Parshat Vayishlach: Who Did Jacob Actually Wrestle?
VAYISHLACH Torah reading: Gen. 32.4-36.43.
UNIVERSAL TORAH: VAYISHLACH
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah reading: Gen. 32.4-36.43. Haftara: Obadiah 1.1-21 (Optional substitution: Hosea 11.7-12.12).
THE ENCOUNTER WITH ESAU
At the end of the previous parshah, VAYEITZEI, we saw Jacob at MOUNT Gil’ad in his final encounter with Laban, who represents the evil husk in its spiritual manifestation, fake CHESSED-kindness. At Mount Gil’ad, Jacob made a “treaty” with Laban demarcating the boundaries which they and their descendants were to observe: these are the boundaries that neither good nor evil may overstep in the unfolding drama of human history. In prevailing over Laban, Jacob demonstrated that he had made a complete acquisition of Abraham’s quality of CHESSED. As discussed in connection with previous parshahs, it was Abraham who went to the MOUNTAIN, and thus Jacob’s “treaty” with Laban was struck at MOUNT Gil’ad.
In the present parshah, VAYISHLACH, we see Jacob struggling with the evil husk in its material manifestation, the “fallen” GEVUROS, worldly power and strength, as embodied in Esau, man of the FIELD. Thus at the beginning of the parshah, Jacob, who is about to enter the Promised Land, sends emissaries ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the FIELD of Edom (Gen. 32:4).
Esau was called the “man of the field” (Gen. 25:27), having received the trait of GEVURAH, power and strength, from Isaac, who, as the embodiment of holy GEVURAH, self-discipline, “went out to the field” (Gen. 24:63). However, the aspect of GEVURAH which Esau received from Isaac was the excess, unholy aspect: Esau’s “field” was the wild outdoors. Thus later on, the Torah writes: “And if IN THE FIELD the man finds the engaged girl and the man takes hold of her and lies with her, that man that lay with her shall die, he alone… for as a man rises up against his neighbor and murders him, so is this matter” (Deut. 22:25). This FIELD of rape and murder is the field of idolatrous slaughter: “the sacrifices that they slaughter on the face of the FIELD… their sacrifices to the GOAT-demons (SE’IRIM) that they lust after them…” (Leviticus 17:5-7). According to the Rabbis, on the day when Esau came in “from the field” (Gen. 25:29) and sold his birth-right to Jacob, Esau was “tired” from the three cardinal sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder.
In order for Jacob to complete his acquisition of the birth-right and enter and acquire the Promised Land, he had to demonstrate that together with the CHESSED he had inherited from his grandfather Abraham, he had also made a complete acquisition of the trait of holy GEVURAH embodied in his father Isaac. Jacob demonstrated this in his struggle with Esau, where he prevailed through applying his consummate wisdom and humility. Thus we find in our parshah that Jacob also made a treaty of boundaries and separation with Esau. This boundary will prevail “… until I will come to my lord to Seir” (Gen. 33:14) — “And when will he go? In the days of Mashiach, as it says, And the saviors will go up on Mount Zion to judge the house of Esau” (Ovadiah 1:21, in our haftara, see Rashi on Gen. 33:14). A substantial portion of our parshah is devoted to Esau, including the concluding section, which traces all the generations of Esau, including Amalek (Gen. 36:12) the historical counterfeit of Israel, and Rome (Gen. 36:43, “Magdiel”, see Rashi ad loc.).
Jacob was first characterized as “a dweller of tents” (Gen. 25:27) — the “tent” of Abraham (CHESSED) and the “tent” of Isaac (GEVURAH). “Planting” tents in a field turns the FIELD into a place of residence. Jacob’s mission was to join and synthesize the holy traits of his fathers and teachers, CHESSED and GEVURAH, in order to build TIFERES, truth, beauty and balance. This is the HOUSE, the House of Jacob — the HOUSE, family and people of Israel, and also the archetypal, model physical HOUSE that is to serve to guide all mankind to return to G-d, the “House of Prayer for all the Nations”, the “HOME” of G-d: the HOLY TEMPLE. In the course of our parshah, we see Jacob busy building houses. He travels to Succos, “TABERNACLES” — temporary homes. There Jacob built himself a HOUSE while making booths for his livestock.
