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 | 1 Comment

(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? 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 act  out of unreflective vengeance.

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. And God looks the other way when the man Shekhem is murdered, even though he has turned away from evil toward 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 from God 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 choosing good is harder 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, consult our own knowledge of good and evil, and do the right thing.

Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1

November 28, 2017 at 10:35 am | Posted in Vayishlach | 3 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 that 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.

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 Absolom, 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.

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 Shekhemites 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 that human feelings can change—and that when people refuse to change their feelings, they can 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 us 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 20 years in the town of Charan in Aram, 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 brother Esau was planning to murder him.

Esau lentil-soupEsau was enraged because Jacob had cheated Esau twice. First Jacob traded Esau a bowl of stew for Esau’s larger inheritance as the firstborn. Then Jacob disguised himself as Esau to take 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. He does not know 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 blessing has been reversed; Esau is now Jacob’s overlord, and Jacob will bow down to him.

But Esau does not trust Jacob’s words. (See my earlier 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 a small army 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 that when he reaches Esau and his men, he should tell Esau the drove is a gift from Jacob. Again, Jacob 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. 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]: Akhaprah fanav with the minchah that is going before me, and after that ereh fanav; perhaps yissa fanai. (Genesis 32:21)

akhaprah (אֲכַפְּרָה) = (literally) I will cover over, I will wipe clean; (idiomatically) I will atone, I will make amends, I will reconcile.

fanav (פָנָיו) = his face.

akhaprah fanav (אֲכַפְּרָה פָנָיו) = (literally) I will cover over his face; (idiomatically) I will appease him, I will placate him, I will pacify him.

ereh fanav (פָנָיו אֶרְאֶה) = (literally) I will see his face; (idiomatically) I will come into his (royal) presence.

yissa  fanai (יִשָּׂא פָנָי) = (literally) he will lift up my face; (idiomatically) he will pardon me.

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)

Now Jacob is carrying out what he promised in his original message to Esau; he transfers Isaac’s blessing to Esau by literally bowing down to his brother. (Bowing to the ground seven times was the correct procedure for approaching a Canaanite king in the second millennium B.C.E.)

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 actually sees his brother limping toward him and bowing his gray head to the ground seven times, he realizes that Jacob has changed. His brother 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. Then Esau politely refuses to take 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)

chein (חֵן) = favor, approval.

But when Jacob urges him a second time, he says: 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.

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 sheds any lingering anger or anxiety about Jacob, and invites him to go 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 change 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 travel away from his brother Esau.




Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber

December 23, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash, Vayishlach | 3 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

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 break into sobs more often.

Although Joseph is the most lachrymose character in the Hebrew Bible, but he does not start crying until he is 37 years old and the viceroy of Egypt. When he is 17, his ten older brothers throw him into a pit, then sell him as a slave. His brothers remember later that he pleaded for mercy, but nowhere does the Torah say he cried. Nor is any crying reported when Joseph is falsely accused and imprisoned in Egypt.

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Twenty years later, in last week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, Joseph’s older brothers bow down to him in Egypt and ask his permission to buy grain. They do not recognize the viceroy, but Joseph recognizes them.  He accuses them (in Egyptian) of spying and throws them into prison.  Then he overhears them agreeing that they are guilty because they did not listen to Joseph’s pleading when he was in the pit.

And he [Joseph] turned around 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.

Joseph breaks down in private, but when he recovers he knows he needs better evidence that his brothers have truly changed.  He devises a test, and tells them that he will keep one of them as a hostage until the rest return with the youngest brother, whom their father kept at home.

When they finally do return with Benjamin, Joseph runs out of the room to cry a second time.

And Joseph hurried, because his compassion fermented, and he was close to bekot (sobbing); so he came into the inner room vayeivek (and he sobbed) there. Then he washed his face, and he went out and he restrained himself. (Genesis 43:30-31)

His emotional ferment is close to the surface, but he manages to resume the test. Before his eleven brothers depart for Canaan, Joseph plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack. He has his brothers stopped and searched.  When they return to the viceroy’s palace, he accuses the youngest of stealing, and commands that Benjamin stay in Egypt as his slave.

The third time Joseph cries is in this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (“and he approached”).  Judah, the leader of Joseph’s brothers, makes a passionate speech and volunteers to become the viceroy’s slave in place of Benjamin, 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.

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 free reign in bekhi (sobbing), and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. (Genesis 45:1-2)

Joseph identifies himself to his brothers, excuses their crime as the working out of divine providence, and tells them to bring their father and their own families to Egypt.

