Torah Readings for Saturday, November 28, 2015
Va-yishlach (lit. “And he sent”)32:4 - 36:43 Bereshit (Genesis)
Va-yishlach is the eighth sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis). The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the portion. “And Jacob sent (Va-yishlach) messengers before him unto Esau, his brother.” Va-yishlach is the second sedrah in the Jacob Cycle. It continues the action packed pace we found in Va-yaytzay. Highlights of the sedrah include the events surrounding Jacob’s meeting with Esau, the Rape of Dinah and the Deaths of Rachel and Isaac.
Jacob Meets With Esau (32:34-33-17)After twenty years, Jacob is returning to his homeland. But first, he must deal with Esau. Jacob is afraid that Esau is still determined to punish him for the theft of the Blessing. Jacob sends messengers and gifts in the hope of buying his brother’s affection. But just in case Esau cannot be bought, Jacob decides to divide his camp into two groups and have them cross the
In describing the reunion of the two brothers, we have skipped over the most famous episode in the sedrah - Jacob’s wrestling match. Once Jacob divides his retinue and sends them across the Jabbok, he finds himself alone at night. Notice the symmetry. Last week’s sedrah began with Jacob’s first night away from home and he had a super-natural experience. This week we find him alone on his last night before returning to his homeland and again he experiences the super-natural. He wrestles with a man who is obviously something more than a man. Is he a river demon, Esau’s angel, a messenger from God, or physical manifestation of Jacob’s inner struggle with himself? Take your pick. There are copious commentaries on all these points of view. What is important is that Jacob emerges with a new name but with a permanent physical change. The price of the struggle that transforms him from Jacob to
is a limp. The name Israel implies
a new level of spirituality. But the
price of that growth is pain and suffering.
The limp is the constant reminder that real changes comes with a real
price tag. Israel
One last note about symmetry; when Jacob left his homeland he offered a prayer to God. It was conditional; the language had the tone of a bargain. Now, as he returns, he also offers a prayer (32:10-13). But the tone is different. Jacob offers words of thanksgiving and request. More importantly, he couches his prayer in terms of his unswerving faith in God. Apparently Jacob did more with the last twenty years than just get older. He matured as well.
The Rape of Dinah (34:1-31)Jacob moves from Succoth to the city of Shechem. He may have planned on staying for a while since he bought a plot of land. Also he erects an altar at Shechem, using his new name,
The Deaths of Rachel and Isaac (35:1-29)Jacob has to give up whatever plans he had for staying in Shechem. Fortunately, God intervenes and tells him to go to
The chapter ends with the travel-weary Jacob being reunited with Isaac at Hebron. Isaac dies the death of the righteous and is buried by his two sons, Esau and Jacob.
The Lineage of Esau (36:1-43)The entire last chapter of the sedrah consists of a detailed description of the descendants of Esau, who is also called Edom. The chapter begins with the exact same words as we found at the start of Toldot, “And these are the generations of…” only in this case the next word is Esau and not Isaac. Is it mere coincidence that each genealogy begins with the same words or is there some hidden message that the commentators have missed? Why does the Torah take so much time with the line of Esau? In part it is to show the evil that flowed from Jacob’s brother. According to traditional commentators it reinforces the correctness of Jacob taking hold of the birthright. In case you missed it, Amalek is listed as a descendant of Esau (36:12). This is the same Amalek whose descendants, the Amalekites, will attack the Israelites in the Wilderness. These are the same Amalekites whom we remember daily so that we can blot them out. Finally, the descendants of Esau had Kings before the Israelites, but the Israelites will conquer them and their Kings will be greater. This will fulfill the promise that the “older will serve the younger.”
3. The prohibition against eating an animal’s thigh muscle (33:3).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Customs and CeremoniesKashrut - “That is why the children of
Circumcision - The story of Dinah is the first time we find circumcision as a requirement for conversion. To this day, Orthodox and Conservative Jews follow this requirement.
Sexual Relations - The story of Dinah is an early indicator that among the Jews sexual relations were to be voluntary and not forced. Devarim contains specific rules that reinforce this concept.
