Student Teaching in the New Millenium

5771 Vayishlach

In Genesis on December 17, 2010 at 3:57 am

Who is the man Jacob struggles with? Does he struggle, literally, with God? “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Gen. 32:31) “But the Lord, the God of Hosts, the Lord is His name.” (Hosea 12:2). But is the man truly God? “I will not execute the fierceness of Mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim; For I am God, and not man, The Holy One in the midst of thee, And I will not come in fury.” (Hosea 11:9) Why the injury? Is this God trying to best Jacob? Or something else? Is this a physical reminder of God’s promise, and possibly a punishment for doubting it, that God will be with Jacob in all things? Jacob’s prayer to God is panicky and petulant: And Thou saidst: I will surely do thee good. (Gen. 32:13) I note that Jacob is frantic before this episode and composed afterwards. Is the thigh a proverbial slap in the face, a wake up call? “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou has striven with God and men, and hast prevailed.” (Gen. 32:29)

“Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day.” (Gen. 32:33) Why this break in the narrative? Aside from the injunction, where does this come from? Is this an insertion? This makes it look as if the entire passage is an insertion; is it?

I see in this parsha a allegory of the Yom Kippur service. Every Yom Kippur, we reflect on our deeds of the past year and beg forgiveness in the hopes of being inscribed in the Book of Life, that we and our generations may continue. As Jacob nears his homeland, he is reminded of the anger of Esau and, fearing for his life, begs God for help. “I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant…Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children. And Thou saidst: I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.” (Gen. 32:11-13) Yet, just as in Yom Kippur, the prayer atones us before God for things between us and God, but does not atone for those things that lie between us and other people. And, immediately after these trials, Jacob does his best to reconcile with Esau. “And he urged him, and he took it.” (Gen. 33:11)

It says that the sons of Jacob respond to Shechem and Hamor with guile. Jacob later rebukes Simeon and Levi for their actions. Rabbi Hertz points out that Jacob only rebukes his sons for their actions relative to his personal safety. I disagree. “Ye have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land.” I envision Jacob, taking council with his sons, approved the proposal that all of the men of Shechem and Hamor circumcise themselves before it was given. Although they may speak for the father, brothers do not make marriage arrangements in lieu of the father if he is present and able. Therefore, publicly, would the proposition have been Jacob’s? The text reads “to make me odious” and not “to make us odious” or “to make our people odious.” “Let my soul not come into their council; Unto their assembly let my glory not be united.” (Gen. 49:6) Simeon and Levi’s actions reflected on Jacob, not themselves.

Why does the parsha record the generations of Esau? Why does Jacob permit his company to keep “strange gods”? Why do they need to purify themselves? Purify themselves from what? Ritual impurity? Where and what are the laws of ritual purity at this point?

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