Vayishlach: Message to a Brother

November 11, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | 2 Comments
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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.

Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Two Camps

December 7, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei, Vayishlach | 1 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 that he wanted so much in his youth that he tried to steal them from his brother Esau, who was the firstborn son and therefore their father’s heir.  Furthermore, he has just freed himself from Lavan, his manipulative uncle, father-in-law, and employer.

When he stops to camp for the night, 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 machaneh of God!  So he called the name of that place Machanayim.  (Genesis/Bereishit 32:2-3)

machaneh (מַחֲנֶה) = camp, temporary protective enclosure.

machanayim (מַחֲנָיִם) = pair of camps.

This is the first time the word machaneh appears in the Torah.  Repeating the word in the duplex form is unusual; the Torah often refers to a pair of eyes, for example, but camps do not usually come in pairs.  What Jacob sees is 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 him and his family  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 machanot.  And he said:  If Esau comes to the first machaneh and strikes it down, the remaining machaneh will survive.  (Genesis 32:8-9)

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

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 machaneh.  (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 machaneh on the Yabbok river.  Unable to sleep, Jacob gets up in the middle of the night and moves the whole physical machaneh 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 machaneh comes up again when Esau asks about the gifts of livestock that Jacob sent him:  And what do you mean by all this machaneh 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 substance.  The two substantial brothers go their separate ways.  Each one is the leader of a clan (which is the right of the firstborn) and each one is wealthy (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 yichan in front of the city.  (Genesis 33:18)

shaleim (שָׁלֵם)= whole, complete, undivided, safe and sound, in peace.

yichan (יִחַן) = he encamped.  (From the same root as machaneh.)

It sounds as if Jacob is finally whole, finally just one camp, after going through his night of wrestling 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.

 

Toledot & Vayishlach: Seeing Red

November 24, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Toledot, Vayishlach | 3 Comments

The book of Genesis/Bereishit explores a series of conflicts between brothers, and one between sisters.  Two of these conflicts feature an especially hot-blooded, emotional brother, and both of these use various permutations of the word adom, “red”.

After Cain kills Abel, God tells Cain:

The voice of the blood of your brother is crying out from the ground!  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:10)
dam = blood
adamah = ground, dirt, earth

Both Hebrew words come from the same root as adam (“human”, also the name of the father of Cain and Abel, whom God makes out of dirt in Chapter 2).  To be human is, among other things, to be red.  Dam, “blood”, is obviously red.  And traditional commentary explains that uncultivated earth (at least in the world described by the Torah) is red clay.

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“histories”), tells the story of the twins Esau and Jacob, from their conception to age 40, when Jacob flees because Esau is threatening to kill him.

And her days of pregnancy were completed, and hey!  twins were in her womb.  And the first one went out, red all over like a fur robe of hair, and they called his name Esau.  And after that his brother went out, and his hand held onto the heel of Esau, so he called his name Jacob … (Genesis 25:24-26)

admoni = reddish

eisav = Esau; do it, get it done

ya-akov = Jacob; he heels, he follows, he is cunning

Even at birth, Esau is red.  (The text is not clear about whether he has ruddy skin and is covered with hair, or whether his fur-like hair is reddish.  Either way, he is born red, like blood, and hairy, like a wild man.)

Since Esau is born a moment before Jacob, he counts as the firstborn son.  In the world of the Torah, when the patriarch of an extended family dies, his firstborn son inherits  a double portion of his father’s possessions, and also becomes the family’s priest or intercessor with God.  Yet in this story, when Esau grows up and becomes a hunter, he does not care about the role of the firstborn.  Jacob, who stays in the tents, cares very much.

Jacob stewed a stew, and Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted.  And Esau said to Jacob:  “Please, let me gulp down some of the red– this red– because I am exhausted.”

Therefore he called his name Edom.

And Jacob said:  “Hand over, as of today, your right as firstborn to me”.

And Esau said:  “Hey, I am going toward death, so what is this to me, a firstborn right?”

And Jacob said:  “Swear to me, as of today!”  And he swore to him, and he handed over his firstborn right to Jacob.  And as for Jacob, he gave to Esau bread and a stew of lentils.  And he ate and he drank and he got up and he went.  Thus he belittled the right of the firstborn.  (Genesis 25:29-34)

Edom = a people who later lived east of the Jordan valley, supposedly descended from Esau.  (The Hebrew word comes from the same root as adom = red.)

On a literal level, this story amuses me, because I often make stew from red lentils, and it always comes out a golden color.  Other kinds of cooked lentils are dark brown or green-brown—but never red.  Did someone who never cooked write down this story, and get the detail about lentils wrong?  I prefer to assume that Jacob is so clever, he adds an ingredient to his stew that will make even lentils look red enough to attract Esau’s attention.

Esau sees food, and the color red.  He does not notice the lentils.  He cannot even find the word for stew.  The 19th-century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the color red delights Esau because it reminds him of the blood on an animal when his arrow hits it.

The 20th-century psychologist Helen Luke wrote that red is the color of instinct, impulse, and emotion.  She added that Esau, who is controlled by the color red, is in danger of losing all civilizing tendencies and becoming evil.  Jacob, his opposite, is in danger of repressing or denying all instinct and emotion, and becoming evil.  I conclude that neither the man of blood-red violence nor the bloodless schemer is a good candidate for the spiritual role of the firstborn, the one who speaks with and makes offerings to God.

I think Jacob sees the world as black and white, divided between losers and winners.  Since he sees the firstborn as the winner in the family, he applies his intelligence to acquiring that role.  He suppresses any emotional impulses in order to carry out first his own scheme for taking his brother’s birthright, then his mother’s scheme for stealing his brother’s blessing.  Jacob may not savor his food as much as Esau, but he knows how to plan ahead.

Esau sees only red.  Carried away by one emotion after another during the Torah portion of Toledot, he carries out his impulses and lives for the moment.  In the passage translated above, he gives away his birthright to appease one day’s feelings of hunger and despair.  Later in the Torah portion, he weeps like a child when he finds out Jacob has stolen the blessing their father intended for Esau.  Then he becomes so angry he threatens to kill Jacob as soon as their father dies.

Jacob flees from him, and in a distant town he meets his match in his cold, calculating uncle Lavan—whose name means “white” in Hebrew.  Yet some color also comes into Jacob’s black-and-white life, as he impulsively falls in love with Lavan’s daughter Rachel.  Gradually he succeeds in becoming the leader of his own clan, through a combination of sensitivity to others’ emotions and rational long-term planning.

Meanwhile, Esau leaves home and learns how to be a leader.  When he hears that his twin and nemesis is coming his way (in the Torah portion Vayishlach), he plans ahead by bringing 400 men to meet Jacob on the road.  But he retains his emotional instincts, and when he sees Jacob bow to him, he runs over and embraces his brother.  The two older and wiser men pull off a peaceful reunion.

We all have some of Jacob’s black-and-white rationalism and some of Esau’s red emotionalism.  We can only be whole human beings when those two sides embrace.

Furthermore, in order turn our whole personality toward peace rather than toward evil, we must learn from the evolution of both brothers.  Jacob learns to use his black-and-white intellect to lay plans for the good of everyone, instead of for just his own advantage.  And Esau learns to move beyond seeing red as the blood shed in killing, and see red as the blood of life, shared with other humans.

If we can widen our vision enough, through both our intellects and our emotions, we will recognize that all human beings share the same blood; we are descendants of Adam, the red one.  Then we will all truly deserve the right of the firstborn to speak with God.

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