Jewish NamesWe are told twice in this sedrah that Jacob’s name has been changed to
Unlike the name changes with Abraham and Sarah, we continue to see the name of Jacob appear after the name change has been announced. According to some, Jacob and Israel represent two different aspects of the Jew. Jacob is used when relating to worldly matters.
is used in matters of spirituality. We
are the sons of Jacob during the week when our Jewish values are constantly
being challenged by the work-a-day world.
We are the children of Israel
on Shabbat when we can enjoy our spiritual delights free from the distractions
of the material world. In the world of prayer
we invoke Jacob in the Amediah but we invoke Israel in the Shema. Israel
When Isaac asks Jacob, “Which of my sons are you?”, Jacob replies, “I am Esau, your first-born.”(27:18-19). Isaac remains unconvinced and asks again, “Are you really my son Esau?” to which Jacob replies, “I am.” (27:24). In an attempt to gain the Blessing, one of Jacob’s lies begets another lie which ultimately results in him having to flee for his life. Twenty years later, when Jacob’s wrestling opponent asks, “What is your name?” Jacob replies, “Jacob.” To which his opponent replies, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel…” (32:28-29). The patriarch has learned; honesty begets a Blessing without penalty. One more word about names; when Jacob asks his opponent, “Pray tell me your name” the response is “You must not ask me my name.” (32:30). Why the mystery? Or are those demons with which each of us wrestles in the middle night truly nameless?
Jewish Women: Rachel and LeahWho are these two women? What do their lives say to us? Rachel is usually presented as the feminine beauty who is Jacob’s true love. Leah comes across as a homely frump foisted off on Jacob by Laban. But such might not be the case. Rachel reproaches Jacob when she cannot have children. She shows a certain amount of contempt when she trades a night with Jacob for a mess of mandrakes. And in a society where being strong is important for survival, we can deduce from her limited fertility and death in childbirth that she is weak. Through Joseph, she becomes the mother of the
Leah, on the other hand, is a strong woman who deeply loves her husband. Just look at the names of her sons. Her sons are the progenitors for the future well-being of the Jewish people. Levi gives us Moses, the Levites and the High Priests.
gives us the House of David, Judah
and the Southern Kingdom - the surviving remnant of children of Jerusalem . Finally, Jacob decides to have Leah buried
beside him at Machpelah. Maybe as he
matures Jacob finds that there is more to a life’s companion than a pretty face
and a winning smile. Rabbi Adin
Steinsaltz provides a fuller explanation on this non-traditional view of these
two Matriarchs within the context of Orthodox Judaism. Israel
A Jewish Woman and a Jewish NameDinah is puzzle from start to finish. Out of thirteen children she is the only daughter. Her name “Dinah” contains the Hebrew word “din” meaning judge. Normally we associate women with the “feminine side” - mercy (Hebrew “chesed”). The rule of law, the act of judging is seen as the masculine side. In an era when women were viewed as weak and treated like chattel, is the name Dinah a code to indicate that women are really strong, strong enough to be instruments of judgment? Does the Hebrew root of her name contain a prophecy i.e., he who defiles the daughter of Jacob will be judged and judged harshly? Or is combining the reality of Dinah’s female physicality with the concept of judging a reminder that Chesed and Din do not exist separately but are mutually supportive of one another and that both are always present? These are questions to chew over while chewing on Cholent or at the next Hadassah meeting.
Foretaste of the FutureThere are those commentators who contend that the experiences of the Israelites described in Bereshit are microcosms or foreshadowings of later events. In this case, look at the events when Jacob goes up to build the altar at Beth-El and see how they match the experience at
Disappearing ChildrenThere seems to be a pattern of children disappearing in each generation. The first to go is Ishmael, the wild ass of a man. The next to go is Esau, the hunter who did not consider the consequences of selling the Birthright. Third to exit the family is Dinah who thoughtlessly “went out to visit the daughters of the land.” Is there a causal relationship between behavior and disappearance? Maybe we will find an answer when we examine the fate of Simeon in a later episode in Bereshit.