Then he fell upon the neck of Benjamin, his brother, vayeivek (and he sobbed), and Benjamin bakha (sobbed) upon his neck. Then he kissed all his brothers, vayeivek upon them, and after that his brothers spoke with him. (Genesis 45:14-15)

For the first time, Joseph’s sobbing is reciprocated; Benjamin also sobs, in a mutual embrace. Their ten older brothers are more reserved, because for them the situation is still unresolved. Joseph has excused their past sin, but he has not pardoned them. In their lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution, they remain suspended in a state of emotional tension. They do not embrace Joseph, but they do become able to speak with him.

This scene is a variation of a scene between their father, Jacob, and his brother, Esau. Earlier in the book of Genesis (in the portion Vayishlach), Jacob returns to Canaan twenty years after he ran away because Esau threatened to kill him. Esau travels toward him with four hundred men, and Jacob sends generous gifts ahead to propitiate his brother. When he sees Esau on the road, he arranges his family with his favorite wife (Rachel) and child (Joseph) in back.

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

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

Then he himself crossed over in front of them, and he bowed down to the ground seven times, until he came all the way up to his brother. And Esau ran to meet him, and he embraced him, and he fell upon his neck and he kissed him, vayivku (and they sobbed). Genesis 33:3-4)

In both scenes, two brothers have been separated for twenty years. In both scenes, the two brothers sob. And in both scenes, the emotional displays are unequal.  Esau, who has more power in the first scene, runs eagerly, hugs his brother, falls on his neck, and kisses him. He has forgiven Jacob, and he cries from relief and the joy of reunion. Jacob bows to propitiate his brother, then stands nervously until Esau’s affectionate behavior convinces him he has nothing to fear for the present. Then he sobs in relief.

In the second scene, Joseph has the power. He sobs as he reveals himself and welcomes his brothers as friends instead of enemies. Next he is overwhelmed by relief and joy over his reunion with Benjamin, the little brother who never harmed him. He falls on Benjamin’s neck and sobs again. Benjamin reciprocates, but his primary relief and joy is that his own status has changed; instead of being considered a thief and a slave, he is now the viceroy’s favorite brother.

Then Joseph kisses all his brothers, as Esau kissed Jacob, and sobs over them. But the ten older brothers can only respond by speaking with him; their level of emotional relief does not match his. Joseph has excused their past crime as God’s means for getting him to Egypt, but he has not explicitly pardoned or forgiven them. Like Jacob when he was reunited with Esau, Joseph’s brothers are not sure their brother’s goodwill is going to last.

A third variation of the scene occurs when Jacob and his extended family travel to Egypt to live under Joseph’s protection. Joseph rides his chariot to meet his father on the road.

And he fell upon his neck, vayeivek (and he sobbed), still, upon his neck, as Israel (Jacob) said to Joseph: This time I would die, after I have seen your face, for you are still alive. (Genesis 46:29-30)

Maybe Joseph sobs because the sight of his aged father floods him with emotional memories.  Or maybe he sobs because his long and difficult relationship with his father is suddenly resolved. (See my posts Vayeishev: Prey, and Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy.) Now Joseph is the one in charge, and he can enjoy being magnanimous to his now-dependent father. What a relief!

Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, does not sob. He mourned over Joseph’s apparent death for years, and even when he switched to doting on Benjamin, he frequently predicted his own death. Although seeing Joseph alive and well (and rich and powerful) is the best thing that has happened to him since Rachel was alive, Jacob is emotionally worn out. He has no tears left.

In my own life, I have sometimes been the eager, loving one, and I have sometimes been the wary but hopeful one. And I have sometimes been the one who is too worn out to feel what the occasion requires.

When two people meet, they never have the same experience inside. Even when they are both weeping in an emotional release, they have different reasons for their tears.

May we all be blessed with awareness and acceptance of these differences between ourselves and the people we are connected with. And may we all be blessed with tears of relief.


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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Jacob and his uncle part for good after twenty years of devious power plays, when Jacob finally comes out on top with a family and wealth of his own. They mark the spot of their separation on Mount Gilead with a mound of stones, and Jacob heads down toward Canaan.

Now that he is free from his uncle Lavan, 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. 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 the past, or even 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. And Lavan probably 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 “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, 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.

Vayishlach: Goat Versus Snake

November 27, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeitzei, Vayishlach | Leave a comment

The book of Genesis/Bereishit is full of pairs of opposites. Some are counterparts and friends. Adam and Eve, the prototypes of male and female, demonstrate that opposite genders can be partners. Ishmael and Isaac, the outcast who invents his own life and the chosen one who is bound to his father’s agenda, eventually become allies. Leah and Rachel, the unloved and the beloved, unite when their husband Jacob consults with them, and they both decide to leave their father and go with Jacob to a new land.

But other pairs of opposites in Genesis never become partners. Cain kills Abel; Sarah exiles Hagar. The twins brothers Esau and Jacob manage two peaceful reunions: one at age 60, and the other when they bury their father. But their differences are such that they can never build a real partnership—any more than a goat can partner with a snake.

