Repost: Vayishlach (and genocide)

December 11, 2019 at 6:40 am | Posted in Vayishlach | Leave a comment

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

May 15, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Posted in Emor, Vayishlach | 2 Comments

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. www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/libation; 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, sefaria.org/Sukkah?lang=bi.

 

Vayishlach: Mother Figure

November 22, 2018 at 10:26 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | 1 Comment

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

November 30, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | 2 Comments

(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.

Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1

November 28, 2017 at 10:35 am | Posted in Vayishlach | 4 Comments

Jacob’s Family Meets Esau,
by Francesco Hayez, 1844

Jacob, after working for his uncle Lavan for twenty years, returns to Canaan in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”). When he left Canaan he was alone; when he returns he brings back two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, servants, a wealth of livestock, and one daughter—or perhaps only one daughter whom the Torah considers worth mentioning.

Eager to settle down, Jacob buys the land where his household is camping in front of the town of Shekhem.

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)

dinah (דִינָה) = judge her, pass sentence on her; her judgment, her verdict.

shekhem (שְׁכֶם)= shoulders; an ancient town on the west bank of the Jordan1.

The Seduction of Dinah,
by James Tissot

Dinah’s name hints that she is doing something unacceptable.  In the culture of the ancient Near East, a young unmarried woman did not leave her family’s compound unaccompanied.  Her motive is merely to make friends with the women who have become her neighbors.  But walking alone, in that time and place, was considered asking for trouble.

And trouble comes.  Dinah is raped—by the young chieftain whose name is the same as the town.  It is as if the whole town of Shekhem rapes the whole household of Jacob.  Honor, shame, and responsibility were not restricted to individuals in the ancient Near East; what happened to one family member affected the standing of the entire family.

But Shekhem does not throw his victim out in the morning.

And his soul became attached to Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and he loved the young woman, and he spoke al leiv the young woman.  Then Shekhem spoke to Chamor, his father, saying: “Take for me this girl as a wife” (Genesis/Bereishit 34:3-4)

al leiv (עַל־לֵב) = upon the heart of. (In biblical Hebrew, the heart is the mind, the seat of conscious thoughts and feelings.)

Clearly Shekhem falls in love with Dinah.  He not only wants to keep her and take care of her; he wants to repair her reputation (as much as he can) by marrying her through an official contract between his family and hers.

How does Dinah feel now about the man who raped her?  The Torah does not say.  The only clue we have is that Shekhem speaks al leiv her, upon her heart.

Touching the heart

Biblical Hebrew uses several idioms that include the word leiv or its alternative spelling levav. When something arises in someone’s heart, an idea or a memory is occurring to that person.2  To place something upon one’s heart is to think it over.3  What does it mean to speak upon someone’s heart?

At the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph’s brothers are afraid that Joseph will finally take revenge for when they sold him as a slave.  Joseph reassures them: “And now don’t you fear, I will provide for you and your little ones.”  And he comforted them, and he spoke al leiv them. (Genesis 50:21)

Joseph’s intent is to reassure his brothers so they no longer feel afraid.

In the book of Judges, a man’s concubine runs away to her father’s house.  After four months, Her husband got up and went after her, to speak al leiv her to get her back. (Judges 19:3)

The concubine does head back with the man, so he must have changed her feelings about him.4

David’s Grief over Absalom, Bible card

King David’s troops win a battle and kill his son Absalom, who had seized David’s throne.  When David ignores his soldiers and weeps for his dead son, the troops become demoralized.  David’s general, Yoav, warns him that if he does not act at once, they will all desert overnight.  Yoav concludes: “And now get up! Go out! And speak al leiv your followers!” (2 Samuel 19:8)

Here, King David must persuade his soldiers that he appreciates their victory after all, and he is still their king.5  He must change their feelings from despondency to optimism.

Ruth gives the idiom a different shade of meaning when she is a gleaner in Boaz’s field.  He asks her to stick to his field, where he has ordered his men not to molest her; tells her to help herself from the water jugs; compliments her on taking care of her mother-in-law; and gives her a blessing.  Ruth replies: “I find favor in your eyes, my lord, since you comfort me and since you speak al leiv your maidservant—although I, I am not even one of your maidservants.” (Ruth 2:13)

Ruth does not need to be persuaded to return to Boaz’s field.6  She is telling him that he has reassured her and made her feel better.

The other two occurrences in the Hebrew Bible of the idiom “to speak al leiv” are in prophecies that God (in the role of a husband) will take back the Israelites (in the role of a wife) even though they have strayed with other gods.  God will tenderly reassure Israel that “her” suffering is over.7  Then the Israelites will no longer feel despair.

So if speaking al leiv someone means reassuring someone or changing someone’s feelings, we can conclude that in this week’s Torah portion, Shekhem changes Dinah’s feelings about him, and she wants to marry him.

