by Phyllis Chesler
November 27, 1999
Last year, I delivered my first-ever Dvar Torah on this parasha. This year, neither Dina’s rape nor Ya’akov’s solitary wrestling with God are as compelling for me, for I am transformed. My Vayishlach is now another Vayishlach. My reward for having worked on this parasha last year is that God has not only granted me another year, but another parasha as well. Abundant themes and details, new to me, emerge. Ice-skating rather fancifully through several centuries in Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando, is a fairly modest voyage when compared to the forward/backward time travel made possible by the study of Torah—a scroll small enough to unroll, in it’s entirety, in my shul on Simchat Torah, compact enough for us to carry for 40 years in the blazing Sinai wilderness, and for thousands of years thereafter, into all the lands of exile. In Torah, one time-travels at any one of a hundred levels of meaning: the historical, the narrative, the prophetic, the redemptive, the psychological, the legal, the mystic, the personal. Chagall had it right. In his paintings, stern and dreamy Jews dance with our Torah in the air, against both gravity and time.
Each time I study Torah, I find something there for me, personally. This is true for everyone. Some healing or enlightening perspective is there, waiting for you to find it. There is also something in the parasha that is larger than you, larger than a single person. It, too, is there, waiting to enlarge you—if you wrestle with the text: “Ki sarita im Elohim v’im anashim.”
This year, on Shabbat Vayishlach, I want to focus on the relationships between mothers and sons and between brothers in Genesis, both in Torah and in real life; I also want to focus on what it means to be “blessed” or Chosen by God.
In Genesis, older brothers are usually “men of the field,” hunters with hearty appetites, men of war. Abel, and his descendants (so to speak) are shepherds, tent-dwellers. I have always felt grave, maternal compassion for Cain (who “worked the earth”), and for his brother-descendants: Ishmael, that “wild ass of a man”; Esav, the hungry hunter; and Yosef’s older brothers, who slaughter all the male inhabitants of Shechem and throw Yosef into a pit.
Cain, the world’s first older brother, worked in the fields; he is our first “ish ha-sadeh.” Abel, whose offering God accepted, was a shepherd (Genesis 4:2). In other words, Abel has been blessed, and Cain, therefore, feels cursed. Immediately, God becomes a psycho-analyst: “Lama chara lach v’lama naflu panecha? Halo im teitiv si’eit?” “Why are you angry and why do you look so crestfallen? If you try again and do well, things will improve, i.e. your offering will be accepted” (Genesis 4:6-7).
Here we have it: The younger brother, whose offering God accepts, is perceived as one who has been blessed by God. This, in turn, enrages and shames his older brother. Cain’s envy, born of heartbreak, is so great, and Cain’s capacity to struggle with it so slight, that he kills Abel. “If I’m not the Chosen one, the bearer of the Blessing, then let there be no blessing-bearer.” Cain’s cry to God (Genesis 7:13), “Gadol avoni mineso” (My punishment is greater than I can bear), is echoed by Esav when he cries to Ya’akov: “Halo atzalta li bracha?” “Is there no blessing reserved for me?” (Genesis 27:36). According to Arthur Waskow, because Cain refused to wrestle with God about his less-acceptable offering, he instead kills his brother.[i]
Ishmael and Yitzhak have different mothers, as do Ya’akov’s children. Esav and Ya’akov have exactly the same parents; hence, they may be both extremely similar and extremely different. Ya’akov and Esav are twins. They may even look alike; only their voices may be different. They might, therefore, experience both their similarities and differences as terrifying.
Esav’s cry of pain is foreshadowed by his mother, Rivka, who is tormented during her pregnancy: Why am I suffering, what will become of me, why did I ever want to conceive? “Lama zeh anochi?” she cries (Genesis 25:22). When Esav comes in from the fields, he is exhausted and famished. “Hinei anochi holech lamut,” he says. “I am going to die.” He sells his birthright to Ya’akov so that he may live—at least, in that instant. (Genesis 35: 31-32) Later on, Rivka again manifests a deep depressive strain “Katzti b’hayai…lama li hayim,” she says. “I am disgusted with my life…why bother living?” (Genesis 27:46). It is important to note that while Rivka may “prefer” Ya’akov, Esav is also close to her, more “like” her in certain ways. Of course, Ya’akov has his mother Rivka’s capacity to leave home when destiny demands that he does.
Psychologically, Esav has inherited his father’s post-Akedah short-sightedness, and his mother’s pregnancy-related gloom. On the other hand, Ya’akov has inherited and even improved upon both his parents’ capacities to talk to and serve God. In this parasha, Esav is a good son; Esav never leaves home. Esav and Ya’akov bury their father together. (Genesis 35: 29).
