Vayechi: When Jacob Bows

The prophecy

Joseph has two prophetic dreams when is seventeen, according to the Torah portion Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23). After the second dream, he tells his brothers:

“Hey, I dreamed a dream again! And hey! The sun and the moon and eleven stars mishtachavim to me!” And he reported [it] to his father and to his brothers, and his father rebuked him and said to him: “What is this dream that you dreamed? Will we actually come, I and your mother and your brothers, lehishtachot to the ground to you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, and his father observed the matter.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:9-11)

mishtachavim (מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים) = were bowing down, were prostrating themselves. (From the root verb shchh, שׁחה = bow down deeply in humility, do homage.)

lehishtachot (לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֺת) = to bow down. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)

Joseph’s Second Dream, by Owen Jones, 1865

Joseph’s father, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel), is over 100 years old at this time, and so far the Torah has not mentioned him bowing down to anyone except his brother, Esau.

The previous prostration

That happened in the Torah portion Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), when the two brothers met again after a twenty-year estrangement. Esau had vowed to kill his brother after Jacob had cheated him out of both his birthright and the blessing he expected from their father. Jacob had fled to his uncle’s house in Charan. When he finally headed home again, after acquiring a large family and his own fortune, he learned that Esau was coming down the road with 400 men to intercept him. Jacob did everything he could think of to prevent disaster: sending his brother generous gifts ahead of time, praying to God, and finally, as Esau came into view with his troop,

He himself went across to face him, vayishtachu to the ground seven times, until he came up to his brother. (Genesis 33:3)

vayishtachu (וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ) = and he bowed down, and he prostrated himself. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)

In the Hebrew Bible, prostrations are a way to demonstrate humility and deference to a superior—usually to a king or to God. By bowing down to Esau seven times, Jacob is symbolically renouncing any advantage he tried to get over Esau in his youth, and demonstrating as graphically as possible that he considers Esau his superior. His prostrations are the equivalent of a puppy rolling over and exposing its throat to an older dog.

Inferior to nobody

After Jacob and his family and servants depart from Esau in peace, he does not bow to anyone for over forty years. Why should he? Jacob, jealous of his twin brother’s extra rights as the firstborn, has always been self-conscious about his position in life. After he failed to secure the rights of a firstborn son by fraud, he labored in Charan for twenty years until he had earned them. Now Jacob is a chieftain with twelve sons, many slaves and employees, and a great  wealth of livestock. The chieftain of the town of Shekhem treats Jacob as an equal, and when he makes an offer to Jacob he goes out to his camp instead of summoning him to his own residence in town.1

Jacob does not bow down to God, either. He first encounters God in the dream with angels on a stairway, and when he wakes up he treats God as someone to bargain with, vowing to give God a tithe of his wealth if God protects him and brings him safely back home.2 When Jacob worships God, he does so by pouring oil on a stone or burning animal offerings on an altar.3

Jacob and his people settle somewhere near Hebron/Chevron in Canaan.4 After Jacob’s older sons come home from the field without their younger brother and show their father Joseph’s bloody tunic, Jacob thinks his favorite son is dead. He mourns Joseph for 22 years. During that time Joseph is actually living in Egypt, where he rises from slave to viceroy. Finally Joseph sends for his father and his whole extended family in last week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 4:18-47:27).

And Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to Goshen to meet Israel [a.k.a. Jacob], his father. And he appeared to him, and he fell on his neck and he wept on his neck a long time. Then Israel said to Joseph: “I can die now, after seeing your face, that you are still alive.” (Genesis 46:29-30)

But the prophetic dream Joseph had when he was seventeen is not fulfilled. Jacob’s brothers have already bowed down to him many times, but his father has not.

Jacob does not bow down to Pharaoh, either, when Joseph presents him at court. He greets the king of Egypt with a blessing, and answers Pharaoh’s inquiry about how old he is by saying he is 130, and his life has been hard and short.5 Then Jacob blesses the king again, and leaves.

The prophecy fulfilled

Jacob finally bows down for the second time of his life on his deathbed, in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26).

Then the time approached for Israel [a.k.a. Jacob] to die, and he called for his son, for Joseph, and said to him: “If, na, I find favor in your eyes, place, na, your hand under my thigh and do a loyal and faithful deed for me: don’t, na, bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my forefathers, then bring me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place!” (Genesis 47:29-30)

na (נָא) = please, pray, I beg you. 

Joseph gives his word, but Jacob wants the formal hand gesture of an oath as well.6

And he [Israel/Jacob] said: “Swear to me!” And he swore to him. Vayishtachu, Israel, upon head of the bed. (Genesis 47:31)

vayishtachu (וַיֱִשְׁתַּחוּ) = and he bowed. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)

Many classic commentators wrote that Jacob bowed toward the head of his bed, because the presence of God is at the head of the bed of a sick person (and prepositions are ambiguous). But that interpretation implies he was standing up. The Torah has already told us that Jacob is 147, and his death is approaching. I have been at the beside of four people near death, and I believe even Jacob would be too feeble to stand up during his final days.7 Perhaps he is seated on his bed, resting against a cushion, and he manages to bow at the waist.

In that case, he is not bowing toward the head of his bed; he is probably bowing to Joseph. This was the opinion of 12th-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, known as Rashbam, who wrote: “ ‘And Israel bowed low’: To Joseph, from the place where he was at [the top of] the bed.”8

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340 C.E.), known as Rabbeinu Bachya, added: “Seeing that Joseph had agreed to honour his father by undertaking to fulfill his wishes, Yaakov in turn prostrated himself before him to show that he respected the position Joseph occupied as effective ruler of the country.”8

Jacob spent the first hundred years of his life struggling to be the one on top, the one in charge. But during his final years in Egypt, he accepts that his son Joseph is his superior. He knows he is dependent on Joseph to carry out his final request, so he uses the language of an inferior, using the subservient phrase “if I find favor in your eyes” and repeating he word na. Then he uses the gesture of a humble inferior, coming as close as he can to a prostration.

This is the moment when Jacob fulfills the prophecy of the dream his son Joseph had when he was seventeen.

Jacob on his Deathbed, woodcut, 1539

After that, Jacob lives long enough to do the equivalent of rewriting his will, adopting Joseph’s two sons as his own so they will receive shares of the inheritance equal to those of Joseph’s brothers. Jacob also delivers his own prophecies to all his sons, predicting what will happen to the tribes that descend from them. Finally he orders all twelve of his sons to bury him with his deceased family members in the cave of Machpelah in Canaan.

And Jacob completed commanding his sons, and he drew back his feet in the bed, and he expired, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:33)

One prostration to Joseph before he died was enough for Jacob.

“Honor your father and your mother,” says the fifth of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus. In my post Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1, I suggest that parents should also honor their children. But should they show humble submission to them, as Jacob did by bowing to Joseph on his deathbed?

Nobody would advise submission to a callow seventeen-year-old. But what about when the child is middle-aged, and the parent’s ability to deal with the world is declining in old age? If the adult child is competent and kind, then it would be better to humbly submit to that child’s arrangements than to insist on complete autonomy. I hope that is what I will do when I am considerably older—though I do not expect to live to age 147!

  1. Genesis 34:6-24.
  2. Genesis 28:20-22.
  3. Jacob’s journey south from Shekhem ends at the home of his father, Isaac, in Hebron/Chevron (Genesis 35:27). After that, the Torah only says Jacob lives “in the land of Canaan”, without specifying the location. His first stop on the way to Egypt is Beir-sheva, which is south of Chevron.
  4. Genesis 28:16-19, 33:19-20, 35:6, 35:13-14, 46:1.
  5. Genesis 47:7-10.
  6. Biblical Hebrew sometimes uses the word for “thigh”, yareich (יָרֵךְ) as a euphemism for the genitals. According to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, midrash written between 630 and 1030 C.E., Jacob said: “O my son! Swear to me by the covenant of circumcision that thou wilt take me up to the burial-place of my fathers in the land of Canaan to the Cave of Machpelah.” (translation of Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 39:13 by
  7. This is the first of Jacob’s three deathbed scenes. In the second, he has to summon his strength (vayitchaek, וַיִּתחַזֵּק) to sit up in bed.
  8. Both quotations are from

Toledot & Vayishlach: Face to Face

(This week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), the beginning of Joseph’s story. But before I write about Jacob’s favorite son, I have more to say about Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, and who he wrestles with–face to face and alone in last week’s portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43).)