The Torah identifies the twins with these two animals when they are born, in the Torah portion Toledot:

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

sei-ar = bristling hair; (from the same root as the word sa-ir = he-goat)

Esav = Doer; (in English, Esau)

Ya-akov = Heel-grabber, Cheater, Cunning One; (in English, Jacob)

At birth, Esau is hairy like a goat. Jacob’s grip on his twin’s heel is a reminder of the snake in the garden Eden, whom God cursed to crawl on his belly and bite human heels.

When they grow up, Esau is headlong like a goat, rashly running at what he desires until his horns crash against it. Jacob is sneaky like a snake, gliding on circuitous routes to his desires. We see this in their behavior when Esau is famished and sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. In the Torah’s next scene about Esau and Jacob, their blind father Isaac wants to give Esau a blessing. Rebecca, the twins’ mother, commands Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing. Jacob protests:

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

 sa-ir = hairy; he-goat

chalak = smooth, slippery

So Rebecca not only dresses Jacob the snaky  in Esau’s clothes, but also covers his arms and neck “with skins of goat kids” (Genesis 27:16), and Isaac gives the blessing he intended for Esau to Jacob. Enraged by the “theft” of his blessing, Esau rashly swears he will murder his brother, and Jacob leaves for his uncle Lavan’s house in Aram.

In the next Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob completes his 14 years of service to Lavan in lieu of bride-prices for Lavan’s daughters Leah and Rachel. He gives notice to his employer/uncle/father=in-law, but Lavan 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 said: Designate your wage to me, and I will give it. (Genesis 30:27-28)

nichashti = I sought an omen; (from the same root as nachash = snake)

Lavan almost said, “I sought a snake, and God has blessed me on account of you.” The serpentine Jacob makes a clever bargain and works for another six years in exchange for far more livestock than Lavan expected. Meanwhile, we learn, Esau has moved to the land of Sei-ir = hairy goat, and become its chieftain.

Twenty years after Jacob fled to avoid being murdered by his brother, he finally heads back toward Canaan. Now he has a large family, servants, and abundant flocks and herds.  In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (And he sent), Jacob sends messengers ahead, and they return with the news that Esau is marching to meet him—with 400 men. Frightened, Jacob takes three precautions: he divides his people into two camps (see my blog “Vayishlach: Two Camps”), he prays to God, and he sends extravagant gifts to Esau: 220 goats, 220 sheep, 60 camels, 50 cows, and 30 donkeys.

The night before they meet in person, each man battles with his inner god or demon. (The Torah describes how Jacob wrestles with a “man” who turns out to be a messenger of God. I think Esau must go through his own struggle that night, after the surprise of receiving a fortune in livestock from Jacob, so I wrote a Torah monologue about it.) In the morning, the estranged brothers meet.

Jacob raised his eyes and he saw—hey! Esau was coming, and with him 400 men! So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two slave-women. And he put the slave-women and their children first, and Leah and her children behind them, and Rachel and Joseph behind them. Then he himself passed ahead of them, and he bowed to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. And Esau ran to meet him, and he embraced him, and he fell upon his neck, and he kissed him; vayiveku . (Genesis/Bereishit 33:1-4)

vayiveku = and they wept out loud. (In the Torah, people weep out loud at moments of strong emotion, including relieved joy, lamentation, pleading, and remorse.)

When the goat and the snake meet again, they both weep out loud, perhaps in relief, perhaps in remorse. Perhaps they both have evolved enough to see the divine in one another. Jacob (who was always more verbal, even smooth-tongued) says:

If, please, I have found favor in your eyes, then you will take my tribute from my hand; inasmuch as I saw your face, like seeing the face of God, and you were well-disposed toward me. (Genesis 33:10)

Thus the twin brothers, opponents since birth, finally meet in peace. But their family reunion is brief and fragile.  Esau does invite Jacob to travel with him as far as  Seir. But Jacob does not dare go to the land of goats; he cannot rush headlong into a trusting friendship the way Esau can. The serpentine Jacob politely says he will catch up later—and then heads in another direction. The two brothers do not see one another again until their father’s funeral.

Esau and Jacob do better than the other mismatched pairs in Genesis; nobody dies, and nobody is driven away. Yet a goat and a snake cannot become close friends and go home together. Esau and Jacob must part and head for their 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 all learn, like Jacob and Esau, to greet them in peace, and part from them in peace.

Vayishlach: Two Camps

December 7, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei, Vayishlach | Leave a comment

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, (And he went), Jacob is feeling successful and confident (a rare mood for him).  He is returning to Canaan as the head of a large extended household, and the owner of a great wealth of livestock—material blessings he wanted so much in his youth that he tried to steal them from his brother Esau.  Furthermore, he has just freed himself from Lavan, his manipulative uncle, father-in-law, and boss.  Now he sees angels, messengers of God, for the first time since he left Canaan 20 years before.