Not touching the heart

Shekhem offers to pay Jacob any bride-price he asks for.  But his father, Chamor, stipulates that the people of Shekhem and Jacob’s household will all intermarry and become one people.  He promises Jacob’s people that they can share the town’s land, and he promises the town’s people that they can share Jacob’s livestock.  It does not occur to Chamor that Dinah’s family is still upset about her rape and hates Shekhem—both the man and the town.

Chamor does not speak al leiv Jacob or his sons, and their feelings do not change.

Then the sons of Jacob answered Shekhem and his father Chamor, and they spoke deceitfully, since he had defiled their sister Dinah.  And they said to them: “We cannot do this thing, giving our sister to a man who has a foreskin, because that is a disgrace for us.” (Genesis 34:13-14)

Dinah’s Brothers Attack Shekhem
(artist unknown)

Jacob says nothing.  But his sons pretend to agree to intermarriage if all the men of the town will circumcise themselves.  After the men of Shekhem have done so, and are disabled by pain, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simon and Levi, swoop in, kill every male, take their sister out of the chieftain’s house, and leave.  Then the “sons of Jacob” (which sons are not specified) plunder the town of Shekhem and take its women and girls as slaves.

When Dinah’s brothers are finished, the reformed Shekhem is dead, and Dinah is a tainted woman with low market value instead of the happy wife of a chieftain.

*

The story of Dinah illustrates both that human feelings can change—and that when people refuse to change their feelings, they may hurt the people they care about as well as those they consider enemies.

May everyone who is trapped in old feelings of anger, resentment, or despair be freed.  And if nobody steps forward to speak al leiv, may we hear an inner voice comforting our hearts with a different point of view.

  1. Shekhem was 30 miles (49 km) north of Jerusalem, between two round hills, Mt. Gezerim and Mt. Eyval. It is now part of the modern city of Nablus.
  2. Arising in someone’s heart: e.g. Jeremiah 44:21, Ezekiel 38:10.
  3. Placing upon one’s heart: e.g. Deuteronomy 6:6, Jeremiah 12:11, Isaiah 57:11, Malachi 2:2.
  4. The King James Bible (KJV) translation is “to speak friendly unto her”; the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation is “to woo her”.
  5. The JPS translation is “placate your followers”.
  6. The KJV translation is “thou hast spoken friendly”; the JPS translation is “to speak gently to”.
  7. Hosea 2:16, Isaiah 40:1.

 

Vayishlach: A Partial Reconciliation

November 24, 2015 at 5:59 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | Leave a comment

Jacob finally heads back to Canaan at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”)—after living 20 years in the Aramean town of Charan, being cheated by his uncle and father-in-law Lavan.  Jacob now has his own large family and plenty of wealth to make a fresh start.  But one thing hangs over his head: when he fled Canaan 20 years before, his twin brother Esau was planning to murder him.

Esau lentil-soupEsau was enraged because his brother had cheated him twice.  First Jacob had traded Esau a bowl of stew for Esau’s larger inheritance as the firstborn.  Then Jacob had disguised himself as Esau to steal their blind father Isaac’s blessing.

Jacob’s guilt over his own behavior and anxiety about Esau are still strong 20 years later.  He knows that Esau has moved to Sei-ir and founded his own kingdom, Edom.  What he does not know is whether Esau still wants to kill him.

map middle east 1The first thing Jacob does after he crosses the hills of Gilead east of the Jordan is to send messengers to his brother.

And he gave them orders, saying: Thus you shall say: “To my lord, to Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob: I sojourned with Lavan, and I lingered until now. And it happened I acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks and male slaves and female slaves. And now I send ahead to tell my lord, to find chein in your eyes.” (Genesis/Bereishit 32:5-6)

chein (חֵן) = favor, approval.

Jacob words his message to his brother carefully. He addresses Esau as “my lord” instead of “my brother”; calls himself “your servant Jacob”; and mentions “finding favor in your eyes” as if Esau were his king.

The blessing that Isaac gave to Jacob instead of Esau included the words: Be an overlord to your kinsmen, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. (Genesis 27:29)  Now Jacob’s message intimates that the reverse of the blessing is true; Esau is Jacob’s overlord, and Jacob will bow down to him.

But Esau does not trust his brother’s words.  (See my post Vayishlach: Message to a Brother, in which I speculate on how Esau might misinterpret Jacob’s message.)

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

Jacob concludes that Esau still carries a grudge from 20 years before. Why else would he head north with an of 400 men?

shepherd and sheepHe reacts by dividing his family and possessions into two camps, so Esau’s men cannot wipe out everyone at once; by praying to God; and by sending several ridiculously large gifts of livestock ahead to Esau on the road.  Jacob instructs the servant in charge of each drove of livestock that when he reaches Esau and his men, he should tell Esau the animals are a gift from Jacob.  Again, he uses language that flips Isaac’s blessing.

And you shall say: From your servant, from Jacob, it is a minchah sent to my lord, to Esau; and hey!—he is also behind us. (Genesis 32:19)

minchah (מִנְחָה) = a gift of respect, thanks, homage, or allegiance; a tribute.