Jacob spends the first sixty years of his life wrestling—with his brother, with his uncle, with God, and with himself—always maneuvering to steal the privileges he feels unentitled to due to birth or guilt.

Wrestling over a birthright

Twins wrestle in Rebecca’s womb at the beginning of the Torah portion Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:10). Esau is born first, so in the world of the ancient Israelites he is entitled to inherit twice as much of their father Isaac’s wealth as his brother. He is also slated to become the head of the extended family and to serve as its priest.

And after that his brother came out and his hand was hanging on to Esau’s akeiv, so they called his name Ya-akov. And Isaac was sixty years old when they were born. (Genesis 25:26)

akeiv (עָקֵב) = heel.

Ya-akov (יַעֲק‎ב) = “Jacob” in English. (From ya-ekov, יַעְקֺב  = he grasps by the heel, he cheats; from the same root as akeiv.)

The Birth of Esau and Jacob, by Master of Jean de Mandeville,
Bible Historiale, 1360’s

Even at birth, Jacob did not want to be left behind. Judging by his later attempts to cheat Esau out of his firstborn rights, this detail about his birth might even mean that Jacob was trying to pull Esau back so he could come out first.

Jacob gets his foolish brother to agree to swap his rights for a bowl of lentil stew.1 But there are no witnesses to that transaction, so he is still insecure. When their blind father, Isaac, summons Esau to receive a deathbed blessing, Jacob follows instructions from their mother, Rebecca, to impersonate Esau and appropriate the blessing.2 Then he flees to his uncle’s house in Charan so Esau will not murder him.

Wrestling with an uncle and a guilty conscience

Jacob spends twenty years in Charan in the Torah portion Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), wrestling verbally with his uncle Lavan, who also becomes his employer and father-in-law. Jacob’s first goal is to marry Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, but he arrives without any goods he can offer as a bride-price, and instead of bargaining with Lavan he generously offers to work for him as a shepherd for seven years. I believe Jacob handicaps himself because he feels guilty about impersonating Esau and lying to his father. (See my post Vayishlach: Message Failure.)

Lavan turns out to be no more honorable than Jacob was when he stole Esau’s blessing. In a surprise move, he switches brides on Jacob’s first wedding day, then gets him to agree to serve another seven years of unpaid labor so he can marry the daughter he wanted in the first place.3 Jacob’s guilt still prevents him from trying to make a better bargain.

But after fourteen years of service, Jacob wins the next round of bargaining by claiming the black sheep and spotted goats as his wages henceforth. Lavan agrees, then tries to cheat him by removing all the animals of that description from the flock ahead of time. But Jacob breeds more of them, and in six years he is richer than his uncle.4 Lavan and his kinsmen simmer with resentment.

Once again Jacob has to flee, this time heading back to Canaan with his large household and his flocks. His route skirts the land of Edom, where Esau has become the chieftain. In the Torah portion Vayishlach, he sends a propitiating message to his twin brother, and his messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Hastily Jacob assigns some of flocks to his servants to bring to Esau as gifts. Then he transports his whole family and the rest of his servants and flocks across the Yabok River, and returns to the other side alone.5

Wrestling the wrestler

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, by James J.J. Tissot, ca. 1900

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose. (Genesis 32:25)

At night this “man” apparently looks and feels like a human being, and even injures Jacob’s hip.6 But at dawn it becomes apparent that the wrestler is not human.

Then he [the “man”]said: “Let me go, because the dawn is rising.” And he [Jacob] said: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:27)

Desperate to protect himself and his family from Esau, Jacob has already sent his brother lavish gifts, and reminded God of their deal twenty years before.7 Now he tries to extract a blessing from the mysterious wrestler. What he gets is a second name.

And he [the “man”] said: “It will no longer be said [that] Ya-akov is your name, but instead Yisrael, because sarita with gods and with men and you have hung on.” (Genesis 32:29)

Yisrael (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = “Israel” in English. (Possibly yisar, יִשַׂר = he will strive with (a form of the verb sarah, שׂרָה = strive; prevail) + Eil, אֵל = God, a god. On the other hand, a subject usually follows a verb in Biblical Hebrew, so Yisrael could mean “Godwill strive” or “God will prevail”.)

sarita (שָׂרִיתָ) = you have striven with, prevailed over. (Another form of the verb sarah.)

The wrestler knows that Jacob has already striven with humans; he was born hanging onto his brother’s heel, and he maneuvered against Esau in Canaan, and Lavan in Charan. Now he has striven with a being that might be God, or at least one of God’s messengers.

And Jacob inquired and said: “Please tell me your name.” But he [the “man”] said: “Why do you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:30)

Perhaps the mysterious wrestler says “Why do you ask for my name?” because God’s angelic messengers have no names.8

Blessings are usually spelled out verbally in the book of Genesis,9 like prophecies and promises. But the statement that someone blessed someone else may follow or precede the actual blessing; the text does not bother about the exact chronological order. In this case, the unnamed messenger’s blessing is: “It will no longer be said [that] Ya-akov is your name, but instead Yisrael”.

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniyeil, “Because I have seen God panim to panim yet my life was saved.” (Genesis 32:31)

Peniyeil (פְּנִיאֵל) = Face of God (penei,פְּמֵי= face of + Eil).

panim (פָּנִים) = face, faces.

Jacob is now convinced that he wrestled until dawn with a manifestation of God.

But it also makes sense to say that Jacob wrestled with himself, as one aspect (or face, or camp10) of his psyche strove against another. Among the many commentators who have reached this conclusion are Shmuel Klitsner, who wrote that Jacob’s conscious mind wrestles with his unconscious;11 Jonathan Sacks, who wrote that the person he wants to be wrestles with the person he really is;12 and David Kasher, who wrote that his instinct to use guile in order to achieve control wrestles with his underdeveloped faith in God.13

Perhaps the question “Why do you ask for my name?” arises because one side of Jacob already knows he is wrestling with himself.

Ya-akov and Yisrael meet face to face at dawn. Neither side wins the wrestling match. The stalemate at dawn could be a triumphant integration. But it does not last. After Jacob/Israel settles at Shekhem in the land of Canaan, his sons begin taking control over the family away from him.

For the rest of his life, he alternates between complaining about being cheated by his sons, and calmly doing what he must while leaving outcome to God.

It is hard to walk your own path in life instead of trying to get what someone else has. And it is hard to find peace and clarity when you have a pair of camps facing one another inside you.

I spent the first sixty years of my own life wrestling with myself. On one side, I want to do all the right things for other people; on the other side, I want to succeed at my calling. Age has refined my ethics and softened my desire for public success. I am still a pair of camps confronting one another. But now when I face my other self, I smile in recognition.

  1. Genesis 25:29-34. See my 2011 post Bereishit & Toledot: Seeing Red.
  2. Genesis 27:1-30. See my 2012 post Toledot: Rebecca Gets It Wrong.
  3. Genesis 29:15-30. See my post Toledot: Unrequited Love.
  4. Genesis 30:25-43.
  5. Genesis 32:4-24. See last week’s post, Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Pair of Camps, and my 2021 post, Vayishlach: Message Failure.
  6. Genesis 32:26 implies that the wrestler dislocates Jacob’s hip, but Genesis 32:33 implies an attack of sciatica.
  7. Genesis 32:10-13, in reference to Genesis 28:10-22.
  8. According to Judges 13:16-18 and Genesis Rabbah 78:4.
  9. See Genesis 9:1-7, 12:2-3, 14:19-20, 16:10-12, 22:15-18, 24:60, 26:2-4, 27:28-29, 27:39-40, 28:1-4, 35:9-12, 48:10-16, 48:20, and 49:1-28. Exceptions are Genesis 32:1 and 47:7.
  10. See last week’s post, Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Pair of Camps.
  11. Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 126-127.
  12. Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, “Be Thyself: Vayishlach 5781”.
  13. David Kasher, ParshaNut, “The Man in the Midrash”, Parshat Vayishlach.

Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Pair of Camps

A man’s firstborn son gets extra rights, according to the Torah. After his father dies, the firstborn inherits twice as much wealth as any of his brothers, becomes the head of his extended family, and (until the Israelites receive other instructions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) serves as the family’s priest1.

Jacob covets the rights of the firstborn so much that he tries to steal them from Esau twice: first by trading a bowl of lentil pottage for the rights,2 later by impersonating Esau to get their blind father’s blessing.3

The Mess of Pottage, by James Tissot, ca. 1900 (Esau is suitably hirsute, but why does Jacob have a full beard?)

The first time, Esau is so famished he hardly notices he has lost anything. But the second time, Esau is beside himself with rage, and Jacob flees to his uncle Lavan’s house in Charan, bringing nothing but what he can carry on foot.

Divine Camp

One night along the way, at the beginning of the Torah portion Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), he falls asleep outdoors with a stone for a pillow, and he sees God’s messengers—i.e. angels.

And he dreamed, and hey! A ramp was set on the ground, and its top was reaching to the heavens. And hey! God’s messengers went up and down on it. (Genesis/Bereishit 28:12)

Then God speaks to him in his dream and promises to guard him and return him to the land of Canaan, which his myriad descendants (not Esau’s) will eventually possess.

Jacob Pouring Oil on the Stone,
Cassell’s Illustrated Family Bible, ca. 1880

Is Jacob relieved and grateful when he wakes up? No. He does not trust God to keep a promise. So he sets his stone pillow upright and pours oil on it, then vows that if God really does protect him and return him safely, he will give God a tenth of whatever wealth he acquires.

Jacob acquires no wealth at all during first fourteen years in Charan, only wives and children. He works for his uncle Lavan for seven years in order to marry Lavan’s younger daughter Rachel. When Lavan switches daughters at the wedding, Jacob meekly agrees to work another seven years so he can have both Rachel and Leah. Only after he has served Lavan for fourteen years does he ask for a shepherd’s regular wages: a share of animals from the flock. During his final six years in Charan, Jacob gets rich through clever livestock breeding. When he finally leaves and sets off for Canaan, he is the owner of a great wealth of livestock, and the head and priest of a household.4 Through his own hard work and intelligence, he has attained everything a firstborn son would inherit.

One night along the way back to Canaan, at the end of the Torah portion Vayeitzei, Jacob sees God’s messengers again.

Jacob went on his way, and God’s messengers confronted him.  And Jacob said as he saw them: “This is a machaneh of God!” And he called the name of that place Machanayim. (Genesis 32:2-3)

machaneh (מַחֲנֶה) = camp, group of temporary shelters erected in a defensive circle.

machanayim (מַחֲנָיִם) = pair of camps, double camp. (Machaneh + dual suffix -ayim, ־ָיתם.)

This is the first time the word machaneh appears in the Torah. Repeating the word in the dual form is unusual; the Torah often refers to a pair of eyes, for example, but camps do not usually come in pairs. What Jacob observes is that the same place holds two camps: his earthly camp of people and animals, and God’s heavenly “camp” of angelic messengers.

Or does the heavenly camp also belong to Jacob?  He is the one who sees angels, whether they stay in the background going up and down between heaven and earth, or they confront him at a campsite. Perhaps the word machanayim also refers to a pair of camps, or roles, within the same person: Jacob as a clan leader focused on wealth and progeny, and Jacob as a priest who sees angels and carries his grandfather Abraham’s blessing and connection with God. Jacob’s two roles are not in conflict yet.  His return to Canaan liberates him from the man who took advantage of him for twenty years. At last he is an independent head of household! But his return is also a step toward fulfilling his promise to God.

Two human camps

With both sides of his life going well, Jacob feels confident enough to send his own, human messengers to his estranged brother Esau at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43).

Jacob, by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, ca. 1510

The messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him, accompanied by 400 men—the right size for a fighting unit. Jacob’s new confidence collapses.

Jacob was very afraid, and shaped by distress; so he divided the people who were with him, and the flock and the herd and the camels, into two machanot.  And he said: “If Esau comes to the first machaneh and strikes it down, the remaining machaneh might survive.” (Genesis 32:8-9)

machanot (מַחֲנוֹת) = camps.  (The plural of machaneh, rather than the dual form.)

Why does he call his two camps simply “camps” (machanot), rather than “a pair of camps” (machanayim)? The two camps at the place he named Machanayim had two different owners: himself and God (or perhaps his materialistic side and his spiritual side). They faced one another like nonidentical twins, like impulsive Esau versus scheming Jacob.

But the two camps at the Yabok River are both Jacob’s property. One group consists of the animals he designates as gifts to Esau, along with the servants in charge of each drove. He sends them ahead to meet Esau and his 400 men on the road.5

The other group consists of the animals, servants, and other belongings he plans to keep for himself, along his own family: his two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, and one daughter. He leads this “camp” across the Yabok River, then returns to the other side to spend the rest of the night alone.6

But before sending his two camps in different directions, Jacob prays, begging God to rescue him and his family from Esau. He introduces his prayer by saying:

“I am too insignificant for all the loyal-kindnesses and all the fidelity that you have done for your servant; for I crossed this Jordan with [only] my staff, and now I have become two machanot.” (Genesis 32:11)

He uses the word machanot again because he is thinking about his two camps of people and animals. But at the beginning of the sentence, he uses the word for “insignificant”7 for two different purposes. On one level, Jacob is thanking God for his fertility and prosperity, enough for two camps of actual people and animals. Saying that he himself is insignificant gives more credit to God for his material success. On another level, Jacob still feels insignificant, not only because he was born second, but also because he knows he is guilty of tricking Esau twice, and his brother’s enmity is justified. Thus Jacob’s language is two-sided, coming from two internal camps.

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose. (Genesis 32:25)

If Jacob is alone, are Jacob and the “man” two psychological camps inside one person? If so, does the wrestling match make Jacob whole? See next week’s post: Toledot & Vayishlach: Face to Face.

We are all like Jacob in some way. I was the older child in my family, and one of my parents’ favorite stories was about when they brought home two treats and let my younger sister choose hers first. She said, “I want Melissa’s!”

Many years later, after my sister published a novel, I wanted the same success. Neither of us would have changed places with the other; we only wanted the same advantages—like Jacob, who wanted all the advantages of the firstborn without being rash and slow on the uptake like Esau.

It is hard to walk your own path in life instead of trying to get what someone else has. And if you try, you might find yourself face to face with a person you did not know was there.

  1. The Levites replace the firstborn sons of all other tribes in Numbers 3:5-13 and 3:44, when religious worship is professionalized.
  2. Genesis 25:29-34.
  3. Genesis 27:1-38.
  4. Jacob’s wealth and household are described in Genesis 31:17-18, 32:6, and 32:23. He acts as a priest by setting up an altar at Shekhem in Genesis 33:20 and at Beit-Eil in Genesis 35:7.
  5. Genesis 32:14-22.
  6. Genesis 32:23-25.
  7. The Hebrew word is katonti, קָטֺנתִּי = I am small, young, trifling, insignificant.

Vayishlach: Message Failure

If you have wronged someone, and many years later you want to make amends, how can you arrange a meeting in a way that will reduce your former victim’s hostility? How can you word your message so they will show up calm enough to listen to you?

This question of moral psychology comes up in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”), when Jacob sends a message to his estranged brother Esau. I wrote about it in the first draft of my book on moral psychology in Genesis. Now I am laboring mightily over a complete rewrite of the book, but I still like this essay.

Message to a Brother

Esau Sells his Birthright, by Rembrandt

When Jacob leaves Beir-sheva in Canaan and heads for Charan, he is already guilty of cheating Esau twice. First he trades a bowl of lentil stew to his famished brother in exchange for Esau’s rights as the firstborn.1 Then he impersonates Esau in order to steal a prophetic blessing from their blind father, Isaac.2

Jacob cheats because he feels cheated. Why should his twin brother get twice as much inheritance, just because he emerged from the womb a few seconds earlier? Why should their father give Esau the blessing and leave him unblessed? It is not fair.

