Parashah Vayishlach

The words of Torah are as a hammer splitting the rock into many different pieces, admitting many different explanations. This is the most powerful thing about studying Torah: we all can study the passage for decades, and every week a new insight always creeps into our reading.

Today’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, runs from Genesis 32:4 through 36:43, with the corresponding Haftarah passage of the complete book of Obadiah… yes, all 21 versus of it. Vayishlach, which can be translated as “and he sent” comes from the first verse of the passage, which reads “And he sent [Jacob, that is] messengers before him to Esau his brother, to the land of Seir.”

This section provides us a glimpse into the psyche of Jacob, and reveals a remarkably humble man. By sending his messengers forward to meet Esau and to make smooth the path set before him, we see Jacob is not relying upon his righteousness for deliverance. Instead, he strove for salvation with all his might and wealth. At the end of his encounter with Esau, we see that Hashem delivered his servant and redeemed him from the hand of he who is stronger than he[1] .

According to Ramban, there’s a hint in this parashah[2]  for future generations, for everything that occurs between our father Jacob and his brother Esau will constantly occur between us and Esau’s children; and it’s proper for us to adhere to the ways of righteousness buy preparing ourselves in the three things which Jacob prepared himself for praying, giving him a present, and rescue [which includes warfare and fleeing] in order to be saved.

The portion begins with Jacob sending angels ahead of him toward his brother who lived in Seir. Since Isaac lived in the southern part of Israel at this time, Jacob had to pass through or near the land of Edom in order to get home. Jacob feared that his presence would be noticed by Esau and he wanted to try to get the upper hand by first sending messengers bearing gifts to his brother. Interestingly, the Rabbis take our father Jacob to task over this by quoting Proverbs 26:17 in Genesis Rabbah[3], “He who passes by, and meddles with strife not his own, is like one who takes a dog by the ears.”

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Jacob: Esau was going his own way, yet you did send to him, saying, Thus says your servant Jacob. Nachman b. Shmuel says, “This may be compared to the case of a robber who was sleeping on a path, when a man passed and woke him up, saying, ‘Get up, for there is danger here.’ At that, he arose and began beating him, at which the victim cried out, ‘ G-d rebuke this wicked man!’ ‘I was asleep,’ he retorted, ‘and you woke me up.’” In order to prove our Torah passage hints at our future relationship with the suns of Esau, the midrash continues. R. Judah b. R. Simon quoted, “What will you say, when He shall visit you, for you yourself trained him to be your ruler? Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘He was going his own way, yet you did send to him, saying, Thus says your servant Jacob.”

The quote from R. Judah b. R. Simon is indicative of the idea held by Joseph ben Gorion[4] that we put ourselves into the hands of Rome [which is often called Edom in post 1st-Century Jewish writings] when Judah Maccabee sent a delegation to Rome to establish a political alliance during our difficulty[5].

When the messengers came back, they reported to Jacob that Esau was now on his way to meet him, he and 400 men. This distressed Jacob, and he did the first thing a righteous man should do: he prepared and prayed. He divided his life’s lot into three camps, each one headed by a wife. His thought was that if Esau found one camp and destroyed it, the other would survive. At this point, I can only imagine what’s going on in his head. He had two wives: Rachel the super model who was the wife of his desire, and Leah, the lovely and nurturing wife given and intended by G-d. Having married sisters was a violation of Torah, but G-d still provided covenant promises through both. Was he going to lose his favored wife? The fear of the unknown future was killing him and He was going to leave nothing to chance if he had the power to do so. He now prepared himself in the three ways:

He prepares himself through prayer

In his prayer, Jacob reminds G-d of the promises given to him. The first comes from Gen 28:15 when he was at Beit-El, experiencing the dream of the ladder that reached heavenward. The second promise [and the one he mentions first in his prayer] comes from Gen 31:3 when he was preparing to leave Lavan’s household in Haran.