In the Bible, a person gives a minchah to a king or to God.  Thus Jacob’s messages continue to emphasize that he is subservient to Esau—just as if Isaac had given the blessing to Esau after all, and it had taken effect.

For he said [to himself]: I will appease him with the minchah that is going before me, and after that I will see his face; perhaps he will pardon me.  (Genesis 32:21)

Jacob then spends the night on the bank of the Yabok River, wrestling with a mysterious being and coming to terms with his own identity.  (See my post Vayishlach: Blessing Yourself.)  In the morning he crosses over and goes to meet Esau—still limping from his wrestling match.

… and he bowed down to the ground seven times until he drew up to his brother. (Genesis 33:3)

Bowing to the ground seven times was the correct procedure for approaching a Canaanite king in the second millennium B.C.E.  By literally bowing down to his brother, Jacob is, in effect, transferring Isaac’s blessing to Esau.

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, detail

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, detail

And Esau’s hostility evaporates.  He might question Jacob’s words; he might view the gifts of livestock with suspicion; but when he sees his brother limping toward him and bowing his gray head to the ground seven times, he realizes that his brother has changed.  Jacob is not trying to cheat him again.

Then Esau ran to meet him, and he embraced him, and he fell on his neck, and he kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:4)

Jacob introduces Esau to his family.  Next Esau politely refuses to keep Jacob’s gift, and Jacob politely urges him to accept it, according to the usual social ritual.  At first Jacob says: “If, please, I have found chein in your eyes, then take my minchah from my hand … (Genesis 33:10)

Esau still demurs, so Jacob urges him to accept the gift a second time, saying: Take, please, birkhati that was brought to you, because God chanani and because I have everything.”  And he urged him, and he took [it]. (Genesis 33:11)

birkhati (בִּרְכָתִי) = my blessing.

chanani (חַנַּנִי) = favored me.  (From the same root as chein.)

The gift of livestock is so large it probably equals the inheritance of the firstborn that Jacob once traded him for.  (The Torah does not say how much each brother actually inherits when Isaac dies later in the story, but both are already wealthy.)  Jacob urges Esau to accept not only the equivalent of the inheritance, but also a blessing.  Thus Jacob returns everything he cheated Esau to get.

Are the brothers reconciled?  Not quite.  Esau, no longer angry or anxious about Jacob, invites him to come home with him to Sei-ir.  But Jacob refuses, on the pretext that the children and the nursing animals cannot travel fast enough.  He falsely promises to catch up with Esau later.  Then he heads in the other direction.

Jacob has made amends for his bad deeds, so his conscience is cleared.  He no longer has a rational reason to believe Esau holds a grudge.  Yet he still cannot get over his fear of Esau.

I think the reason is that Esau has not changed.  Jacob has changed; he has faced who he is, and taken steps to right past wrongs.  But Esau is essentially the same: impulsive, emotional, easy to persuade.  At that moment, Esau loves him because he believes Jacob had become a good brother.  But in the future, who knows what random act or remark might sway Esau’s heart?

*

I have similar problems in my own life. I can think of at least three people with whom I have reconciled—up to a point.  I have thought of good reasons why they did not reciprocate my apologies, and I am careful to treat them with respect.  Yet all three seem unpredictable to me, moved by mental complexes I do not understand.  Like Jacob, I am still afraid of what they might do next.

Sometimes only a partial reconciliation is possible.  Perhaps Jacob is wise to realize this, and to travel away from his brother Esau.

 

 

 

Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1

December 23, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash, Vayishlach | 5 Comments
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Joseph cries eight times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, more often than any other individual in the Hebrew Bible.  Only the Israelites as a whole are recorded as breaking into sobs more often.

Joseph Cast into the Pit, by Owen Jones

Although Joseph is the most lachrymose character, he does not start crying in the Torah story until he is 37 years old and the viceroy of Egypt.  When he is 17, his ten older brothers throw him into a pit, argue about whether to kill him, then sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1  Later, the brothers remember that he pleaded for mercy;2 but nowhere does the Torah say he cried during that ordeal.  Nor does the Torah report any crying when Joseph, as a head house slave in Egypt, is falsely accused and thrown into prison.3

If Joseph does not cry when he feels frightened or sorry for himself, when does he cry?

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Egyptian relief of slaves bowing

First sob

The first time Joseph cries is in the Torah portion Mikeitz (“In the end”).  After a year of drought and famine, Joseph’s older brothers travel to Egypt to buy grain.  They bow down to the viceroy of Egypt, not recognizing him as their brother Joseph 20 years later.  Joseph speaks to them in Egyptian, using an interpreter so they will not suspect he knows their language.

He accuses them of spying, and they protest that they are all brothers, and honest men.  When the viceroy says no, they are not, the brothers babble:

“We, your servants, are twelve brothers, sons of one man in the land of Canaan.  And hey!  The youngest is with our father now, and the other—is absent.”  (Genesis 42:13)

Joseph throws them into prison for three days, then confronts them again.  As they talk among themselves, they do not know he understands every word when they agree that although they are not spies, they deserve punishment because they did not listen to Joseph pleading from the bottom of the pit 20 years before.