Yet the story of Jacob indicates that he also has a guilty conscience; he knows his own actions were not fair, either. So he obeys his parents without a murmur when his mother tells him to flee from Esau’s anger, and his father tells him to go get a bride from his uncle Lavan’s family in Charan. And he slinks away on foot without taking any valuables to offer as a bride-price. Jacob’s family is rich, but he chooses to leave home as a pauper.3

In the Torah portion Vayeitzei, Jacob works for Lavan for twenty years, then leaves the town of Charan with two wives (Lavan’s daughters), two concubines (his wives’ personal servants that they gave to him), twelve children, and a wealth of moveable property. Lavan chases after him and complains that Jacob stole everything from him.

This time Jacob denies any wrongdoing, pointing out that he served Lavan fourteen years for his two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and six years for his share of the flocks. This is a reminder to Lavan that he had only offered to work seven years for Rachel, but Lavan “changed his wages” by tricking him into marrying Leah, and then working an extra seven years to get Rachel, too.4 Compared to that, deceiving Lavan with a secret breeding program in order to get larger flocks from his last six years of labor hardly balances the scales.5

Jacob walks away from Lavan free of guilt. But he still has not cleared his guilt over cheating Esau.


Jacob’s unethical behavior did no long-term harm to Esau, who now has everything Jacob thought he was stealing. The firstborn rights have not come into play, since their father is still alive, but it no longer matters who gets the most inheritance. The first part of the blessing Jacob thought he had stolen from Esau is now true for both of them:

“And may God grant you

From the dew of the heavens and from the fat of the earth

And an abundance of grain and wine.

May peoples serve you

And may tribes bow down to you.” (Genesis/Bereishit 27:28-29)

Both men now have abundant possessions and plenty of food, and each brother is the head of his own tribe (though Esau’s is larger).

Jacob is heading for Canaan, where their parents live, not Se-ir, where Esau rules. For once he does not want what his brother has.His route to Canaan goes west along the Yabok River, then crosses the Jordan north of the Dead Sea. The hills of Se-ir are south of the Dead Sea, more than 150 miles (240 km) away from Jacob’s camp on the Yabok. If he merely continued his journey, he would be settled in Canaan long before any news of his whereabouts reached Esau.

Instead Jacob deliberately lets Esau know where he is camping.

Then Jacob sent messengers ahead to Esau, his brother, to the land of Sei-ir, the field of Edom. (Genesis 32:4)

However nervous Jacob might be about a confrontation, he wants to meet with his brother as soon as possible, and get it over with. I suggest that all he wants is to make reparations for his past misdeeds, whether Esau needs them or not. Then he can forgive himself, and maybe Esau will forgive him.

He does not know whether Esau still wants to kill him. When the twins were younger, Esau was impulsive and changeable. But twenty years have passed, and Esau must have learned how to plan ahead, or he would not have become the chieftain of a tribe. He might also have been planning his revenge during those twenty years.

So Jacob takes a chance when he sends messengers all the way to his brother in Se-ir. His action is both ethical and brave.

Jacob words his message carefully.

And he commanded them, saying: “Thus you shall say to my lord, to Esau: Thus said your servant Jacob: Garti with Lavan, and I delayed until now. And I came to own ox and donkey, flock and male-slave and female-slave. And I send to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes.” (Genesis 32:5-6)

garti (גַּרְתִּי) = I sojourned, I stayed as a foreigner. (A kal form of the verb g-r, גּור = stayed as a geir, גֵּר= a foreigner.)

Jacob instructs his messengers to say the message is from “your servant, Jacob”, and to quote him as saying “to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes”. He wants Esau to know that he considers Esau his senior and superior, as if the sale of the firstborn rights had never happened.

Why does Jacob say he was a geir in Charan, even though he is Lavan’s nephew and son-in-law? Rashi wrote that Jacob’s subtext is: “I have become neither a prince nor other person of importance but merely a sojourner. It is not worth your while to hate me on account of the blessing of your father who blessed me (27:29) ‘Be master over thy brethren’, for it has not been fulfilled in me.”6

Jacob probably mentions his livestock and servants because he wants Esau to know that he is already wealthy, so he no longer needs the inheritance of the firstborn. He also says that he delayed (by twenty years!) his return to Canaan. This implies that he earned his wealth through years of labor, not because of Isaac’s blessing.

Having sent a message intended to show Esau that he is not benefiting from either the firstborn rights or the stolen blessing, Jacob waits for news of Esau’s reaction.

Jacob Sees Esau Coming to Meet Him (with an army), by J.J. Tissot

And the messengers returned to Jacob saying: “We came to your brother, to Esau, and moreover he is on his way to meet you, and 400 men are with him.” And Jacob became very frightened … (Genesis 32:7-8)

Four hundred men count as am l independent army in the Torah.7 If Esau is still angry at Jacob, then he can use his army kill his brother and take over his people. If Esau, too, is frightened and anxious, then his army would be good to have on hand in case their meeting goes badly.


Esau might view Jacob’s message as a challenge dressed up in polite language. Here is one way Esau might misinterpret his brother’s words:

Thus said your servant Jacob— “Ah, he’s using the standard polite formula, instead of treating me like a brother.”

Garti with Lavan— “He’s been staying all this time with our mother’s brother? I don’t call that living as a foreigner! I suppose Lavan adores him, just like Mother always did. And Lavan probably taught him some new tricks.”

And I delayed until now— “Of course he delayed. Why would he want to see me again? Or our poor father? He already got everything he could out of us.”

And I have ox and donkey, flock and male-slave and female-slave— “Oh, so he’s rich now, and bragging about it. But he’s still coming back to collect his inheritance when Father dies. I wonder how many men he has, and if they are armed for battle?

And I am sending to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes— “More polite language, pretending I’m his lord! We both know he got the upper hand over me long ago. Does he wants my favor now so he can safely ignore me? Or is he trying to pacify me before he springs on me? Well, I have four hundred men at my command now. If we start marching north today, we can surprise Jacob. And then maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a chance to hold my own against him.”

This is only my midrash; Esau’s reactions to Jacob’s careful message are not recorded in the Torah. But Esau does march north immediately with 400 men.


If Jacob had anticipated Esau’s response, he would have sent a different kind of message. What if Jacob called Esau not “my lord”, but “my older brother”? What if he said he wanted to see his brother again so he could apologize? Esau might not have mustered his 400 armed men.

But Jacob is so cautious, he does not say enough. Although he is trying to make amends for his past misdeeds, he is unable to approach the problem head-on. By trying to avoid a confrontation with Esau, Jacob makes confrontation more likely.

  1. Genesis 25:29-34.
  2. Genesis 27:1-36.
  3. See my 2011 post Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience.
  4. Genesis 31:38-43. Lavan tricked Jacob into marrying Leah and paying an additional bride-price in labor (Genesis 29:23-27).
  5. Jacob tricked Lavan by asking for the spotted kids and dark lambs as his wages, so he could conduct his secret breeding program (Genesis 30:31-43).
  6. Rashi, translation in
  7. David has 400 men in 1 Samuel 22:2 and 25:13.


Chukat & Vayishlach: Israel vs. Edom

The Israelites are getting ready to enter Canaan again.

The first time, they marched up to Canaan’s southern border and then refused to cross.1  God decreed they must spend forty years in the wilderness, and then their children could try again.  This time, in the Torah portion Chukat (“decree of”), the new generation of Israelites plans to travel through Edom and north along the east side of the Dead Sea, then enter Canaan by crossing the Jordan River near Jericho.

And Moses sent messengers from Kadeish to the king of Edom, [who said]: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that found us, that our ancestors went down to Egypt and we lived in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians were bad to us and to our ancestors.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:14-15)

Edom (אֱדוֹם) = a country also called Sei-ir, southeast of the Dead Sea.  The name comes from the country’s founder in Genesis/Bereishit: Esau, who is also called Edom, i.e. Red.2  (Edom comes from the same root as adam, אָדָם = humankind, adamah, אֲדָמָה = earth, and adom, אָדֺם = red-brown.)

Moses introduces the Israelites as the “brother” of the Edomites to remind the king of Edom that in the old Genesis story, Esau (a.k.a. Edom) and Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) are brothers.  The descendants of brothers should be at peace.