Jacob went on his way, and messengers of God encountered him.  And Jacob said, when he saw them:  This is a camp of God!  So he called the name of that place Pair-of-Camps.  (Genesis/Bereishit 32:2-3)

machaneh = camp, temporary protective enclosure; from the root chaneh = encamp, stay temporarily, lay siege against

machanayim = pair of camps

This is the first time the word machaneh, “camp”  appears in the Torah, and in this first reference the word means a group of people who have set up their tents to spend the night.  Jacob sees that the same place holds two camps:  his earthly camp of people and animals, and God’s heavenly “camp” of angels.

Or does the camp of angels also belong to Jacob?  He is the one who sees God’s messengers, the patriarch who is vulnerable to divine visitations.  A pair of camps in the same place might also mean a pair of camps in the same person:  Jacob as a clan leader focused on material things, and Jacob as the carrier of Abraham’s connection with God.

These two roles are not in conflict yet.  His return to Canaan both liberates his family and followers from Lavan and takes a step toward fulfilling his covenant with God. With both sides of his life going well, Jacob feels bold enough to send messengers to his estranged brother Esau at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (And he sent).

The messengers return with the news that Esau  is coming to meet him, accompanied by  400 men, a common number for a fighting unit.  Jacob’s new confidence and unity of purpose collapses.  He succumbs to fear and anxiety once more.

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 camps.  And he said:  If Esau comes to the first camp and strikes it down, the remaining camp will survive.  (Genesis 32:8-9)

Yet when they cross the Jordan and stop at the Yabbok River, everyone is together.  Once again, it seems there are two camps in the same place—or two camps in the same person.  Jacob alludes to this when he prays to God to save him and his family from Esau:

I am too insignificant for all the kindnesses and all the security that you provided your servant; for with my walking-stick I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.  (Genesis 32:11)

On one level, Jacob is thanking God for fertility and prosperity,  enough to fill up two camps.  On another level, he is anticipating a battle with his twin brother.  Jacob knows Esau’s rage 20 years before was justified.  He knows he is guilty of cheating Esau out of both his birthright and his father’s blessing.  In one inner camp, Jacob is grateful for his earthly success.  In the other camp, he knows he does not deserve it.  His guilty conscience is preparing to lay siege to his ego.

Jacob sends off servants with lavish gifts of livestock to propitiate Esau.  Everyone else settles down for the night in “the camp” on the Yabbok river.  Unable to sleep, Jacob gets up in the middle of the night and moves the whole physical camp across the river.  Then he crosses back, alone.

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

The “man” represents many different things, from a face (or messenger) of God to Jacob himself. I think Jacob’s material ego wrestles with with his spiritual soul.  The side that only wants family, peace, and prosperity for himself wrestles with the side that knows God is running the show and using him to transmit the religion of Abraham.

Neither camp wins the struggle.  The material Jacob emerges limping.  The spiritual Jacob takes the name Yisrael, which means “God rules”.  In the morning, the material Jacob organizes his retainers and his family so that the ones he loves the most are in the back, farthest from the threat of Esau.  Jacob bows to his brother seven times, as if he were a king, and calls him “my lord”.  But Esau greets Jacob with kisses and tears, and calls him “brother”.

The word for “camp” comes up again when Esau asks about the gifts of livestock that Jacob sent him:  And what do you mean by all this camp that I met?  (Genesis 33:8)

To call servants leading groups of animals a “camp” is a stretch.  But Esau’s underlying question is:  What do you mean by all this defensive maneuvering, as if you were an opposing force laying siege against me and my men?

He said:  To find favor in my lord’s eyes.  And Esau said:  I have plenty of substance, my brother.  Let what is yours be yours.  (Genesis 33:8-9)

Jacob persuades Esau to keep the gifts, because he, too, has lots of substance.  The two substantial brothers go their separate ways, both leaders of clans (as in the right of the firstborn) and both possessing wealth (as in the blessing their father intended for Esau).

And Jacob came shaleim to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, as he traveled in from Paddan Aram; and he encamped facing the city.  (Genesis 33:18)

shaleim = whole, complete, undivided, safe and sound, in peace

It sounds as if Jacob is finally whole, finally just one camp, after going through his night of wrestling, his renaming, and  his reunion with Esau.  Alas, the rest of this week’s Torah portion portrays a Jacob who is divided, insecure, indecisive, and in need of reminders that he vowed to return to Bethel to worship God.  Jacob is still two camps.

To be human is to be divided by opposing psychological forces.  Sometimes I have a good day, and I feel whole.  I may foolishly think I have resolved my own inner conflict between the need to retreat into a simple life of comfort, and the need to rise to the challenge of a religious calling.    But then the wrestler reappears, and I know that I am still two camps.

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