And he [Joseph] turned away from them, vayeivek.  Then he returned to them and he spoke to them, and he took Shimon from them and tied him up in front of their eyes.  (Genesis/Bereishit 42:24)

vayeivek (וַיֵּבְךְּ) = and he sobbed, and he wept audibly.  (From the root verb bakah, בָּכָּה, wept, shed tears.)

Joseph is overwhelmed when he hears them admit, in effect, that they were wrong to leave him in the pit.  He steps out to break down in private, and returns only when he can control himself again.

When he recovers his composure he tells them he will sell them grain, but he will keep one brother hostage until they prove they are honest men by returning with their youngest brother, the one who stayed home in Canaan.

Maybe Joseph embarks on this elaborate game in order to punish his older brothers for their old crime.  But most commentary assumes Joseph is testing his brothers to see if they have truly changed.  The youngest brother is Benjamin, who was a small child when Joseph’s older brothers sold him, and the only one who has the same mother.  Will the older brothers treat Benjamin as callously as they once treated Joseph?

Second sob

Joseph is Governor, by Owen Jones

After a second year of famine, the brothers finally return with Benjamin.  When they arrive at the viceroy’s palace a servant brings Shimon to them, none the worse for imprisonment, and says the viceroy invites them to stay for a meal.

All eleven brothers prostrate themselves when the viceroy of Egypt walks in.  Joseph asks them whether their father is still alive and well, and they say yes.

Then he lifted his eyes, and he saw Benjamin, his brother, the son of his mother …  And Joseph hurried, because his compassion fermented, and he was close to bekot; so he came into the inner room vayeivek there.  Then he washed his face, and he went out and he restrained himself, and he said: “Serve the food.”  (Genesis 43:29-31)

bekot (בֶּכּוֹת) =  weeping.  (Also from the root bakah.)

This time the Torah attributes Joseph’s emotional ferment to a sudden feeling of compassion.  The sight of his brother Benjamin triggers the compassion, but who is the object of it?  Does he feel compassion toward all his brothers, for the ordeal he is putting them through now?  Toward his father, who had to let Benjamin go?  Or toward Benjamin himself, for growing up surrounded by brutal older brothers?  The Torah does not say.

Joseph resumes his game, giving Benjamin five times as much food as the others.4  The older brothers do not act jealous.  Next Joseph has a silver goblet planted in Benjamin’s pack before they leave, and sends his steward to catch them on their way out of town. The steward, following Joseph’s script, insists on searching their packs, and declares that the owner of the pack containing the missing goblet must return to the viceroy’s palace as a slave.  When the goblet is found in Benjamin’s pack, the ten older brothers are free to travel on without him.  But they choose to return with Benjamin to confront the viceroy.5

Third sob

The third time Joseph cries is during the confrontation at the beginning the next Torah portion, Vayiggash (“And he approached”).  Judah, the leader of Joseph’s brothers, steps up and volunteers to become the viceroy’s slave in place of Benjamin.  He says he is doing it in order to spare their father from dying of grief.  Joseph is moved by the revelation that Judah, at least, has changed from a man who would sell his own brother into a man who would sacrifice himself for the sake of a father who does not even love him.6

Then Joseph was not able to restrain himself in front of everyone stationed around him, so he called out: “Remove everyone from me!”  And no one stood with him when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers.  And he gave his voice to bekhi, and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.  (Genesis 45:1-2)

bekhi (בְּכִי) = weeping, wailing, sobbing; distilling water.  (Also from the root bakah.)

Once Egyptians are cleared out of the room, a tearful Joseph finally identifies himself to his brothers.  He excuses their old crime as the working out of divine providence, and tells them to bring their father and their own families to Egypt, where they will have plenty of food.7

The cause of Joseph’s sobbing this time is the shock of Judah’s revelation.  An enemy who despised and sold him 20 years before has become a moral paragon, sacrificing himself to spare two other people.  Perhaps Joseph’s compassion ferments again, this time toward Judah.

Fourth sob

Benjamin Returns to Egypt, by Owen Jones

Then he [Joseph] fell upon the neck of Benjamin, his brother, vayeivek, and Benjamin bakha upon his neck.  (Genesis 45:14)

bakha (בָּכָה) = he sobbed. (Also from the root bakah.)

For the first time, Joseph’s sobbing is reciprocated; Benjamin also sobs, in a mutual embrace.  The two full brothers are full of emotion at their reunion after 20 years.  They have no bad history with one another, so they simply weep tears of joy.  (Benjamin probably weeps with relief as well, since his status has just changed from prospective slave to honored brother of the viceroy.)