More on DinahThere are those who contend that the story of Dinah explains the strange blessing that Jacob conferred on Levi and Simeon on his deathbed. “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness…For when angry they slay men…Cursed be their anger…and their wrath…I will divide them In Jacob and scatter them in Israel.” This strange blessing brought on by the response to the rape of Dinah may have been a way of explaining the fact that Simeon would disappear; consumed by the tribe of Judah and the fact that the tribe of Levi wandered Canaan without any land of its own.
Rape or IntermarriageOn the surface, the brothers’ anger was triggered by the rape of their sister. There are those who contend that the story is really an attack on intermarriage. Hamor offers to “take their daughters to ourselves as wives and give our daughters to them” (34:21). Was this episode written into Bereshit to support the later efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah to root out the foreign wives that the returning Israelites took in the early days of the
Second Class CitizenThe text describes Jacob’s homecoming in the following manner. “And he took his two wives, his two handmaids and his eleven sons and he crossed over the ford of the Jabbok” (32:24). Note it talks about eleven sons and not twelve children. It as if Dinah does not exist. This omission becomes all the more glaring when you note that the text mentions the two concubines as well as the two wives. So was Dinah as ignored by her father as the text would seem to imply? If so, this might throw more light on Dinah’s behavior and Jacob’s lack of response when she was raped. Regardless of how the commentators try and spin this, we are fortunate in the fact that in the 21st century we pay attention to all of our children; teach them; and reap the reward.
Jacob, the UnworthyAs he is about to face Esau for an unknown fate, Jacob confesses his unworthiness for all the blessings bestowed upon him by God. In Hebrew he starts “Kah-toe-n’-tee,” literally “I am too small” but usually translated as “I am unworthy” and continues “for all the mercies and all the truth which thou hast done with thy servant…” (32:11). This statement of unworthiness or humility has given rise to many stories. One concerns a famous sage who was noted for his wisdom and his generosity in supporting students and giving to those in need. Finally, he found himself in dire financial straits and was forced to travel to several towns seeking financial support from leading Jewish citizens. The townspeople were only too glad to entertain the famed scholar and bask in paying honor to the sage. The sage was unimpressed. As he left the town empty-handed he told his companion, I only made this trip because I needed money to continue my work and pay my creditors. It is money I owe, not honor. I did not set out on this journey because I was in need of honor. This sage, Reb Noach of Lechovitch also said, “A man is often called a microcosm - a small world. If he is a whole world in his own estimation, then he is small; if he is small in his own eyes, then he is a whole world.”
The Great Wrestling MatchHere are a few random comments on the great wrestling match that comes in the opening portion of the weekly reading. The contest is viewed by some as a contest between man’s willingness to improve himself and Satan’s attempts to keep man from turning toward his better nature. The fact that the contest lasts all night long is emblematic of the fact that Jacob’s descendants will battle against evil-doers until the final dawn marked by the coming of the Moshiach. And just as Jacob finally emerges victorious, so will his descendants finally emerge victorious over those who persecute them.
Land PurchasesGod promises a large swath of land to the Patriarchs. However, the Patriarchs used conventional, not divine, methods when it came to actually acquiring a piece of real estate. When Abraham wanted a burial place he purchased the
Jacob versus IsraelProfessor Kugel provides alternative views for the dual name of the third Patriarch. According to some critics, our ancestors may have consisted of one group who traced their roots to a mythic figure named Jacob and another group who traced their roots to a mythic figure named
What’s In a Name?The third patriarch’s first name was Jacob or in Hebrew Ya’akov. According to traditional explanation his name comes from the Hebrew word Akev which means Heel because he was hanging on to his brother’s Heel when he was born. His name is changed to Israel or in Hebrew or Yisra-el, “one who struggles with God.” Meir Shalev offers an alternative explanation. Jacob’s first name in Hebrew is Ya’akov which contains the Hebrew root Akov meaning crooked. At first it meant crooked in a geographic sense, such as a crooked road. Later it came to mean crooked in a moral sense. And Jacob did gain the birthright and blessing by means that were crooked. The Hebrew for Israel is Yisra-el which includes the same Hebrew letters as the Hebrew word Yashar which means straight or honest. Jacob obtained the blessing from his father by a crooked means. Israel gains his blessing from the angel with whom he was wrestling by honest means. According to Shalev, the name change shows a change in the character of the man whom we call both Jacob and Israel.