Yet Esau and Jacob, twins and rivals for the rights of the firstborn, struggle from birth to middle age.  And the countries of Edom and Israel never do become allies.3

Nevertheless, Moses calls Edom Israel’s brother, and reminds the king that God rescued the Israelites and led them out of Egypt.  Then he asks for a favor.

“… and hey, we are in Kadeish, a town on the edge of your territory.  Please let us cross your land!  We will not cross through field or vineyard, and we will not drink well water.  We will go on the king’s road.  We will not spread out to the right or left until we have crossed your territory.”  (Numbers 20:16-17)

The Israelites are asking only for safe passage from the southern border of Edom to its northern border.  They promise that neither they nor their herds and flocks will eat, drink, or damage anything in the land.

But Edom said to him: “You may not cross through me, or else I will go out with the sword to move against you.”  (Numbers 20:18)

Here the king of Edom is called by the name of his country, and identifies with the land he rules.  Moses responds as if he is synonymous with the Israelites.

And the Children of Israel said to him: “We will go up on the highway, and if we drink your water, I or my livestock, then I will give [you] its price.  [My request] is hardly anything!  Let me cross on foot.”  But he said: “You may not cross!”  And Edom went out to meet him with a heavy troop and with a strong hand.  Thus Edom refused to allow (Israel) to cross through his territory, and Israel swung away from him.  (Numbers 20:19-21)

In this story, the king of Edom does not trust the leader of Israel.  So the people of Israel make a long detour around Edom through the wilderness, instead of taking the highway north.4


In the book of Genesis, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) does not trust his brother Esau (a.k.a. Edom) when he is traveling from Charan to their father’s house.  So he makes a long detour through northern Canaan, instead of taking the highway south through Edom.

Twenty years before, Jacob fled to his uncle’s house in Charan because Esau was threatening to kill him as soon as their father, Isaac, had died.5  Now Jacob has a large family, scores of slaves, and a tremendous wealth of livestock.  The last he knew, his parents were living at an oasis in the Negev Desert to the south, either in Beir-sheva or Beir-lachai-roi.6  The best route for such a large party would be the highway through Edom.

And Jacob sent messengers ahead of himself to Esau, his brother, to the land of Seir, the region of Edom.  (Genesis 32:4)

The wording of this sentence at the beginning of the Torah portion Vayishlach (“and he sent”) implies that Jacob is hoping to follow those messengers to Esau’s home, taking advantage of the highway.  Yet he camps on the Yabok River at Machanayim, one day’s journey west of that highway, and sends his messengers to Esau from there.  He is already nervous about a reunion with the brother who once threatened to kill him.

His messengers return with the news that Esau is coming north with 400 men to meet him.  Alarmed, Jacob sends a series of gifts of livestock down the highway toward Esau.  When Esau reaches Jacob’s camp, Jacob bows down to the ground seven times as he walks toward his brother. Esau embraces him, and Jacob persuades his brother to keep the gifts.  Then Esau says:

“Break camp, and let’s go!  I will go alongside you.”  But [Jacob] said to him: “My lord knows that the children are tender and the flocks and herds, suckling, are upon me, and driving them hard [for even] one day will kill all the flocks.  Please, let my lord pass in front of me, his servant.  And I, I will move along slowly at the pace of the animals and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.”  (Genesis 33:12-14)

Esau then offers to leave some of his men behind as an escort, but Jacob refuses.  He has realized that he still does not trust Esau enough to risk entering his country.  As soon as Esau and his men have left, Jacob heads in the opposite direction, northwest to Sukkot, where he stays so long that he builds a house for his family and sheds for his animals.7  His next stop is Shekhem, farther northwest.  Jacob is willing to wait a few more years to see his ancient father, Isaac, again.

Eventually he journeys south through Canaan, where he discovers that his father has moved to Mamrei near the burial site his grandfather Abraham bought in Canaan.8  Jacob never does enter the land of Edom.


Should Jacob/Israel have trusted his brother Esau/Edom in Genesis?  Should the Edomites have trusted their brothers the Israelites in Numbers?  In both cases, trust would have enabled the people of Israel to take a faster route on a good road.

But if Esau’s change of heart had proven temporary, he could have wiped out Jacob and all his household while they were in Edom.  And if the Israelites had rebelled against Moses again, this time by straying from the highway, there would have been war inside Edom.  Humans are fickle.

Thanks to the wariness of Jacob in Genesis and of the king of Edom in Numbers, there is no bloodshed in either story.  Perhaps a long detour is a small price to pay for peace.

  1. See my blog post Shelach-Lekha: Courage and Kindness.
  2. Genesis 25:25, 25:30.
  3. Israel’s first king, Saul, defeats the Edomites in battle (1 Samuel 14:47). Its second king, David, defeats them again and makes the kingdom of Edom a vassal of Israel (2 Samuel 8:13-14).  In the 9th century B.C.E. the Edomites rebel against King Yoram of Judah and set up their own king, who is no longer subject to the king of Israel (2 Kings 8:20).  King Amatziyahu of Judah makes war against Edom in 838 B.C.E. and captures one of its cities, Sela, but the rest of Edom remains independent.
  4. A highway in the Ancient Near East was a wide road of packed earth that could be used by caravans and troops.
  5. Genesis 27:41-45.
  6. Beir-lachai-roi in Genesis 25:11, Beir-sheva in Genesis 28:10.
  7. Genesis 33:17.
  8. Genesis 34:27.

Dark Night

The penultimate plague in Egypt, just before the Death of the Firstborn results in the liberation of the Israelite slaves, is darkness.

For three days there is complete, impenetrable darkness, darkness so thick that it can be felt.  “No one could see his brother, and no one could get up from under it, for three days.”  (Exodus 10:23)

This is not only a physical darkness, but a psychological one.  Click here to read my blog post on the subject: Bo: Impenetrable Darkness.

The Egyptians in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, are immobilized by darkness–by their inability to recognize other human beings as their brothers.

Today I have been writing about Jacob’s wrestling match in the dark night before he sees his brother Esau face to face for the first time in 20 years.  Jacob wronged Esau by making him swap his firstborn rights for a bowl of lentil stew, and by tricking their father into giving him Esau’s blessing.  Like other characters in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob gave the wrong answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s protector?”

Guilt drives Jacob’s behavior for 20 years.  Now he is about to return home to Canaan, and he wants to make amends.  But how can he face Esau?

What will it take for Jacob to forgive himself?  Will he ever emerge from his inner darkness?

By the time I finish writing my book on moral psychology in Genesis, I will have some answers.

Repost: Vayishlach (and genocide)

What makes some people seek peace and cooperation, while others cannot stop finding enemies and scapegoats?  Why are some rulers, and ordinary people, tolerant of different cultures or religions, while others are bigoted, even genocidal?

I noticed the contrast between tolerance and hatred both in this week’s Torah portion and in the history of Spain, where we are traveling this month.

In Medieval Spain

Muslim rulers, from the Umayyads who conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century C.E. to the last Nazrid sultan of Granada in the late 15th century, preferred peaceful cooperation with non-Muslims living in their lands.  Jews and Christians were charged a tax, but they had  religious freedom and the right to own property and run their own civil courts.  Jews rose to prominence in their government, in science, and in scholarship.1

But Christian armies invaded Spain from the north, and in the 11th century several popes declared that the conquest of all Muslim lands was a religious duty.  In Christian Spain, Muslims and Jews were barely tolerated.

Gironella Tower

Jews were considered the property of Spanish monarchs, who valued them as bankers to fund royal ventures.  But when the church or the public needed a scapegoat or a focus for hatred, the king was often unable to intervene.  Peaceful times alternated with pogroms.

On our visit to Girona in northern Spain, my husband and I were enchanted by the ruins of Gironella Tower, a citadel at the corner of the medieval city wall.  Then we learned that in 1391 a priest incited mobs against the Jews in several Spanish cities, and in Girona many Jews fled there to hide.

When King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile married in 1469, only the vassal state of Granada in the southeast remained under Muslim rule.  The “Catholic Monarchs” started the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, and finished conquering Granada in 1491, making the entire Iberian peninsula safe for Christianity, unsafe for Muslims, and a death trap for Jews.

