Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Seduction of Dinah,
by James Tissot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touching the heart

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

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

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

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

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

David’s Grief over Absalom, Bible card

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not touching the heart

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

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

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

Dinah’s Brothers Attack Shekhem
(artist unknown)

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

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

*

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

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

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

 

Vayishlach: A Partial Reconciliation

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

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

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

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

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

chein (חֵן) = favor, approval.

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

The blessing that Isaac gave to Jacob instead of Esau included the words:

Be an overlord to your kinsmen, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. (Genesis 27:29)

Now Jacob’s message intimates that the reverse of the blessing is true; Esau is Jacob’s overlord, and Jacob will bow down to him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

birkhati (בִּרְכָתִי) = my blessing.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

 

 

 

Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1

Joseph cries eight times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, more often than any other individual in the Hebrew Bible.  Only the Israelites as a whole are recorded as breaking into sobs more often.

Joseph Cast into the Pit, by Owen Jones

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

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

Bowing to the ground in Egypt
Egyptian relief of slaves bowing

First sob

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second sob

Joseph is Governor, by Owen Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third sob

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth sob

Benjamin Returns to Egypt, by Owen Jones

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

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

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

Fifth sob

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

 

Vayishlach: Blessing Yourself

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

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

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.

Bereishit & Toledot: Seeing Red

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 for the color “red”: adom, אָדֺם.

Bereishit–blood red

After Cain kills Abel in the first Torah portion of Genesis, Bereishit, God tells Cain:

“What have you done? The voice of the damim of your brother is crying out to me from the adamah!”  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:10)
damim (דֱָמִים) = shed blood. (plural of damדָּם = blood.)
adamah (אֲדָמָה) = 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.

Toledot–red man, red stew

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Histories”), tells the story of the twins Esau and Jacob, from their conception until they are in their forties and  Jacob flees because Esau is threatening to kill him.

Then her days of pregnancy were completed, and hey! –twins were in her womb.  And the first one went out, admoni all over like a fur robe of hair, and they called his name Eisav.  And after that his brother went out, and … they called his name Jacob.. (Genesis 25:24-26)

admoni (אַדְמוֹנִי) = reddish.

Eisav (עֵשָׂו) = Do it, get it done. (From the verb asahעָשָׂה = do.) “Esau” in English.

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 beast.

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.  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 famished.  And Esau said to Jacob: “Please let me gulp down some of the adom— this adom— because I am famished.”  Therefore his name was called Edom.  (Genesis 25:29-30)

Edom (אֳדוֹם) = a people who later lived in the hill country east of the Jordan river valley, supposedly descended from Esau.  (From the same root as adom = red.)

Jacob takes advantage of his incoherent brother’s request by charging an exorbitant price for the stew.

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?”  Then 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 25:31-34)

The Mess of Pottage, by Wnceslas Holler, 17th c.

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.1

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.2

Thus 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 the Torah portion Vayeitzei) he meets his match in his cold, calculating uncle Lavan—whose name means “white” in Hebrew.  Yet some color finally comes into Jacob’s black-and-white life, as he 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, אָדָם = the human, humankind. (From the same root as adom = red.) Then we will all truly deserve the right of the firstborn to speak with and offer gifts to God.


  1. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, pp. 561-562.
  2. Helen Luke, Kaleidoscope, Parabola Books, New York, 1992, p. 225.