In this week’s Torah portion, Va-yishlach, we read about the reunion between Jacob and his twin brother Esau. On his journey back to Canaan, Jacob has to pass through Seir, the territory controlled by Esau. Jacob is told that his brother is coming to meet him and that he is bringing 400 men with him. Jacob is understandably afraid: He left Canaan twenty years earlier because his brother had vowed revenge. Accordingly, Jacob dispatches (va-yishlach) messengers to Esau bearing gifts, in the hope of avoiding a murderous confrontation. He also divides his family and property into two camps hopeful that, should he and his brother battle, one of the two groups will survive.
Before the reunion, Jacob spends the night alone. A mysterious stranger wrestles with him in a struggle that lasts until dawn. The stranger wrenches Jacob’s hip from its socket, injuring the sinew in his thigh. Despite the injury, Jacob refuses to release the man until he gives Jacob a blessing. In reply, the man renames Jacob as Israel saying to him “you have striven with beings Divine and human and you have won.” Israel means one who struggles with God. (From that day on, the Torah explains, Jacob walked with a limp, and the Jewish people do not eat the meat around the sciatic nerve of a kosher animal.)
The moment of the reunion arrives. Esau runs toward him and they hug each other and kiss. Esau does not want to accept Jacob’s presents but finally does when Jacob says to him “… to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” Esau wants Jacob and his household to travel on to Seir with him, but Jacob begs off on the grounds that his children and flocks are not up to the stress of the journey.
Jacob settles in Shechem. One day a Canaanite prince has sex with Dinah, Jacob’s daughter. The prince asks for her hand in marriage, and he and his father, who is named Hamor, suggest that Jacob and his family intermarry and enjoy the fruits of Canaanite prosperity. Jacob’s sons trick the Shechemites by pretending to agree – however, they stipulate that all the males of the city must undergo brit milah. While the Shechemites are recovering from their operations, Shimon and Levi, two of Dinah’s brothers, enter the town and kill all the males, taking the women and children captive, and gathering the livestock as booty. Jacob is angry, and he reminds his sons that they are but few in number and may easily be destroyed by the inhabitants of the land. The brothers respond that they were merely defending the honour of their sister.
God commands Jacob to go to Beit-El and build an altar there. Jacob cleanses his household of all the alien gods and departs. While traveling, Rachel goes into labour and gives birth to Benjamin, but she dies in childbirth. Jacob buries her on the road to Bethlehem. (Her tomb is still a popular pilgrimage site for Jews, especially for women who want to have children.) The parasha ends by recording the death of Isaac (at the age of 180!) and listing the descendants of Esau.
Although the text tells us that Jacob wrestled with a man, the commentators suggest that his opponent was not an ordinary person. The first interpreters of this strange story were the ancient rabbis. Some of them believed that Jacob’s opponent was the angel, Michael. His intention was to test Jacob’s strength and courage. Because Jacob did not give up until he had overcome his adversary, he earned the right to receive a new name, Israel. Rashi suggests a different interpretation. He argues that the “man” with whom Jacob wrestled was “Esau’s angel” – possibly a projection of his dread about meeting his brother. Rashi explains that, when Jacob discovered that he was wrestling with Esau’s angel, he realized that he might be able to convince Esau to forgive him for taking the blessing. So Jacob fought on, refusing to give up until Esau’s angel acknowledged his right to his own blessing.
Other commentators point out that the battle between Jacob and the angel took place inside Jacob’s mind. He could not meet his brother Esau without wrestling with the guilt that he felt about stealing both Esau’s birthright and blessing. Before Esau could forgive him, Jacob had to admit to himself that he had done wrong. He had to find the strength to become a better person, a different person. Jacob struggled within himself to become a more honest, fair, and just human being. Jacob emerged from the experience with renewed strength (and a new name!) and, only then, was he ready to reconcile with his brother.
The story of Dinah invites two opposing interpretations. The traditional understanding is that she has been raped by Shechem. But a close reading of the text does not support this interpretation. Genesis 34:2 reports that he sees Dinah, takes her (the Hebrew word for "take" is often used for taking a wife), lies with her (a euphemism for sexual intercourse), and shames her (the JPS translation combines the last two verbs, rendering "lay with her by force"). Then the next verse provides three expressions of affection: first it says he bonds with her (the JPS uses "was strongly drawn" to her, but the word bonds more appropriately represents a word used for marital bonding), then that he loves her, and finally that he speaks tenderly to her. From this description Shechem appears to be a man in love, not a man committing an exploitative act of rape. Rapists feel hostility and hatred toward their victims, not closeness and tenderness. Nowhere does the Torah suggest Dinah cried out for help, the Hebrew Bible’s criterion for forcible rape. Moreover, the Midrash states that when Shimon and Levi came to the city and killed Shechem and Hamor, they had to drag Dinah by force out of Shechem’s house (Genesis Rabbah 80:11).
But the question of whether Shechem raped or seduced Dinah is irrelevant. In the Torah’s worldview, a woman’s sexuality is a commodity to be controlled by her father before marriage and by her husband after marriage. By implication then, if a man has sexual intercourse with a free woman who is not his wife, he is violating another man’s property rights. A more appropriate comparison can be found in the contemporary laws on statutory rape, where because of the age of the person involved, consent is irrelevant. In the biblical laws, consent is irrelevant because the person is a female.
Some Thoughts and Questions
The Hebrew word “Yisrael” literally means “he who struggles with God.” Not only was Jacob’s name changed to Israel, but the Jewish people became known as Israelites and the Jewish homeland became known as the land of Israel. How does the name “Israel” reflect the experience of the Jewish people? Can you think of other Jews whose lives reflect a struggle with God? With what fears, feelings or ideas do you wrestle?
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, reminds us that the story of Jacob and Esau begins with their wrestling in their mother’s womb and culminates with Jacob’s wrestle in this week’s portion, in which he is transformed into Israel. Waskow calls this “Godwrestling” and suggests that even now, in our own time, we are all engaged in Godwrestling. In what ways do we as Jews continue to wrestle with Torah, God and prayer? Think about those aspects of Jewish life and belief that are hard for you to accept or understand. Describe your struggle as well as your efforts to overcome your difficulties. What people or experiences have helped you as you struggle for understanding?
How is Jacob a hero? How might Esau also be considered a hero?
Jacob wanted to return to Canaan, the place of his birth. He knew that this meant he would have to face his brother and the anger and pain which he, Jacob, had caused by stealing Esau’s blessings. Jacob knew that this meeting would require great courage. The brothers had spent twenty years apart. During that time they both had the opportunity to consider everything that had happened – the lying, the tricks, the desire for revenge, the loss, the separation. Their reunion teaches us a special kind of heroism reflected in the following rabbinic sayings: Ayze hu gibor? Ha’oseh soneh oh ohavo. Who is a true hero? The one who turns an enemy into a friend. (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 23) Ayze hu gibor? Ha’kovesh et yitzro. Who is a hero? One who conquers his or her impulses (Pirke Avot4:1) How do you define a hero? How is it possible to conquer an impulse like anger? … fear? … greed?
What do you think happened to Dinah after her brothers took her from Shechem’s house? (One midrash suggests that she was married to Job and was responsible for his becoming such a righteous man.)
Rabbi Morris Adler wrote: “Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask but when we are challenged to be what we can be.” (Modern Treasury of Jewish Thoughts) What do you think Jacob might have prayed for the night he struggled with “the man”? How were his prayers answered?