Jacob then came “COMPLETE” to SheCheM (Gen. 33:18). The Hebrew word for “complete” is ShaLeM — made up of the letters Shin, signifying fire, GEVUROS, Mem signifying water, CHASADIM, and the transcendent center-column Lamed, that shoots upwards exactly like the Vav on top of the Kaf from which the Lamed is formed. SheKheM signifies SHAFEL, the lowly material world, KOCHAVIM, the stars and constellations that direct what happens here, and the MALACHIM, the angels or the spiritual forces which “drive” the stars and planets (Likutey Moharan I:9). In Shechem, Jacob “acquired the lot of the FIELD in which he PLANTED HIS TENT…” (Gen. 33:17-19). Finally, at the climax of our parshah, “And Jacob said to his HOUSE and to all that were with him, remove the strange gods that are in you and purify yourselves and change your garments. And let us arise and go up to the HOUSE of G-d…” (Gen. 35:2-3). And then the House of Jacob was complete: “And the sons of Jacob were twelve” (Gen. 35:22).
Jacob could only succeed in building this HOUSE, the House of Israel and its center HOUSE, the Holy Temple, after having won a complete victory over Esau, representing ASIYAH, the world of material action, with its many traps and dangers. When the Temple stands, order prevails, and atonement is brought to Israel and the world through sending the SEIR-goat of atonement away to die in the wilderness (Lev. 16:21-22).
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A GIFT, A PRAYER… AND/OR WAR
Esau came against Jacob with the implacable envy and enmity of the serpent towards Adam, for “he will stamp on you on the head and you will bite him at the heel (AKEV)” (Gen. 3:15). Even when Esau kissed, he really came to bite (see Baal HaTurim on “and he kissed him” Gen. 33:4 — “in gematria, ‘and he came to bite him'”). Jacob, YaAKOV, was so named because he “gripped the heel (AKEV)” of Esau (Gen. 25:26). This was how Jacob reclaimed Adam’s greatness, the REISHIS, “head” or “birth-right”, thereby stamping on and crushing the serpent’s head.
Esau came with 400 men, the legions of death. 400 corresponds to the Hebrew letter Tav, last letter of the Aleph Beis, the ultimate in multiplicity. 400 signifies a complete array of numbers — 10 x 10 — on all four sides: number, measurement and limitation everywhere. This multiplicity stands counter to G-d’s unity, represented by Jacob and his twelve sons (the twelve constellations and twelve hours, time and space), arranged in order in a square (= perfect balance) around the House, the Sanctuary, the BAYIS (from BereishYS), which ends in the letter TAV. The House of Jacob comes to overcome death, MAVES, which also ends with the letter TAV. For “her feet go down to death” (Proverbs 5:5) — plurality, the worship of many gods.
Esau’s GEVURAH was BRAWN, the power of physical force. (“I have abundance” Gen. 33:9). But Jacob overcame Esau’s brawn through BRAIN, ROSH, (“kopf”), the wisdom gained from Jacob’s synthesis: this is the TIFERES-DAAS center-column, the faculty of “putting things together” (CHOCHMAH and BINAH, CHESSED and GEVURAH). This is achieved through GIVE AND TAKE. Thus Jacob is the ultimate in humility: “I am too SMALL for all Your kindnesses” (Gen. 32:11). “Say they belong to YOUR SERVANT Jacob, a gift sent to MY LORD Esau” (ibid. v. 19). “And he PROSTRATED to the ground seven times until he approached his brother…” (33:3).
For Jacob is Ya-AKOV, the one who grasps the heel, and “the HEEL (AKEV) of humility is FEAR OF G-D” (Proverbs 22:4) — “how AWESOME is this Place” (Gen. 28:17). The fear of G-d is the “beginning” of wisdom, the REISHIS, the birth-right (the Hebrew letters of the word REISHIS include the letters of the word YA-RE, “he is in awe”). For “the BEGINNING of wisdom, CHOCHMAH, is FEAR OF G-D” (Psalms 111:10) and “what wisdom made her crown, humility made the sandle on her heel (AKEV)” (Midrash).
