Vayishlach: Pain & Confusion

Image: The sciatic nerve, which is where Jacob was injured. (Lightspring/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Vayishlach “and he sent” is the name of this week’s Torah portion, a portion full of pain and confusion. It is so chock full of things to write about that I almost failed to write about any of them.

I can’t touch Dinah’s story this week. I don’t have enough emotional armor right now, so I’m not going there. Instead, I will point you to a sermon by one of my teachers and to a brilliant new book on the subject, The Story of Dinah: Rape and Rape Myth in Jewish Tradition by Gavi S. Ruit, with a forward from another of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Tamara Eskenazi. The sermon is available free online. The book is expensive: convince your synagogue library that they need it, or petition the library for it, because it is worth it.

The first line of Parashat Vayishlach seems straightforward: Jacob has been humbled by his suffering at the hand of the trickster Laban (and Laban’s daughters, Jacob’s wives.) He realizes that he is ready to make peace with his brother Esau. So he sends messengers – melachim – to his brother in hope that they can negotiate a peace and Jacob can return home.

The messengers return from the task, and report that Esau himself is on his way with 400 men. Numbers in the Bible mean all sorts of things, and sometimes nothing at all, but according to my Hebrew grammar instructor in Jerusalem, Yossi Lechem, “400 men” is code for “an enormous army coming to beat the daylights out of you.” Jacob panics and divides his caravan in two camps, then approaches Esau alone, camping for the night by the river. There he is accosted by and wrestles with ish, a man.

The Hebrew words in this parashah are fascinating and somewhat obfuscating. Melachim can mean either messenger or angel. Ish usually means “man” but in this passage may mean “angel” and possibly is a euphemism for “God.” Ish also appears in the phrase arba’ah ish imo, “400 men with him.”

Bottom line: this is a setup for a comedy or tragedy of mistaken identity. Which shadowy figure is God? A man? An enemy? An angel? And after all these years, who is Jacob?

I remember reading this passage when I was still very new at Hebrew, and I found it bewildering. I got something along these lines just from verse 4:

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו אַ֥רְצָה שֵׂעִ֖יר שְׂדֵ֥ה אֱדֽוֹם׃

Jacob sent angels into the face of Esau his brother, in the Land of Seir, in the country of Edom…

Genesis 32:4, (a very) alternative translation

And frankly, while it is not a great translation (wheredid Jacob get the power to command angels?) it speaks to the mystery, the confusion, and the high stakes of this passage. Jacob has a relationship with the land in Canaan, and he believes his destiny to be tied to it. The land is in the possession of Esau, his twin who became his enemy because Jacob cheated him repeatedly. The only way Jacob can go home to this critical bit of real estate is by making up with Esau.

Then, as if things were not complicated enough, another ish appears by the bank of the river after Jacob is alone and vulnerable. This ish, all alone, beats him in a wrestling match, and gives him a permanent injury to his sciatic nerve (ow!) He also gives Jacob a new name: Israel.

The name is a new translation problem. The usual translation is something like this one from sefaria.org:

Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Genesis 32:29

I’m more inclined to translate ki-sarita “Because you have persisted” and va-tukhol “and you have proven yourself able.” Thus:

Said [the ish], “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have persisted with deities and human beings, and have proven yourself able.”

Genesis 32:29 (alternative translation)

As I read it, Jacob hasn’t prevailed over much of anyone. He was cheated by Laban. His beloved, Rachel, participated in her father’s scheme. His first wife Leah knows that he doesn’t love her as much as he loves Rachel, and so his household is full of strife. His brother is apparently coming to kill him, and a mystery figure by the river has maimed him for life. The come-from-behind scrapper, the “supplanter” Jacob is now Israel: a fighter, not necessarily a winner, but a fighter.

As I write this, in December of 2019, we are living in a very confusing time. The Jewish community has been divided into two camps, pro- and anti-Trump. It is hard to tell the angels from the messengers. It is impossible to see where it is all going, but right now the Jewish community feels wounded by a resurgence in anti-Semitism worldwide and especially in the United States. Our synagogues are vandalized; our schools and other institutions are under threat.

But Jacob is still Israel: he’s a fighter. He may be terribly wounded, his house may be divided, but he never gives up. He persists.

May we each do our best to live lives of Torah. May we seek out the best in one another and ourselves. May we not be so impaired by our wounds that we give up the fight. May we not be in so much pain that we confuse friends and enemies. We are Israel, and we do not give up. We persist.

A Kiss is Just a Kiss – Or is it?

Esau ran to greet [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. – Genesis 33:4

In the Torah scroll, the word “kissed” in this verse is always written with a dot above each letter. This is extremely unusual; words in the Torah Scroll usually have no dots or signs at all. While we don’t know exactly why the early scribes saw fit to write the word this way, from the earliest times rabbis have taken it as a sign to pay special attention to that word in the text.

When the text says that Esau embraced Jacob, falling upon his neck and kissing him, the collection of midrash called Genesis Rabbah offers two interpretations side by side:

  1. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said that Esau felt compassion for his brother and kissed him with all his heart.
  2. Rabbi Yannai interpreted the dots to mean that the meaning of the word “kissed” is reversed: Esau bit Jacob’s neck, and it miraculously turned hard as marble. The two men wept because Esau’s teeth and Jacob’s neck both hurt.

This is a classic example of two people reading the same text and having very different reactions to it. This happens with many of the characters in Genesis, particularly with Jacob and Joseph. I have seen students get terribly angry and seem to take someone else’s interpretation as almost a personal insult.

When I have spoken with such people outside of class, trying to understand, it began to make sense. They were identified with a character in the story, and it hurt them to hear another student say that character was a bad guy.

Perhaps Rabbi Simeon was an eldest child, and felt sympathy for Esau. Perhaps Rabbi Yannai could not forget the time that his older brother hurt him.

Torah, particularly Genesis,  is a mirror. We look into it and we see ourselves. Sometimes that is conscious, and sometimes it’s a kinship we feel deep in the unconscious.

Is there any character in Torah to whom you feel particularly close? Have you ever felt hurt by someone else’s reading of a story in Torah?