The last sultan of Granada surrendered on January 2, 1492, on condition that all Granadans could continue to practice their own religions and own their property.  A few months later Ferdinand and Isabella issued their “Alhambra Decree” requiring all Jews in Spain to either convert or leave the country in three months.  Jews were required to sell their real estate, but forbidden to carry gold, silver, jewels, or coins out of Spain.  And any Jews who converted were fair game for torture by the Spanish Inquisition.

Palace wall in Barcelona

In 1502 they issued a similar edict to eliminate Muslims.

Now Spain is working to revive Jewish history, but few buildings remain to help tell the story.  Even synagogues were sold in a hurry in 1492.  Our guided tour of Jewish Barcelona included the remains of a synagogue and a mikveh, and some Jewish tombstones used in the wall of the Christian royal palace.  But everything else was remodeled by the new owners.

Yehudah ibn Tibon, Granada

This week we are in Granada, where the Jewish population in 1490 was about 20,000.  Now there are four Jewish families living in Granada, according to a woman who set up a private Jewish museum on the ground floor of her house.  The only other Jewish sight in Granada is a modern sculpture2 of Yehudah ibn Tibon, a 12th-century scholar who translated several important Jewish books from Arabic into Hebrew.3

In the Torah portion

Two peoples start out on a friendly footing in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”).  Jacob and his clan camp outside Shekhem in Canaan.  He buys some land from the ruling family of the city, intending to settle down.  He builds an altar for his God, and nobody objects.4

Jacob’s daughter Dinah, curious about their new home, goes out “to look at the women of the land.” (Genesis 34:1-2)  Prince Shekhem, son of the city’s ruler, seizes and rapes her.  Then he falls in love with her, and talks to her until her heart is moved.  (See my post Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1.)

The prince and his father, Chamor, come to Jacob to negotiate a marriage.  Shekhem offers to pay an exorbitant bride-price for Dinah.  Chamor proposes that his people and Jacob’s intermarry and dwell together as one people.  Jacob is silent, but his sons speak for him.  They lie to Chamor and Shekhem, promising the requested union if all the men of Shekhem become circumcised, a religious requirement for Jacob’s people.  The men of Shekhem do it.  While they are in pain, two of Jacob’s sons (Shimon and Levi) enter the city and kill them all, including Chamor and Shekhem.  They take off with Dinah (who now has no marriage prospects at all), and “Jacob’s sons” sack the city and enslave the rest of the population.

Maybe Chamor was asking for too much.  But Jacob’s sons could have tried to negotiate.  They could have asked their sister Dinah what she wanted.  Instead, they chose hatred and vengeance over peaceful cooperation.

(Click on my post Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 2 for more about the role of Dinah’s brothers.)

Jacob’s sons in this week’s Torah portion are genocidal zealots like Ferdinand and Isabella.  Just as the Catholic Monarchs obliterated the Jewish people and culture in Spain, Jacob’s sons obliterate the people and culture of Shekhem.

These are not the only examples of extreme intolerance.  We cannot change the past, or the Torah, but we can stand firm in favor of tolerance and peace whenever hatred rises again.

  1. Famous Jewish scholars from Spain include Maimonides (Rambam) in 12th-century Cordoba, Nachmanides (Ramban) in 13th-century Girona, and Moses de Leon (writer of the Zohar) in 13th-century Avila.
  2. Sculpture by Miguel Moreno, donated to the city in 1988.
  3. Yehudah ben Shaul ibn Tibon produced the authoritative translations of Duties of the Heart by Bahya ibn Paquda and Book of the Kuzari by Yehudah ha-Levi, among other works.
  4. Genesis 33:18-20.

Emor: Libations

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

If you make an offering to God in the Hebrew Bible, out of gratitude or obedience or hope for a favor, how does God receive it?  If you offer one of your animals, a priest burns it on the altar and smoke rises to the sky; then God smells the “soothing odor”.1  Priests also burn grain offerings (usually topped with frankincense) on the main altar, and incense on the incense altar.  All of these offerings send aromatic smoke to the heavens, where God is imagined as dwelling when not visiting the earth.2

But what about an offering of wine?  How does God receive a libation?

Although the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed instructions about animal and grain offerings, libations are mentioned only in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), and only as an afterthought.  The portion reviews six holy days during the year.3  The instructions for two of them include libations.

On the first day after the week of Passover, you must bring the first sheaf (omer) of your barley harvest to a priest, along with a sacrifice consisting of a yearling lamb and its corresponding grain-offering of fine flour mixed with oil, for a “soothing odor”

and its nesekh of wine, a quarter of a hin.  (Leviticus Vayikra 23:23)

nesekh (נֶסֶךְ) = poured-offering, libation.  Plural: nesakhim, נְסָכִים.  (From the root verb nasakh, נָסַךְ = pour out.)

A hin is about 1 ½ gallons, so a quarter of a hin would be about 6 cups or 1.4 liters of wine.  The passage does not say where the wine is poured.

At the end of seven weeks of the omer comes Shavuot, the only day of the year when leavened bread is brought to the altar.

And you shall offer with the bread seven unblemished yearling lambs, and one bull from the herd, and two rams; they shall be a rising-offering4 for God.  And their grain offerings and their nesakhim, a fire-offering, a soothing odor for God.  (Leviticus 23:18)

Does this mean that the nesakhim are part of the fire-offering?  If so, perhaps the priests pour the wine directly on the roasting meat and grain.  The addition of wine would enhance the aroma of the smoke for a while.

The passage about offerings on holy days in the Torah portion Emor concludes without any further information about libations:

These are the appointed times of God that you shall announce as holy assemblies for offering fire-offerings to God: rising-offering and grain-offering, slaughter-offering and nesakhim, each thing on its day.  (Leviticus 23:37)


Jacob makes the first poured-offering mentioned in the bible, after he wakes up from his dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder or stairway between heaven and earth.

from Cassell’s Family Bible, 1880

And Jacob erected a standing-marker in the place where [God] had spoken to him, a standing-marker of stone, vayaseikh on it a nesekh, vayitzok on it oil.  (Genesis/Bereishit 35:13)

vayaseikh (וַיַּסֵּךְ) = and he poured out. A form of the root verb nasakh, which usually means pouring a libation of wine. 5

vayitzok (וַיִּצֺק) = and he poured out.  A form of the verb yatzak (יָצַק), which usually means pouring oil, or pouring molten metal into a mold.  The bible never uses yatzak for wine.

Pouring oil on religious objects or on people’s heads consecrates them to God; both kings and priests must be anointed before they take up their new roles.  In Genesis, Jacob erects a standing-stone, pours a libation of wine as an offering to the God who spoke to him, and consecrates the stone to God by pouring oil on it.

Libation ceremony, Minoan, 1400 BCE, Hagia Triada

Nobody told him to do this.  But pouring out wine to the gods was a common practice in the ancient Near East as early as the 14th century BCE, when it was depicted in art and written texts by Egyptians, Minoans in Crete, Hittites in Anatolia, and Canaanites in Ugarit.  In these religious rituals, a libation for a god was poured into a bowl, which was sometimes set out along with a ritual meal in front of a statues of the god.6

The first time the God of Israel requests a libation in the bible is at Mt. Sinai, when God gives a partial job description for the new priests Moses is going to anoint.  Every day the priests must offer two yearling lambs on the altar, one in the morning and one in the evening, each accompanied by an offering of finely-ground wheat flour mixed with oil to make a patty—

—and a nesekh, a quarter of a hin of wine for one lamb.  And the second lamb you shall do during the evening; you shall do it like the grain-offering and its nesekh of the morning, for a soothing odor of fire for God.  (Exodus/Shemot 29:40-41)

This text also implies that the wine is poured over the roasting meat like a seasoning, to make its aroma especially soothing to God.  A sentence in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar is more explicit:

And wine you shall offer for the nesekh, half a hin, a fire-offering of soothing odor for God.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 15:10)


According to the Hebrew Bible, nesakhim for the God of Israel must be poured by priests directly onto the altar, where meat and grain offerings are roasting.  Thus the fragrance of the wine can reach God through the smoke that ascends to the sky.