Now Jacob prepares for giving Esau a gift

Jacob sent the droves before him in order to appease him[6]. The droves were [first] 200 goats and 20 rams, [second] 200 ewes and 20 rams, [third] 30 nursing camels with their colts, [fourth] 40 cows and 10 bulls, and [fifth] 20 males and 10 male donkeys. He left space and time between each drove and sent them off to the south to encounter his brother. Please note an important aspect to these gifts. Jacob provided gifts of physical material possessions. He did not give land. Therefore, we need to make sure that, as Jews, we do not give land to our enemies for peace because as Torah says, this land is the L-rd’s, and he gives it to us to live as strangers and residents… which means we are merely tenants, not owners.

Lastly, Jacob prepares for war

Jacob didn’t want to initiate or force a war with his brother; therefore, according to Tanchuma Vayishlach 6[7], Jacob armed his men underneath, and covered them in white from outside. By hiding the weapons, he made sure that an already tense situation would not escalate to war. This was wise, and it proved to be successful, for the two brothers met and it was a peaceful and tearful encounter.

If you have an Artscroll Chumash, in the middle of line 6 on page 172 [Gen 32:11] is the Hebrew word katonti, which is often translated “I am diminished.” Rashi[8] believes katonti refers to quantity, and extrapolates Jacob was worried that part of his family would fall to Esau’s sword because “his merits have diminished as a consequence of all the kindness and G-d already showed him, and he was afraid he may have become depraved by sin since the promise was given him.” However, Ramban believes katonti referred to size, meaning that he is too small to have been worthy of all the mercies which G-d has done for him; likewise, Amos 7:2 questions Jacob’s ability to stand by saying “he is small [katan].” This is a perfect example of Jacob’s humbleness because Jacob realizes he is not worthy of the mikol hachasadim ve’mikol ha’emet or “all of the mercies and all the truths ” [from 32:11]. Therefore, Bereshit Rabbah 76:4 translated katonti as, “I am not worthy.” The mercies are the kindnesses that G-d showered on him outside of the promises of G-d, while the truths are the kindnesses, which He promised Jacob. Jacob, then, asks G-d to protect him and his family on the lone merits of G-d promises, because like any righteous man, Jacob knows righteousness is not the basis upon which salvation is warranted, but on faith that G-d will fulfill his promises.

After his prayer, Jacob spent the night near the fjord of Yabbok. While there alone, a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

For those who want an interesting back-story to the events immediately preceding this encounter, please see Chullin 91a[10]. The word often translated “and wrestled” is the Hebrew word vayei’aveik[11]. In Mishnaic Hebrew, avikah is used to convey loops as in “and they entwined the fringes with loops,” in reference to the tying of tzitziyot[12]. Therefore, in reference to his encounter, Jacob was entwined with the man. Ramban makes a point to discourage one from thinking this is a romantic embrace or entwining because in such a case, the word yephateh would have been used, which indicates a seductive entwining.

Throughout the night, Jacob cleaved tenaciously to G-d and the angel could not prevail. The Rabbis in Bereshit Rabbah say the angel touched all the righteous people destined to come from Jacob: specifically the generation who suffered during the reign of Emperor Hadrian between 117 and 138 CE[13].

Once the angel realized he could not succeed against Jacob, he asked to be released. Jacob refused until the angel blessed him. This is where Jacob receives another name: Israel because “you have striven against the Divine and against man and have overcome.” However, the content of the blessing is never mentioned in the text. The Rabbis, noting this, surmise that the angel conceded to him the legitimacy of his father’s blessing. This, of course, is purely conjecture, but not outside the realm of possibility.

While struggling with his adversary, Jacob’s droves were moving forward and encountering Esau. According to the Artscroll Chumash, these droves were asked two questions: “Whose are you?” and “Where are you going?” These questions can be looked at in another fashion: “To whom are you loyal,” and “What is your goal in life?” These questions are answered the same whether by these servants of Jacob or by the progeny of Jacob: we reply that we are forever dedicated to the principles of Jacob. We will walk in all his ways and we will believe in the promises of G-d.