Fifth sob

Then he kissed all this brothers vayevek on them, and after that his brothers spoke with him.  (Genesis 45:15)

By kissing, embracing, and crying on the ten men, Joseph accepts them at last as his older brothers.  They are more reserved, because for them the situation is still unresolved.  Joseph appears to have forgiven them, but he does explicitly pardon them; he only excuses their past crime as God’s means for getting him, Joseph, to Egypt.  In their lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution, they remain suspended in a state of emotional tension.8  They do not embrace Joseph, but they do become able to speak with him.9

*

So what makes Joseph cry?  The first five times he breaks down and sobs, he is emotionally overwhelmed when he suddenly sees one or more of his brothers from a new point of view.

First he is moved when his older brothers realize they deserve punishment (Genesis 42:24).  Joseph thought his older brothers were irredeemable, but now he realizes they feel guilty.  Next he sees Benjamin for the first time in 20 years and feels compassion (Genesis 43:29-31).  Joseph had written off his baby brother, whom he thought was lost to him forever, but now he sees Benjamin in front of him.

The third time Joseph weeps is when Judah offers to become a slave to spare Jacob and Benjamin (Genesis 44:27-34 and 45:1-2).  He thought none of his brothers would sacrifice his freedom for the sake of another person, but now Judah volunteers to do it.  And the fourth time is when Joseph embraces Benjamin (Genesis 45:14).  Joseph was completely committed to his life as an Egyptian, determined to forget his whole family in Canaan, but now he embraces his relationship with his innocent brother.

Joseph cries for the fifth time when he embraces the rest of his brothers, even though they do not reciprocate.  He had considered them his implacable enemies.  Now he sees them as the instruments of fate—but also as men who blundered and later felt guilty and are trying to do the right thing now; as human beings and brothers.

Joseph sobs three more times in Genesis, all in the last Torah portion, Vayechi.  He sobs at his reunion with his father, when his father dies, and when his brothers plead with him afterward.  We will listen to those sobs in my next blog post.

*

Have you ever felt moved to tears, or to a “ferment of compassion”, when an important person in your life is suddenly revealed in a new and better light?  Did it change your relationship?

May we all be able to notice when things are different, and embrace relationships we had turned away from.

  1. Genesis 37:19-28.
  2. Genesis 42:21.
  3. Genesis 38:1-23.
  4. Genesis 43:34.
  5. Genesis 44:1-14.
  6. In the first Torah portion of Joseph’s story, Vayeishev, Jacob’s ten older sons noticed when Joseph was an adolescent that their father displayed extreme favoritism toward Joseph, giving him the “coat of many colors” and asking him to his older brothers’ misdeeds to him.  That is why, when they are away from home and Joseph shows up in his fancy coat to spy on them again, they throw Joseph into a pit and then sell him into slavery.  When they return home they tell their father that Joseph is dead, torn by a wild animal.  Jacob goes into deep mourning and refuses to be comforted by any of them.
  7. Genesis 45:9-11.
  8. See Genesis 50:15 for evidence that the brothers felt lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution for years.
  9. At the beginning of the Joseph story, when Joseph is 17, the Torah says:  “And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him in peace.” (Genesis 34:4)  Now, finally, they are able to do it.

 

Vayishlach: Blessing Yourself

December 3, 2014 at 12:12 am | Posted in Vayishlach | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Jacob finally gets a blessing he can believe this week, in the Torah portion Vayishlach (“And he sent”).

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, a blessing usually means a transmission from God that improves the recipient’s lot in life. When a human being blesses someone, it is a request that God will transmit that blessing. God’s blessings grant people eventual success in practical affairs, including numerous descendants, wealth, land, authority over others, a good reputation, and becoming a by-word for other people’s blessings.

Hands raised in blessing

Hands raised in  blessing of Temple priests

Before this week’s Torah portion, Jacob receives three blessings: two from his father Isaac (one while Jacob is impersonating his brother Esau, and one as himself), and one blessing from God. But he still does not feel blessed—partly because of his guilt over cheating his brother, and partly because of his habit of calculating how to take advantage of others. (See my posts Toledot: To Bless Someone and Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience.)

During his 20 years working for his uncle Lavan in Charan, Jacob acquires two of the material advantages promised in the blessings by Isaac and God: many children (eleven sons and a daughter), and material wealth (abundant flocks, herds, and servants). He does not yet own land, but God reminds him he must return to Canaan.

Even though he appears to be blessed by God, Jacob is afraid to go. First he fears that his uncle Lavan will prevent him from leaving. After the two men make a peace treaty, he is afraid that his brother will kill him and his family. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob sends messengers to Seir, where Esau is living, as he travels west toward Canaan. When he reaches the Yabbok River, the messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him—with 400 armed men. Jacob frantically makes arrangements to prevent his whole family from being annihilated:

1) He divides his family and servants into two camps, hoping that if Esau’s men attack one camp, the other camp will escape.

2) He prays to God:

I am too small for all the kindnesses and all the fidelity that you have done for your servant; for with my walking-stick I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I, I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me down, mother and children. And You, You said: I will certainly be good to you, and I will set up your offspring like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted in its abundance. (Genesis 32:11-13)

Here Jacob expresses his own unworthiness for blessing, admits that God has aided him, and reminds God of the blessing from 20 years before. He views the blessings he has received so far as temporary and easily wiped out.