The only exceptions are Jacob’s impulsive libation in Genesis, and libations for other gods in the book of Jeremiah.

And the houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah will become like the place of Tofet7, the impure place, because of all the houses that sent up smoke from their roofs to all the army of the heavens, vehaseikh nesakhim to other gods.  (Jeremiah 19:13)

vehaseikh (וְהַסֵּךְ) = and poured out.  (A form of the verb nasakh.)

Jeremiah also rails against the practice of baking cakes for “the queen of the heavens” and pouring libations to her and other gods from their own rooftops.8  The problem is the worship of other gods, not the places where the libations are poured.

I wonder if Jacob, and the worshippers of the queen of heaven, and everyone who poured a libation onto a rooftop or into an empty bowl, had a more sophisticated and less literal concept of God.  A god who is pacified by the smell of aromatic smoke is like a thoughtless beast at the mercy of its physical sense.  But a god who appreciates symbolic acts of sharing by humans who present gifts instead of consuming all the wine or food themselves is like a mature human who understands thoughts.


Libation amphora, Second Temple coin

The Israelite concept of God had changed by the first century BCE, when King Herod remodeled the second temple in Jerusalem.  There was a gap between the new altar and its ramp that was only partly filled in; pipes descended from holes in the surface of the gap, according to the Talmud.  The priests poured nesakhim on the stone surface of the altar, rather than on the fire.  The wine pooled, then drained out through the holes at the edge where the altar abutted the ramp.

Talmudic claims compiled several centuries later include:

“… Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok said: There was a small gap between the ramp and the altar west of the ramp, and once in seventy years young priests would descend there and gather from there the congealed wine left over from the libations that set over time, which resembled round cakes of dried and pressed figs.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)9

“… Rabbi Yochanan said: The drainpipes built into the altar and extending beneath it were created from the six days of Creation … they are hollow and descend to the depths.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)

“Resh Lakish said: When they pour wine onto the altar, they plug the top of the drainpipes so that the wine does not descend to the depths … the space between the altar and the ramp would fill with wine.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49b)

Whether the drainpipes were plugged or unplugged, the wine was not evaporated in the altar fire.  Instead, the priests poured out the libations where everyone could see the wine pool over the stone surface of the altar.

Perhaps by then the people of Judah valued the gesture of giving their wine to God, and no longer needed to imagine God smelling it.


Today even our gifts to God are non-material.  We still donate money and food for those in need, and for the maintenance of our religious buildings and their staff.  But what do we donate to God?  Only our thankfulness, and our good deeds.

A God who appreciates those is an advanced God, indeed.

  1. See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.
  2. See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
  3. Pesach, the omer, Shavuot, Rosh Shashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot (Leviticus 23.)
  4. “Rising-offering” is a literal translation of olah (עֹלָה), in which one or more whole animals are completely burned up, leaving no roasted meat for the priests or the donors. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire OfferingsWithout Slaughter, Part 1.
  5. The verb nasakh (poured out) appears 25­­ times in the Hebrew Bible; 19 of those occurrences are about pouring out a libation of wine. The verb is also used once for pouring oil (Psalm 2:6), twice for pouring water (2 Samuel 23:16, 1 Chronicles 11:18), twice for pouring molten metal (Isaiah 40:19, 44:10), once when God pours out sleep (Isaiah 29:10), and once when God pours out wisdom (Proverbs 8:23).
  6. g.; Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, trans. by H.M. Tirard, Dover Publications, New York, 1971; Wikipedia, “Libations”, 5/11/2019.
  7. Tofet (תֺּפֶת) = spitting; a valley in Jerusalem where corpses were burned in wartime.
  8. Jeremiah 7:17-18, 32:29, 44:15-18.
  9. All translations from the Talmud in this essay are from The William Davidson Talmud,


Vayishlach: Mother Figure

And he built an altar there, and he called the place of God “Beit-El” because there God had been revealed to him in his flight from the face of his brother.  And Deborah, the wet-nurse of Rebecca, died and was buried beneath Beit-El, beneath the great tree; and he called its name “Great Tree of Weeping”.  (Genesis 35:7-8)

Why does an aged wet-nurse suddenly appear in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”)?  And why does Jacob name her grave a place of weeping?


Jacob is Rebecca’s favorite son, and she mothers him well into his adulthood.  When her husband, Isaac, is about to give a blessing to their other son, Esau, she arranges for Jacob to impersonate his brother and steal the blessing.  She cooks the meat Isaac asked for, and she even dresses Jacob in Esau’s best clothes, as well as in goatskins to imitate Esau’s hairy hands and neck.1

After Esau finds out about the stolen blessing and vows to kill his brother, Rebecca tells Jacob to run away from home, and she arranges his journey to Charan.  (See my post Toledot: Rebecca Gets It Wrong.)  She tells Jacob he will only need to stay with his uncle in Charan—

Until the anger of your brother turns away from you and he forgets what you did to him; then I will send and bring you from there … (Genesis 27:45)

Jacob’s Dream,
by James Tissot

Jacob (who is over 40) spends his first night away from home at a place where God gives him a dream of a stairway between earth and heaven.  God promises:

“I will guard you wherever you go and I will bring you back to this soil …” (Genesis/Bereishit 28:15)

When Jacob wakes up he names the place Beit-El, “House of God”.  Even though God has already promised to guard him, he makes a vow to serve God on the condition that God will take care of him until he returns.

“If God is with me and guards me on this way where I am going and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return in peace to my father’s house, then God will be my god, and this stone that I set up as a pillar will become a house of God, and everything that you give me I will repeatedly tithe to you.”  (Genesis 28:20-22)

Jacob thinks in terms of deals, like the one he made with Esau when he traded lentil soup for Esau’s inheritance.2  He also thinks in terms of a parental figure providing food and clothing, as his mother just did.

Jacob stays in Charan for twenty years, working as a shepherd for his uncle Lavan in exchange for wives and his own flocks.  During that whole time, the Torah does not mention any message from Jacob’s mother.  Subconsciously, now that he has lost Rebecca’s apron strings, Jacob may want to stay as long as possible under God’s motherly care.  The terms of the deal he offered God will end once he returns to Beit-El and builds a house (a permanent altar) for God.

Esau and Jacob Reconcile, by Francesco Hayez, 1844

Yet after twenty years Jacob does leave Charan, with a large party of wives, children, servants, and livestock.  In this week’s Torah portion he sends gifts to his estranged brother, Esau.  The brothers meet, embrace, and cry on one another’s necks.  Having made peace with Esau, Jacob’s next order of business must be to return to his father’s house, and then build an altar at Beit-El.  Right?

Wrong.  Once he has crossed into Canaan, Jacob stops at Shekhem and decides to settle down there; he even buys land.3  He is in no hurry to see his parents or to complete his deal with God.

But his own children ruin his plan.  The prince of Shekhem lies with Jacob’s daughter Dinah, then offers to marry her.  Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi respond by murdering every male in the town.4  Jacob complains that Shimon and Levi have destroyed his reputation in the region.  He is about to despair when God reminds him to go to Beit-el and make the altar he promised.5

Jacob leads his people south and builds the altar.

And Deborah, the wet-nurse of Rebecca, died and was buried tachat Beit-El, tachat the allon; and he called its name “Allon of Weeping”.  (Genesis 35:8)

tachat (תַּחַת) = beneath, under; instead of, in exchange for.

allon (אַלּוֹן) = stately tree, possibly with religious significance.  (Translators guess it may be an oak or a terebinth.)

The only other time Deborah is mentioned is when Rebecca leaves Charan to marry Isaac, and she brings along her former wet-nurse, who is not named at this point.6  Presumably the woman is at least fifteen years older than Rebecca, and they have a relationship of trust and affection.

Rashi7 asked why Deborah is traveling with Jacob’s household in this week’s Torah portion.  He answered that after twenty years, Rebecca finally sent to Jacob in Charan to tell him it was safe to come home.  She used the aged Deborah as her messenger, and Deborah died in Beit-El on the journey back.  (This would not be surprising, since by then she must have been at least 87, and probably more than 100.)

