes on her. For this, Jacob was punished, for withholding her from his brother — perhaps she would have redeemed him? — and she fell into the hands of Shekhem. -- Rashi on Genesis 32:22

Dinah was held captive in Shekhem’s house and Jacob stayed dumb! How can a father hear of such outrage and not react? Of course, it must be recalled that when Reuben, Jacob’s son, sleeps with Bilha, Jacob’s concubine, his reaction is similar. … After it reports that Reuben bedded Bilha, Genesis merely adds two words, ‘Jacob heard,’ and then discreetly changes the subject. -- Burton L. Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics

At last, at the end of the massacre and the plunder, Jacob broke his long, shameful silence. Did he express horror at the cruelty of the crime? Did he finally lament the outrage suffered by this daughter? Did he grieve for the slain? Apparently, these considerations weighed little with the patriarch of Israel. He simply regretted the danger that Simeon and Levi had brought upon the family and — above all — upon himself. … The inadequacy of this response is one of the most shocking moments in a shocking story. It is as odious as his initial indifference to Dinah’s plight. -- Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning

Questions for Discussion:

Rashi claims that Dinah was assaulted at least in part because of Jacob’s over-protection, and his over-reaction to the possibility that Esau might wish to marry her. Does this midrash suggest that Jacob is paranoid, or perhaps selfish? Have you ever made a poor decision based on fear of a worst-case scenario?

Even though Jacob suggests to Shekhem that his children might intermarry with the Hivites, provided that the Hivite men are circumcised, he never expresses any particular concern about Dinah’s personal welfare. Can we see Jacob’s suggestion as an implied statement of concern for his daughter? Was his behavior simply inexcusable? Could it be that his fear of living in a land of foreigners blinded him to his family’s need for personal safety?

Jacob’s reaction to Reuben’s indiscretion is also muted (at least until Genesis 49, when Jacob criticizes Reuben’s action as part of his “blessing” to his eldest son). Are there other similarities between this episode and the story of Dinah? Or is Jacob’s passivity the only common thread between the two stories? Why, after Jacob is so pro-active while preparing to see his brother, does Jacob do so little for his own daughter? Do you think his encounters with the wrestler and, subsequently, with Esau, change him that radically? What image is more memorable to you: the active Jacob or the passive Jacob?

Theme #2: God and Jacob, The Sequel

God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him, “You whose name is Jacob, you shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.” Thus He named him Israel. And God said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Be fertile and increase; a nation, yea an assembly of nations, shall descend from you. Kings shall issue from your loins. The land that I assigned to Abraham and Isaac I assign to you; and to your offspring to come will I assign the land.” (Genesis 35:9-12)

Speaking to Jacob more than 20 years after their first encounter, God introduces new names and re-introduces ancient promises.

Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: At the time the Holy One created the world, it went on extending farther [in both directions], like two unwound clews of thread, until the Holy One rebuked it and brought it to a standstill: “The pillars of heaven swayed [hither and yon], until they were appalled at the thunder of His rebuke” (Job 26:11). That, too, is what Resh Lakish said: What is meant by “I am God Shaddai”? I am He who said to My world: “Dai, Enough!” -- Talmud Hagigah 12a

The military motif [regarding the Patriarchs] can scarcely be disassociated from the divine promise to the patriarchs that kings shall come forth from their loins; that they shall multiply north, south, east and west; that they shall be teeming multitudes; that their descendants shall be as numerous as the stars, so that all nations of the world shall bless themselves by the offspring, i.e., that the nations of the world would like to be similar to Israel. -- Yochanan Muffs, Love & Joy

We infer that God descended from heaven to speak with Abraham and returned when finished speaking. The same picture occurs at the end of the Priestly version of the revelation to Jacob in Beth-el: “God parted from him at the spot where He had spoken to him.” -- Israel Knohl, The Divine Symphony

Questions for Discussion:

The excerpt from Hagigah considers the phrase “El Shaddai” to be an appropriate moniker of a God that sets limits. Sometimes, we feel closer to God by considering the many ways that God sets limits on our behavior, be it ritual, behavioral or ethical. Which limits are the most useful to us? Is it ironic that a God that we often consider to be limitless is the one who sets limits?

Muffs comments on the war-like tradition found in the Torah. Clearly, while war is an undeniable part of our ancient stories, we also embrace the notion of pursuing and maintaining peace. How can we take a war-like tradition and apply it to our pursuit of peace today?

Knohl touches upon a dichotomy found throughout the Torah: Sometimes (prominently in the book of Leviticus), God is depicted as immanent, very close to our lives. Other times (prominently in the book of Deuteronomy), God is understood to be transcendent, to reside at a sizable physical distance from us. What do we make of the fact that this part of Genesis describes a God that is both immanent and transcendent? Is it part of the beyond-our-understanding-God that God can be both at the same time?

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