3) He sends gifts of livestock ahead to Esau, hoping to appease him.

4) He takes his family and servants across the river, then returns to the other side of the ford to spend the rest of the night alone—because he senses that there is one more thing he must do. Jacob may not know consciously that the fourth and final thing he needs to prepare for Esau’s arrival is a new blessing, a fourth blessing that comes from neither his father nor his god. But he waits alone in the dark.

And Jacob was left alone, vayei-aveik, a man, with him until the dawn rose. And he [the “man”] saw that he had not prevailed against him, so he touched the hollow of his hip; he struck the hollow of Jacob’s hip during hei-avko with him. (Genesis 32:25-26) 

Rembrandt, "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel"

Rembrandt, “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”

vayei-aveik (וַיֵּאָבֵק) = and he wrestled (?); and he kicked up dust (?)

hei-avko (הֵאָבְקוֹ) = his wrestling (?); his kicking up dust (?)

(The verb אבק occurs only here in the entire Hebrew Bible. It has been translated as wrestling for at least  two thousand years, based on the description in this passage. But the root of the verb is shared with the noun avak (אָבַק) = cloud of fine dust.)

Elsewhere in the Torah a “man” appears out of nowhere, and later turns out to be a malakh Elohim, a messenger of God (sometimes translated as an “angel”). For example, earlier in Genesis, three “men” appear when Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent, and they turn out to be divine messengers who announce that Sarah will give birth to Isaac. When a “man” appears to Jacob out of nowhere, we expect a divine emissary with a message for him.

The other “men” who appear in the Bible speak, walk, and appear to eat. But a “man” that wrestles is unique to this passage. Jacob and the “man” struggle all night without a victory.

Then he [the “man”] said: Let me go, for the dawn rises. But he [Jacob] said: I will not let you go unless you bless me. Then he said to him: What is your name?  And he said: Jacob. (Genesis 32:27-28)

For the first time, Jacob is asking for a blessing as himself, Jacob. Perhaps wrestling his opponent to a standstill has given him both courage and the feeling that he deserves recognition. In this case, both the message from God and the blessing he requests are a new name.

And he said: Your name will no longer be said “Jacob”, but instead Yisrael, because sarita with God and with men, and you prevailed. Then Jacob asked and said: Please tell your name.  And he said: Why do you ask for my name? And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:29-30)

Yisrael  (יִשׂרָאֵל) = Israel; probably yasar  = he contends for dominion, he rules + el = god; “He contends with God”, “God rules”. (Another possible etymology is yashar = upright, level, straight + el = god; “He is upright with God”, “God is straight”.)

sarita (שָׂרִתָ) = you contended for dominion; you ruled.

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, “Because I saw God face to face, and my soul was spared”. And the sun rose for him as he passed Penuel, and he was limping on his hip. (Genesis 32:31-32)

Through the rest of the book of Genesis, Jacob sometimes acts decisively and correctly, living up to his new name. At other times he is fearful, hesitant, and calculating, like the old Jacob. He does not always prevail. However, he does proceed as if he expects God to be on his side. He also gives more blessings to others than any other person in the Torah.

Many of us are like Jacob before he wrestled. We can see our wealth and success in the material world, yet we do not believe we have received a divine blessing. We do not feel the peace of being blessed.

When we are alone at night, does a “man” come to wrestle with us? Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner wrote in Wrestling Jacob that the two clauses in “And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose” (Genesis 32:24) could be read as happening at the same time. In that case, the man Jacob is wrestling with is himself.

Klitsner also suggested that when Jacob’s wrestling partner says “you contended with God and with men, and you prevailed” the “man” is identifying himself as both divine and human.

May each one of us be blessed to wrestle with our own inner divine force, and to emerge with a blessing we can believe in, a blessing of the peace and personal authority that comes from being Yisrael, upright with God—even when we walk into the sunrise with a limp.

 

Vayishlach: Message to a Brother

November 11, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | 1 Comment
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After twenty years of devious power plays between Jacob and his uncle Lavan, Jacob finally comes out on top with a family and wealth of his own.  They part forever, and mark the spot of their separation on Mount Gilead with a mound of stones.  Then Jacob heads down toward Canaan.

Now that he is free from his uncle, the first thing Jacob does, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”), is to send a message to his twin brother Esau.

And Jacob sent messengers lefanav to Esau, his brother, to the land of Sei-ir, the field of Edom. (Genesis/Bereishit 32:4)

lefanav = before himself, in front of himself; literally, “to his face”

Jacob anticipates meeting Esau face to face. He sends messengers “before himself” in order to prepare both Esau and himself for this meeting—and thus precipitates it.

Why is he in such a hurry to meet Esau? I looked up Jacob’s route into Canaan, which crosses the Jabbok and Jordan rivers, north of the Dead Sea; it goes nowhere near Esau’s territory. The hills of Sei-ir, where Esau has settled, are south of the Dead Sea, at least 90 miles away in a straight line, a two- or three-week march on foot. Jacob could easily travel to Canaan and settle down in a new home before Esau could discover his movements and come to meet him.