When Jacob looked up in Chapter 33, he sees Esau and his 400 men approach. Sadly, Jacob didn’t have enough time to send the three groups out, and he was caught huddled together in a single unit. Jacob splits the camp and sends the family back away from Esau, first Rachel and Joseph, then Leah and her children, then the concubines and their combined children. He put himself forward toward Esau while the family was behind. That’s when the miraculous occurred, even though Jacob did not rely upon the miraculous to occur, despite the blessing from the angel the night before[14]. Esau runs to Jacob, as Jacob is busy bowing himself fully prostrate to the ground repeatedly. The two men meet in an unrehearsed moment of emotion. Both were sobbing – one at the sight of his long-lost brother, and the other for not being stuck on the end of a pike.

In the Torah scroll, the word vayishakehu “and kissed him” has dots ever each letter of the word. According to one tradition, the dots over these letters weakens the message of the word, in other words, Esau kissed his brother but did not do so with his whole heart. However, r. Shimon bar Yochai[15] says even though Esau hated Jacob, after their 34-year estrangement, Esau kissed him with all his heart. In spite of this apparent joyful greeting, Jacob works very hard to separate himself from his brother. Jacob, with flocks, young children, and grandchildren was no match for the speed of Esau and his 400 mounted men – even with the added baggage of nursing camels and ewes, and Jacob encouraged Esau to go on ahead. Jacob seems to be following the words of Rabban Gamliel who, in Pirkei Avot 2:3-4 warns us not to befriend rulers because they befriend and act friendly only for their benefit and they do not stand by someone in their time of need, and take liberties with people’s belongings.

Once the men separated, Jacob purchased a homestead and built a house in 33:17. During this stay, we see the rape and kidnap of Dinah, a daughter of Jacob. One of the more interesting things I noticed in this narrative is that the king of this city-state is named Hamor has a son named Shechem and Hamor names his city-state Shechem. Being catered and coddled by his father as he apparently was, it’s no wonder that Shechem sees the beauty of Dinah and decides he must take her. He kidnaps her, defiles her, and imprisons her. While she is captive, he attempts to soothe her with calming words, but nothing he says repairs the damage caused by his selfish act. Hamor takes his son to Jacob and the boys and in true fashion of the permissive father, tries to purchase Jacob’s daughter. However, Jacob and the boys already had a meeting of the minds, and came up with a plan to deal with their indignation. The plan apparently was to provide a path so hard that there was no possibility that it could be achieved: Jacob’s sons demanded that all the men of the City-State of Shechem be circumcised in order for Dinah to be taken as a wife. Shechem and his father agree, and surprisingly, the men of Shechem also agree. Once this failed, Jacob must have thought one of two possibilities: [a] while the men of Shechem were recovering from their wound, the boys would capture Dinah and bring her home, or [b] while the men of Shechem were recovering, the boys would kill Shechem for his crime. Levi and Shimon, however, had a different plan: while suffering from their surgeries, the two boys killed every male in the city state, took Dinah back, and plundered the whole city.

Dinah is not mentioned again. We never know if she becomes married, but we know from the writings of R. Mishe ben Nachman that she went down into Egypt with the family during the famine and was buried in the city of Arbel, near the gravesite of Nitai the Arbelite [who is found in Pirkei Avot 1:7] was the leader of the Sanhedrin during the earliest days of the Hasmonean reign[16].

 As Jacob and his family entered the Land of promise to visit his dying father, Rachel gives birth to Jacob’s 12th son and she dies. Benjamin, unlike the other children of Jacob, is the only one born in the land of promise. Jacob buries Rachel along the road, surprisingly, just inside the land allocated to the Tribe of Benjamin when lots are cast and the land is divided among the land-owning tribes. What a terrible ending to the Parashah: Jacob loses both his wife and his father Isaac.

Compared to his father Abraham and his son Jacob, the Torah spends little time on Isaac. However, what we know of him makes his life one deserving of emulation. When he’s born, he brings laughter to his aged mother. He was the first to be circumcised on the eighth day [21:4]. He was taken to Mount Moriah as a 37 year-old man who submitted to both G-d’s and his father’s will and allowed himself to be tied atop the altar to be consumed as a whole-burnt offering. He intervened for his wife to G-d, Hashem heard his prayer, and Rivkah [or Rebecca] became pregnant with twins.