Jacob knows that this world is but the heel of an entire system of worlds, and this is what gives him his mastery over this world. He is able to use this world to serve G-d by configuring and ordering the world properly. Jacob understands that there has to be give and take with Esau. He understands that Esau has chosen This World. Jacob thus “bribes” Esau with the “goat for Azazel”, the gift of material wealth, which Jacob, as the source of all blessings, has the power to draw down and channel to the world.
The abundant gifts of livestock that Jacob sends to Esau contain a message. Rashi on Gen. 32:15 brings a midrash showing how the varying ratio of males to females among the different kinds of live-stock alludes to the appropriate ONAH or time of conjugal union for people in different walks of life (see Rashi there). In other words, the same Jacob who sent messages to Isaac in the “lentil soup” is now teaching the sexually wild Esau a lesson in how to tame and direct animal lust for the sake of good breeding. In this way, Jacob’s material “gift” to Esau brings order and rectification to the world of ASIYAH.
Jacob offers peace and gifts (CHESED), but he is prepared for war to the very end (GEVURAH). Yet in his humility, Jacob knows that all the gifts and all the might of ASIYAH will not prevail against Esau without the help of G-d. “He prepared himself for three things: for a gift, for PRAYER and for war” (Rashi on Gen. 32:9). Prayer is at the center, in between CHESSED (gifts) and GEVURAH (war). “And Jacob said: G-d of my father Abraham and G-d of my father Isaac….” (Gen. 32:10).
Jacob struggled with Esau’s root — his SAR (“guardian angel”) — and it was his success against the angel that enabled him to prevail over Esau himself. Jacob’s success was WIN/WIN, for even Esau gained what he really wanted: the material glory of this world. While Esau takes the material wealth, Jacob struggles to find the inner “face”, the roots and inner meaning of the wealth and glory of this world. Thus Jacob calls the place of his struggle with the angel PENI-EL, “for I saw G-d FACE TO FACE” (Gen. 32:31). Yet in order for the world to continue to exist after we uncover the inner face, there has to be give and take. Jacob gets injured “in the leg” — HOD. In this world, KULO OMER KAVOD, “everything cries out glory”. In the very outcry of worldly glory, G-d’s glory becomes concealed! As a result, Jacob’s children — “the legs” — “do not eat from the slipped tendon” (GID HANASHEH). The Children of Israel are unable to eat all the material blessings of this world because of the blemished glory. In this world the glory is taken by Esau, for if Jacob’s glory, the glory of Israel, were fully revealed, there would be no free will.
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THE SIN OF THE MEN OF SHECHEM
The integrity of the House — the family — of Jacob depends upon family PURITY, observance of the laws of sexual decency and restraint. “Shall our sister be treated like a prostitute?” (Gen. 34:31). Moral purity is the very foundation of the Covenant of Abraham, which is sealed in the flesh of the male Children of Israel on the organ of procreation, indicating the need to restrain animal lust and elevate it in the service of G-d in order to breed righteous children to “guard the way of HaShem” (Gen. 18:19).
The rape of Dinah was a violation of this integrity by Shechem the son of Hamor (= donkey, physical animality) the Chivi (Chivia in Aramaic is “serpent” see Targum on Gen. 3:1). Shechem is the opposite of Joseph “the Tzaddik”, the archetype of sexual discipline, who restrains himself with Potiphar’s wife and eventually receives SheKheM (the three worlds, the lowly world, that of the stars and that of the angels, as discussed above) as well as — according to the midrash — marrying Dinah’s daughter = Osnath.
Dinah’s urge to go out and about “to see the daughters of the land” (a trait unbefitting the daughter of Jacob) exposed her to danger in a world that was still untamed. Abraham and Isaac had both faced trials because of the fallen morality of the Egyptians and the Philistines. Now Jacob’s own daughter is raped by Shechem the Hittite, descendant of the accursed Canaan, son of Ham.
According to Torah law, Dinah, as a PENUYAH, “unmarried”, was not forbidden to Shechem. What was forbidden was the manner in which he “saw her… and he TOOK her and lay with her”: Shechem kidnapped Dinah. His crime was the violation of the Noachide Law against stealing, which prohibits the unlawful taking not only of goods but of people. The crime of the men of Shechem who were sitting “in the gate of their city” (Gen. 34:20) — i.e. they were the judges of the city — was that they watched this violation of Noachide law and did nothing.