Blessings - Do we get what we ask for?Meir Shalev points out that Jacob seeks a blessing twice in his life. The first time he wants the blessing from Isaac which means, among other things, that he will inherit the bulk of his father’s wealth. Twenty years later, when the angel with whom he is wrestling demands that Jacob let him go, Jacob responds by saying, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” In other words, the price of release is a blessing. Jacob could have asked for wealth, power or at least to be saved from Esau whom he feared. Instead he asks for a blessing, a blessing for which he does not define the terms. According to Shalev, the fact of the blessing is more important than the content. Twenty years ago he gained a blessing by trickery. Now he can gain a blessing by honest means. He understands that how you gain something can be as important as what you gain. Some might say he learned that the ends do not always justify the means.
GenealogyThe last section begins, “And these are the generations of Esau, he is Edom” and continues with a lengthy description of the family of Rachel and Isaac’s older son. This may have been an attempt to explain the relationship between the Israelites and their neighbors to whom they were related. Regardless, it paints a picture of what life might have been like in the Middle East three or four thousand years ago - a series of tribal confederations ruled by a king. The success of the Israelites would then have been attributable to their allegiance to Ha-shem. Furthermore, it provides us with a reminder to the key to Jewish survival. A whole swath of ancient people including the Gergashites, Jebusites and the Edmoites would be unknown to modern people because nobody reads their “books” if in fact they left any behind. The Israelites are known because they produced books which their descendants study regularly and incorporate into their daily existence. Such murderous events as the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust provided one form of threat to the survival of the Jewish people. But today, our cultural literacy - lack of knowledge of our “books” - poses the greatest survival to the Jewish people. As one person put it, we are more concerned about the gadgets of Steve Jobs then we are about studying the Book of Job.
Genesis and DeuteronomyThere is no question that Seir is the land of Esau and his descendants, the Edomites. But how did Seir become the land of Esau. In Deuteronomy Moses tells the people, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brethren, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. Therefore watch yourselves carefully. Do not meddle with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as one footstep, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession.” According to tradition, God did not give his “chosen people” the entire world. He allotted them a slice of territory, just as he allotted the territory that belonged to all the rest of the nations in the world.
However, this week’s portion we read, “And Esau took his wives, and his sons, and his daughters, and all the souls of his house, and his cattle, and all his beasts, and all his possessions, which he had gathered in the land of Canaan; and went into a land away from his brother Jacob. For their substance was too great for them to dwell together; and the land of their sojournings could not bear them because of their cattle. And Esau dwelt in the mountain-land of Seir - Esau is Edom.” In this version, we have a repetition of the split between Abraham and Lot. The wealth of the two men was too great for them to dwell together so Abraham proposed that they separate, giving Lot the choice. Lot chose Sodom and the rest is history. This version also makes it plain that the Esau moved to Seir because he needed room for his family and his retinue. Some would say that by the time the Torah was committed to writing the Edomites were living in Seir and these two different tales provide an “after the fact” explanation for a current reality. The two explanations would seem to be part of the on-going tensions between “predestination” i.e., man is merely acting out a pre-conceived divine plan and “free will.”
Haftarah: This is one of those weeks when it will depend upon which synagogue you are in as to which prophetic portion you will read. The Ashkenazim read from Hosea while the Sephardim read from Obadiah.
Ashkenazim11:7 - 12:12 Hosea
The Man: We have only limited knowledge about the historic figure of Hosea. He probably lived during the middle of the eighth century, B.C.E. He preached between 750 and 720 B.C.E. in the Northern Kingdom, also called the Kingdom of Israel. The leading Israelite monarch at the time was Jeroboam II. This was a turbulent period of moral decay when the leadership of the
was divided between those who wanted to make an alliance with against Egypt Assyria and those who wanted to come to terms with Assyria. Hosea
warned against doing either. Instead, he
called for moral and religious revival with the people putting their faith in
God as a solution to their temporal problems.