The Torah, however, does not mention Deborah or any other human messenger arriving in Charan.  Instead,

God said to Jacob: “Return to the land of your fathers and to your homeland, and I will be with you.”  (Genesis 31:3)

Jacob would not need a signal from his mother once he had received a signal from his new protector, God.

Another possibility is that Deborah travels to Beit-El from Hebron, where Isaac and Rebecca have settled,8 in order to tell Jacob that his mother has died.  Having accomplished her final mission in life, the aged wet-nurse dies.  When Jacob buries her, he weeps for both her and his mother—even though the Torah does not mention the news about Rebecca.  (Although Rebecca is one of the speaking female characters in the book of Genesis, the Torah never gives her age, and mentions her death only when Jacob is giving his own burial instructions and lists who is already buried in the cave.9)

In Genesis Rabbah 81:5 (300-500 C.E.), Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman says that in Greek, allon means “another”, and therefore Jacob was mourning for another while he was mourning for Deborah.  Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg has pointed out: “The word tachat—under, instead—is used twice in this verse, suggesting substitution, a hidden grief.  On this other level, eluding consciousness, Jacob weeps for his mother.”10

Modern commentator Shmuel Klitsner wrote: “This, after all, is Jacob, perhaps only now belatedly ‘weaned’ from his mother Rebecca’s influence.  This is Jacob, who inappropriately relinquished his autonomy to a mother who dressed her adult son in another’s clothing …  Now, at this juncture, upon Jacob’s return to Beth-El and just prior to the moment of the divine reconfirmation of his new identity, he must divest himself of the last vestigial ties to that inappropriate dependence.  This is expressed symbolically in the burial of a mythic woman who has silently accompanied Rebecca and then Jacob through their lives, and whose role, despite her years, is still described as one who nourishes from the breast.”11

Immediately after Deborah is buried, God appears to Jacob and confirms that his new name is Israel: Yisrael (ישְׂרָאֵל) = he struggles/argues (with) God.  Jacob’s relationship with God is no easier than his relationship with his mother.


A modern adult knows God is not an anthropomorphic yet all-powerful hero who can replace Mommy or Daddy.  Yet how many of us, even today, are like Jacob?  How many of us, after we realize that our parents cannot protect us from harm, react by bargaining with God to protect us?

I never expected God to be parental—perhaps because I was brought up as an atheist.  When I became an adult and groped my way toward an idea, or perhaps a feeling, of God, I never wanted to bargain.  I have never even asked God to protect and take care of me, because I believe the world is not set up that way.  I do pray in gratitude.  And I pray for courage, strength, empathy, and other inner qualities that help me to face our unpredictable world, and even do some good in it.  I think my prayers are slowly being answered.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in November 2010.)

  1. Genesis 27:1-17.
  2. Genesis 25:29-33.
  3. Genesis 33:19.
  4. Genesis 34:1-26.
  5. Genesis 35:1.
  6. Genesis 24:59.
  7. 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  8. Genesis 35:27.
  9. Genesis 50:29-31.
  10. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, Schocken Books, NewYork, 2009, p. 230.
  11. Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2006, p. 130.

Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 2

(My last post considered how the feelings of Shekhem and Dinah change in the Torah portion Vayishlach.  This post considers the decision of Dinah’s brothers in the same story.)

And Jacob came safely from Paddan Aram to the town of Shekhem, which is in the land of Canaan, and he camped in front of the town. (Genesis/Bereishit 33:18)

shekhem (שְׁכֶם)= shoulders; an ancient town; a certain chieftain in that town.

Mt. Gerizim (left) and Mt. Eyval (right)

The city of Shekhem, now part of the modern city of Nablus, sat in a narrow valley between two hills (“shoulders” of land):  Mount Gezerim and Mount Eyval.  Later in the Torah, when the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan, Moses instructs them to perform a ritual on those two hills.  While the Levites recite a list of good deeds that God rewards with blessings, and a list of bad deeds that God punishes with curses, half of the tribes will stand on Mount Gezerim to confirm the blessings, and half on Mount Eyval to confirm the curses.  (Deuteronomy 27:11-14; see my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.)

Thus Shekhem represents a decision point.  North or south?  Good or evil?  Blessing or curse?

Jacob makes the wrong decision when he arrives.  He has been returning on the same route he took from Beersheba to Charan 20 years before.  Now is supposed to continue south to Beit-El (Bethel), where he promised God that he would build an altar.  Then he should travel farther south to Beersheba, where his aged parents are still waiting for him.  Instead he stops at the crossroads of Shekhem, unwilling to move or choose.  He buys the plot of ground where he is camped.

And Dinah, the daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. And Shekhem, son of Chamor the Chivvite, a chieftain of the land, saw her, and he took her, and he lay with her, and he violated her. (Genesis/Bereishit 34:1-2)

Shekhem the young chieftain enters the story as a bad guy who rapes a virgin.  Then he falls in love with his victim, Dinah.  (See my post Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1.)  He speaks “upon the heart of the young woman”, reassuring her, changing her feelings about him, persuading her that he will become a good husband.  He plans to offer her father exorbitant bride-price so he can marry her and restore her honor.  And he asks his own father, Chamor, to come with him to arrange the marriage contract.

Unfortunately, Chamor has another idea.  His clan has land; Jacob has lots of livestock.  What if they all intermarry, and become one people?  Surely the union would benefit both sides.  Chamor makes this a stipulation in the marriage negotiation of Shekhem and Dinah.

Jacob does not respond, but his sons pretend to agree to both Dinah’s marriage and the union of the two peoples, provided that all the men of the town circumcise themselves.  Chamor goes back and tells his men that this is a way everyone can marry into wealth, acquiring Jacob’s livestock.  And the men of Shekhem go for it.

Ruins of stairs and city gate of Shekhem

It was the third day, when they were in pain.  And two of the sons of Jacob, Simon and Levi, [full] brothers of Dinah, each took his sword, and they came upon the town without resistance, and they killed all the males. (Genesis 34:25)

They take Dinah, and then some “sons of Jacob”—maybe the same two, maybe others—plunder all the houses and enslave all the women and girls.

They have made Jacob’s decision for him.  They could have chosen the good side (represented by Mt. Gezerim) and dealt honestly with the citizens of Shekhem.  What if Chamor’s offer turned out to be part of God’s plan to give the land of Canaan to the descendants of Jacob, and God would bless them if they accepted and converted the Shekhemites to their own religion?

On the other hand, even if Jacob’s sons refuse to intermarry or proselytize, they could still accept a generous bride-price for their sister and try to negotiate a peaceful covenant with the town.  This approach would also result in a blessing of prosperity and peace with their new neighbors.

Instead, Jacob’s sons choose the bad side (represented by Mt. Eyval) and commit vengeance.  After they have massacred the men of Shekhem and enslaved the women, their father finally speaks up.

Then Jacob said to Simon and Levi: “You cut me off from the inhabitants of the land, from the Canaanites and Perizzites!  And I am few in number, so they will unite against me and strike at me, and I will be exterminated, I and my household!” (Genesis 34:30)

Jacob Burying the Strange Gods,
by Sebastien Bourdon

At that point God tells Jacob to move to Beit-El.  Jacob collects everyone’s idols and earrings and buries them at Shekhem, perhaps hoping to win God’s favor that way.  Then he abandons the empty town and the land he bought, and flees south.

And they set out, and a horror of God came upon the towns that surrounded them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. (Genesis 35:5)

So God blesses Jacob’s sons even though they choose evil at the decision point of Shekhem.  God also fails to reward Shekhem for turning away from evil and trying to do good.


Like the book of Job, the story of Dinah in last week’s Torah portion illustrates that we cannot expect to get our just rewards out in the world.  Instead, we are rewarded or punished inside.  When we feel anger and hatred but nevertheless choose to do good, our self-control strengthens, and it is easier to choose good in the future.

When we let our bad feelings carry us away, we may momentarily enjoy doing violence, but then it becomes easier to choose evil the next time.  After committing genocide in the Torah portion Vayishlach, Jacob’s older sons sell their brother Joseph as a slave in next week’s portion, Vayeishev—and they feel guilty the rest of their lives.

May each of us, when we reach a decision point, set our immediate feelings aside, consider the moral implications of each option, and do the right thing.