Moreover, Jacob fled to his uncle’s house twenty years before because his brother was threatening to kill him. At that time Esau was enraged because Jacob had used trickery to take both Esau’s birthright (his inheritance as the firstborn) and their father’s first blessing.

Jacob fled to his uncle in Charan, and spent twenty years there accumulating wives, children, servants, and livestock. Although his mother, Rebecca, had promised to send for him when Esau’s anger cooled, the Torah does not report any messenger arriving in Charan.

Why is Jacob now so eager to meet Esau that he sends him advance notice? As far as Jacob knows, Esau still hates him. On the other hand, once when Esau was famished he willingly traded his birthright for a bowl of stew. Would such an impulsive man nurse a grudge for twenty years?

Jacob may feel so guilty about the way he cheated his brother that he cannot bear to go any longer without a resolution. On the other hand, he may feel his actions were justified, and now he just wants to deal with his remaining potential enemy before he settles down to a new life. Either way, if he resolves his relationship with Esau before he crosses the Jordan, he can come home to Canaan free of enemies, internal or external. So he dispatches messengers to Sei-ir.

He commanded them, saying: Thus you shall say to my lord, to Esau: Thus said your servant Jacob: I have sojourned with Lavan, va-eichar until now. And I have ox and donkey, flock and servant and maidservant, and I am sending to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes. (Genesis 32:5-6)

va-eichar = and I delayed, and I hesitated, and I lingered

Jacob gives Esau selected information about himself, without mentioning their mutual past, or  his new family. Then he waits for his messengers to return with news of Esau’s reaction.

Why does Jacob say he “delayed” in Charan? According to 17th century Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, Jacob is explaining why he did not come to pay his respects to Esau sooner. Why does he mention his livestock and servants? Maybe he wants Esau to know that he no longer needs the inheritance of the firstborn.

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

We can only imagine how Esau feels. Does he still hate Jacob for cheating him twice? Or is he afraid Jacob might take advantage of him again? Does he view Jacob’s message as a challenge dressed up in polite language?

Here is one way Esau might interpret his brother’s careful message:

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

I have sojourned with Lavan—“He’s been staying all this time with our mother’s brother? I suppose Lavan adores him, just like Mother always did. Maybe Lavan even taught him some new tricks.”

va-eichar until now—“Sure, he lingered. Why would he want to see me again? Or our poor father?”

And I have ox and donkey, flock and servant and maidservant—“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 servants 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! I may be a few minutes older, but we both know he mastered me, long ago. I wonder if he only wants my favor so he’ll be safe ignoring me. Or is he trying to pacify me before he springs on me? Well, what Jacob doesn’t know is that I actually am a lord in Sei-ir now, with four hundred men at my command. 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.”

Esau’s reactions to Jacob’s careful message are not recorded in the Torah. But he does march north immediately with four hundred men.

Jacob never was good predicting other people’s feelings.  If he could have imagined Esau’s response, he might have sent a different kind of message.  What if Jacob had called Esau not just “my lord”, but “my older brother”?  What if he had said he wanted to see his brother again so he could make an apology?  I doubt Esau would have mustered his four hundred armed men then.  But Jacob was so cautious that he did not say enough.

*

When I am afraid of someone, I become careful about what I say to that person. If I think a confrontation is unavoidable, I censor my speech so much that I probably leave a false impression, like Jacob.

I pray that in the future, if I am afraid of someone, I will be careful in a different way. I want to be careful to consider what the other person might be feeling, and then risk saying too much, if it lets me address the real issue between two human beings.

Toledot & Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Goat Versus Snake

November 27, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeitzei, Vayishlach | 1 Comment

Esau and Jacob are twin brothers, but because of their personality differences they can never build a real partnership—any more than a goat can partner with a snake.

Birth of Esau and Jacob, by Francois Maitre, ca. 1480

The Torah identifies the twins with these two animals when they are born in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”):

The first emerged red [and] completely like a robe of sei-ar, so they called his name Eisav.  And after that his brother emerged, and his hand was holding fast to the heel of Eisav, so he called his name Ya-akov …  (Genesis/Bereishit 25:25-26)

Eisav (עֵשָׂו) = (Esau in English)  Doer, Made.  (From the root verb asahעָשָׂה = do, make.)

sei-ar (שֵׂעָר) = goat hair, bristling hair.  (From the same root as sa-ir, שָׂעִיר = he-goat.)

Ya-akov (יַעֲקֹב) = (Jacob in English)  Heel-grabber, Sneak.  (From the same root as akeiv, עָקֵב = heel, which derives from the verb akav,  עָקַב= came from behind.)

The Torah explains why Jacob and Rebekah, the parents of the twins, named the second one Ya-akov: he emerged hanging onto his brother’s heel.  But why did they name the first one Eisav?  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yiztchaki) wrote that because he was covered with hair, he looked like an adult, completely “made”.