In the end, the people failed to heed his words and the Israelites were
exiled in 721 B.C.E.
The Message: In the collection of the Minor Prophets, Hosea is the first of the Twelve. From a chronological point of view, this is in error since Amos lived and preached before Hosea did. Hosea is listed first because his fourteen chapters of writings are larger than Amos and the size of the text gives him precedence. Understanding the message of Hosea can be quite difficult. As one commentator puts it, “The style of Hosea is highly poetic and difficult to follow. Many passages…are not clearly understood because we are no longer fully acquainted with certain events to which they allude.” The first three chapters of Hosea describe how he came to prophesy. The last eleven chapters alternate between admonishments and words of hope. There will be punishment but ultimately God will redeem us.
Hosea married a woman named Gomer. How this marriage came to be is open to some question. But the fact is that she betrayed him. He took her back and forgave her. In delivering his message, Hosea portrayed the Israelites as the wayward wife, God the long-suffering husband who always loved her and who forgave her and redeemed her. Hosea referred to the Northern Kingdom as Ephraim. This is because the tribe of Ephraim led the original revolt against the House of David. Hosea did not approve of the revolt and saw Jerusalem as the holy place, thus placing a permanent cloud over the Northern Kingdom. I mention this only so that you will understand that when Hosea talks about Ephraim he is talking about the Kingdom of Israel and not just one tribe.
Theme-Link: The theme link between the Torah portion and the prophetic portion is found in Hosea 12:4-5 where the prophet references Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, one of the major events in the sedrah.
Sephardim1:1 - 21 Obadiah
The Man: We do not really know anything about him. In Hebrew the book begins, “Ha-zone, ohvadyah…” Ha-zone means vision and it is the same word with which the Book of Isaiah begins. The word “ohvadyah” maybe translated as “one who serves God” or “servant of the eternal.” Was “ohvadyah” (Obadiah in English) the name of the prophet or an appellation such as we saw with Malachi? We do not know. We are not sure when he lived. He may have been a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah or he may have lived sometime after this Major Prophet. The first five verses in the Book of Obadiah are almost identical to language found in Jeremiah. Also, some of the events he referenced are related to the events surrounding the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E. Other commentators connect his words with the prophecies of Isaiah and Amos regarding Assyria. For this reason the book of Obadiah is placed third among the Minor Prophets, immediately following the Book of Amos. There are numerous people with the name of Obadiah. There are those who believe that Obadiah lived at the time of King Ahab and Jezebel. They contend that he was from
to Judaism. Furthermore, when Jezebel
went on a killing spree and tried to wipe out the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah
hid the survivors. According to this
line of thought, Obadiah is the antithesis of his fellow Edomite, Esau. Esau lived among the righteous and became
evil. Obadiah lived among the evil but
was righteous. However, all of this is
mere speculation. As I said, we have no
definitive data about this prophet. However, if Judaism had saints, Obadiah would
be the Patron Saint of the Minimalists.
We know nothing about him. He
left behind a legacy of only twenty-one verses.
Yet he made it into the greatest book ever written and his entire
message is read once a year, every year.
Surely somebody has delivered a sermon or written a davar-torah on this. Edom
The Message: The haftarah concerns the future relations between the descendants of Esau called
and Jacob. The prophet described the venality with which
Edom joined in the despoliation of Jerusalem.
Edom did not come like a conquering lion, but like a jackal feasting on
the spoils of the city once it had been laid waste by the Babylonians. But in the future, Obadiah foresees the day
will lose its wealth and the sons of Jacob will be restored to their rightful
place in the Promised Land. Edom
Theme-Link: The Torah portion describes the relations between Esau and Jacob. The haftarah describes the future relationships between the descendants of the two twins.
Copyright, November, 2015, Mitchell A. Levin