In the words of Rambam (Maimonides) Laws of Kings 9:14: “In what way are they (the Children of Noah) commanded with regard to the rule of law? They are obliged to establish judges and magistrates in every region to judge cases relating to the other six commandments, and to warn the population. And any of the Children of Noah who violates one of these seven commandments is to be killed by the sword. AND FOR THIS REASON THE RULERS OF SHECHEM WERE LIABLE TO EXECUTION, for Shechem STOLE and they saw and they knew and they did not bring him to justice…”
The zeal of Levy and Shimon in perpetrating justice did not escape Jacob’s censure, both in our parshah (Gen. 34:30) and in his blessings to his sons before his death (Gen. 49:5, “Shimon and Levi are brothers, weapons of might are their swords… Accursed is their anger… I will divide them among Jacob and scatter them among Israel…”) Zeal is necessary yet dangerous. It is controlled when the zealots are divided and scattered. Levi was “scattered” by having to go around to all the farms to collect the Levitical tithes. This honorable scattering was the reward for the zeal showed by the tribe later on, at the time of the sin of the golden calf. However, Shimon’s zeal was not so pure, and led to excess, as when the Zimri, Prince of the tribe of Shimon, took Kozbi the Midianite and challenged Moses. (Zimri was killed by Pinchas, son of Aaron from the tribe of Levi, exemplar of Holy Zeal). To rectify the challenge to Moses by the Prince of the House of Shimon, members of the tribe of Shimon were “scattered” by having to become scribes and teachers of Moses’ Torah (see Rashi on Gen. 49:7).
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LET US GO UP TO THE HOUSE OF G-D
The significance of the section of the parshah describing Jacob’s “pilgrimage” with his family to Beth El, the HOUSE of G-d, has been discussed above. At Beth El, Jacob’s acquisition of the birthright and the Promised Land was sealed, and he attained his name of greatness — Israel — from the mouth of G-d.
The House of Jacob was completed by the birth of Benjamin, who was the only one of Jacob’s twelve sons to be born in the Land of Israel and who founded the tribe that was to contribute the first king of Israel, Saul, who was “head and shoulders above all the men of Israel” in his outstanding modesty and righteousness. Shamai, the Mishnaic Tanna and Av Beis Din (“father of the court”) in the time of Hillel the Elder, was a descendant of King Saul, while Hillel, who was the Nasi or Prince (and as such, the highest in rank) was a descendant of King David. Thus the MACHLOKES (controversy) throughout the SHAS (6 orders of Mishneh), between BEIS SHAMAI and BEIS HILLEL is bound up with the struggle between Judah (son of Leah) and Benjamin (son of Rachel). This struggle is resolved through the process of clarifying the halachah, which practically always follows the opinion of Beis Hillel.
Conflict and its resolution is the theme of all the remaining parshiyos in the book of Genesis from next week (VAYESHEV) until the end of Genesis (VAYECHI). This is the story of the rectification of the world, which comes about through Mashiach son of David (who is from the tribe of Judah, son of Leah) and Mashiach son of Joseph (son of Rachel). In order to clear the way for the story of rectification, namely the story of Joseph and his brothers (in which the bond between Judah and Benjamin plays a central part), the Torah concludes our parshah of VAYISHLACH with an account of the generations of Esau. The theme of sexual immorality recurs in this account, for several of Esau’s children and grandchildren were MAMZERIM (bastards — see Rashi on Gen. 36:2 and 36:12 etc.)
This account ends with the account of the Seven Kings who ruled over Edom — and died — before there was a king in Israel. It is well known that these Seven Kings allude to the seven “fallen” Sefiros of the World of TOHU (devastation), while the last-mentioned king — the eighth, of whom it does not say “and he died” — is Hadar = Abraham, father of the World of Rectification.
This throws light on the meaning of Rashi’s first comment on next week’s parshah (on Gen. 37:1): “After the Torah writes for you the dwellings of Esau and his generations in brief, since they were not sufficiently important to tell in detail… the Torah now comes to the dwellings of Jacob and his generations at length and all the cycles (GILGULIM) of causes, for they are important before G-d… It can be compared to a jewel that fell in the sand. A person feels through and sieves all the sand until he finds the jewel. And when he finds the jewel, he throws away the pebbles and takes the jewel.”
Avraham Yehushua Greenbaum