Even though Esau was the son whom he loved in his youth, when he realized Jacob received the blessing of the firstborn, he was not upset. He knew his son, Jacob, was the son of the promise – the son to carry on the principles of Abraham. Relying upon the promises of G-d, Isaac never left the land of promise, but he did send his son out to find a wife from outside the land in order to keep his family from compromising and marrying into a corrupt people destined for destruction. He died at the age of 180, full of years and surrounded by his two sons and grandchildren. He was buried with Abraham, Sarah, and Rebecca at the caves of Machpelah. His trust in Hashem was steadfast and his love for his family unwavering. Isaac truly is a man worth emulating.

[1] Jeremiah 31.11
[2] Heb. Torah Portion; the Torah is split into weekly readings for ease and consistency of study.
[3] Genesis Rabbah 75:3. Genesis Rabbah is the first of ten books in the midrash [parable, story] collection called Midrash Rabbah. I rearranged this particular passage in order to make the point relative to our Torah passage.
[4] This history of Josippon is a medieval work regarded as the Hebrew version of Josephus Flavius.
[5] I Maccabees chapter 8 details Rome’s earliest involvement with the Hasmonean kings.
[6] Genesis 32:21
[7] Midrash Tanchuma is an early, pre-Talmudic Midrash compilation that was edited in the 5th Century CE.
[8] Rashi, one of the greatest of the medieval rabbis
[9] mikol hachasadim ve’mikol ha’emet: “all of the mercies and all of the truth”
[10] Chullin is the 30th tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, a compendium of Jewish interpretation of the Bible. Chullin deals much with kosher foods from slaughter, to proper handling, and the mixing of dairy and meat.
[11] vayei’aveik: “and wrestled”
[12] In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Menachot 42a uses “loops” in reference to the tying of tzitzit, [or fringes or tassels] that are tied upon the four corners of clothing.
[13] Persecution under Hadrian is mentioned in Bereshit Rabbah 77:4. Tractate Sanhedrin 13b of the Babylonian Talmud speaks of a rabbi who is killed for ordaining his pupils as rabbis during this time.
[14] See Artscroll Chumash, page 177, note 1-3.
[15] Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai [or Rashbi] lived during the time of the Tannaim, when the Mishnah was being compiled. Being the most noted of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, he is attributed with penning the Zohar [the main work of Kabbalah]. In addition, he’s attributed to writing the Midrashic works called Sifre and Mekilta.
[16] Per Rabbi Chavel, see Mekilta Exodus 13:19 for more information.

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4 thoughts on “Parashah Vayishlach

  1. Okay, here’s the question. Above you refer to the word avikah and seem to suggest that it was an entwining of tzi-tzi. I always thought that this was a physical battle. By what you are saying, it makes it seem like it was more of a spiritual battle? And the physicaity comes in at the end when Jacob wins the spiritual battle? I guess I am stuck on the pashat level.

    Another issue. I have always felt a little uncomfortable with thinking that the angel that Jacob wrestled with was God himself. How could a man be victorious in a battle with God? And God then is petty enough to injure him because he can’t win. It just seems a little childish to me.

    There it is. Retarded or not.


    1. Avikah indicates a physical entwining… like a wrestling match [for a lack of a better explanation]. Therefore, like the Tsitsit are knotted and intertwined, so too Jacob and the man were intertwined. This is why Ramban spends time letting us know the “entwining” is not romantic or sensual in nature.

      The battle, you are correct is not a match with G-d. It is with an angel… and which Angel is up for debate. The names Gabriel and hasatan are mentioned. Jacob’s additional name [Israel] given at this point in his life is used to justify the belief that Jacob was wrestling with a manifestation of G-d.


  2. You studied a whole lot more than what you shared on Saturday morning. And this came despite all of the interruptions. I have a question but I’d rather talk to you about it. I have had some retard moments lately and would rather not share that with your bloggers. Hehehe


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