Toledot

At birth, Esau is hairy like a goat.  Goats are also known for being “horny” beasts, which fits Esau’s personality when he grows up.  He brings home not one, but two Hittite wives against his parents’ objections.1

Jacob’s grip on his twin’s heel is a reminder of the snake in the garden of Eden, whom God cursed to crawl on his belly and bite humans on the heel.2  The Torah describes the heel-biting snake as arum (עָרוּם) = naked; clever, cunning.3  Jacob is hairless, and therefore naked compared to Esau; and when he grows up he is the clever one.  We first see this when Esau comes home famished and Jacob talks him into trading his birthright for a bowl of stew.4

In the next scene about Esau and Jacob, their blind father, Isaac, wants to give his firstborn son a blessing.  But first he tells Esau to go hunt game and make it into the delicacy he loves.   Rebecca, the twins’ mother, overhears.  She is certain that Jacob should get the blessing instead.  So she orders Jacob:

“Please go to the flock and take for me two good goat kids, and I will make them a delicacy for your father like [those] he loves.”  (Genesis 27:9)

Rebecca’s favorite son can bring her goats from the flock faster than Esau can hunt, and she knows how to make them taste like the game Esau often cooks for his father.  On another level, Rebecca may be implying that Jacob should overpower his hairy he-goat of a brother.

And why does she need two goats for one old man’s meal?  Is she subconsciously sacrificing both of her sons to make sure the right one gets Isaac’s blessing?

Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1642, detail

Jacob protests:

Hey, my brother Esau is a sa-ir man, and I am a smooth man!  (Genesis 27:11)

sa-ir (שָׂעִר) = hairy.  (Also from the same root as sa-ir, שָׂעִיר = he-goat.)

Physically, Jacob is still as smooth as a snake.  So Rebecca fixes it.  After dressing Jacob in Esau’s clothes, she covers his hands and neck “with skins of goat kids” (Genesis 27:16).  When he brings in the dish of meat, his blind father is not sure which son he is.  He speaks like Jacob, so Isaac asks him to come closer, and touches his son’s hands.

And he did not recognize him because his hands were like the hands of his brother, se-irot.  And he blessed him.  (Genesis 27:23)

se-irot (שְׂעִרֹת) = hairy.  (The plural of sa-ir above.)

Isaac gives Jacob the blessing he intended for Esau.  Enraged by the “theft” of his blessing, Esau rashly swears he will murder his brother, and Jacob quickly slips away and heads for his uncle Lavan’s house in Aram.

Vayeitzei

In the next Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he went”), Jacob marries his uncle Lavan’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, and serves Lavan for fourteen years in lieu of bride-prices for them.  When his time is up, his employer/uncle/father-in-law does not want to let him go.

And Lavan said to him: “If, please, I have found favor in your eyes!  Nichashti, and God has blessed me on account of you.”  And he [Lavan] said: “Designate your wage to me, and I will give it.”  (Genesis 30:27-28)

nichashti (נִחַשְׁתִּי) = I received an omen.  (From the same root as nachash, נָחָשׁ = snake.  Snakes were associated with omens and magic in the ancient Near East.)

Lavan comes close to saying, “I sought a snake, and God has blessed me on account of you.”

The serpentine Jacob makes a clever bargain with Lavan and works for another six years in exchange for far more livestock than his employer expected.  Then twenty years after Jacob fled to avoid being murdered by his brother, he finally heads back toward Canaan with his family, servants, and flocks.

Vayishlach

The next Torah portion begins:

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

sei-ir (שֵׂעִר) = hairy goat.

Esau has become the chieftain of “The Land of the Hairy Goat”, also called Edom.  Jacob’s messengers return with the news that Esau is already marching to meet him—with 400 men.

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1624

This time, instead of bargaining with his twin brother, Jacob sends him extravagant gifts of livestock.  (See my post Vayishlach: Two Camps.)  In the morning, after Jacob has wrestled with a “man” who turns out to be a messenger of God, the estranged brothers meet.  They embrace one another and weep out loud.  Esau offers to return Jacob’s gifts, and Jacob insists that he keep everything.

“Because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me.”  (Genesis 33:10)

Then Esau offers to travel with Jacob as far as Sei-ir.  But Jacob politely says his group has to go more slowly, so Esau and his men should go ahead, and he will catch up later.  As soon Esau and his warriors are out of sight, Jacob heads in another direction.  The two brothers do not see one another again until their father’s funeral.5

*

Esau and Jacob do better than Cain and Abel; they do manage two peaceful reunions, and nobody dies.  Yet a goat and a snake cannot become close friends and go home together.  They have separate destinies.

May each of us be blessed, like Jacob, to see God’s face in people who are fundamentally different from us.  And may we learn to greet them in peace, and part from them in peace.

  1. Genesis 26:34, 27:46.
  2. Genesis 3:15.
  3. Genesis 3:1.
  4. Genesis 29:25-34.
  5. Genesis 35:29.
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