Rivka is not merely “depressed.” Her “depression” is also a prophet’s gloom. Both Sarah and Rivka were prescient: Sarah knew that Avraham’s eldest son, Yishmael, had to be separated from his youngest son, Yitzhak; Rivka knew that Esav, her eldest, had to be separated from Ya’akov, her youngest. Her twin sons had different destinies and needed to grow into them separately, apart.[ii] Thus, in a sense, Rivka’s pregnancy-related pains may have continued for the rest of her life. Her role in facilitating both Ya’akov’s receipt of the birthright and his flight might have been known only to herself and Ya’akov. Rivka might never have shared this information with either Yitzhak or with Esav. A secret burden, indeed.
The Biblical Esav is an entirely sympathetic figure. I am puzzled by his eventual rabbinic demonization as Amalek and Edom—all the more so because Esav is also rabbinically praised for honoring his parents, e.g. he hunts for his father and remarries to please his mother. There is something simple and good-hearted about this ruddy, hairy, hunter-brother who relishes his lentil-porridge, who is at home in the rough-and-tumble of this world, who is satisfied when his senses are satisfied. Ya’akov takes advantage of Esav’s hunger or, according to a midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 63:11), his grief over his grandfather Avraham’s death.[iii]
In Freudian terms, Esav is more Id, Ya’akov, more Superego.
Ya’akov sends gift-bearing messengers to Esav to announce Ya’akov’s arrival. Ya’akov, limping, divides his women and children: The handmaids and their children first, the tender-eyed Leah and her children second, the beautiful Rachel and Yosef last. Why? Is it because Ya’akov prophetically “knows” that in the future, Yosef-the-Egyptian will rescue Yisrael from famine, or more plainly, is it because, psychologically, Ya’akov holds these two most dear? Are the prophetic and the psychological really different? Are these two dimensions also telling us something about Ya’akov’s character or style of leadership? In Aviva Zornberg’s view—absolutely.
In The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, Zornberg understands Ya’akov’s putting his most loved ones at the rear, as similar to his own style of leadership. Ya’akov leads “from behind”—“aharonim.” Ya’akov comes second, or last (hence his name, which comes from the word akev, the heel, the back of the foot).Ya’akov watches, waits, acts later, in a thoughtful, careful, hidden manner.[iv]
Like Cain—perhaps, even like Yishmael, Esav may have wanted to kill Ya’akov, who has tricked him out of his birthright. But, in fact, neither Yishmael nor Esav kill their younger brothers. Yishmael and Yitzhak reconcile; together, they bury their father. Here, (Genesis 33:4) Esav runs to meet Ya’akov (ratz likrato), falls on his neck (vayipol al tzavarav), and kisses him (vayishakehu). Together, the two brothers weep (vayivku). This is the most effusive brotherly embrace in the Torah. And, it is not the only time that Ya’akov is so embraced. His son Yosef magnanimously forgives his older half-brothers and then, like Esav, “falls on his [father Ya’akov’s] neck.” “Vayera elav, vayipol al tzavarav, vayevk al tzavarav od.” “And he presented himself to Ya’akov, and fell on his neck, and wept on his neck for a long time” (Genesis 46:29). Twice, Ya’akov’s neck has been fallen and wept upon. What is it about his neck? Ya’akov/Yisrael is a “stiff-necked” people; Ya’akov also “sticks his neck out”; he is bold, he takes big chances. Ya’akov became Yisrael because Ya’akov wouldn’t let God go until God blessed him. According to Tanhuma Vayishlach 4, “your neck,” in Shir Hashirim, refers to Ya’akov’s neck, which is made of “marble.”[v]
How stiff-necked is Ya’akov? Zvi Kolitz, an Israeli writer and former Irgun operative, wrote a remarkable short story titled Yosl Rakover Talks to God (1946). It is a Ya’akovian document. Just as Ya’akov, wrestling, won’t let God go until God blesses him, Zvi Kolitz’s fictional Yosel Rakover, a doomed fighter in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, won’t let God go—the Holocaust be damned! “You may insult me, You may chastise me, You may take from me the dearest and the best that I have in the world, You may torture me to death—I will always believe in You. I will love You always and forever—even despite You…I die exactly as I have lived, an unshakeable believer in You.”[vi]
Of course, this is also a Jobean concept: “Though [God] slay[s] me, yet will I trust in God” (Job 13:15).
In Vayishlach, we see that when Ya’akov is blessed, he is also literally wounded. Kolitz’s Rakover writes: “It is an honor to be a Jew. [A Jew] is a fighter, an eternal swimmer against the roiling, evil current of humanity…’There is nothing more whole than a broken heart,’ a great rabbi once said; and there is also no people more chosen than a permanently maligned one.”
The poet Charles Baudelaire, in his poem, “The Albatross,” gives us yet another poignant image of those blessed with the power of angel-flight. Baudelaire writes of what happens when an albatross, which can fly “in slow and elegant circles above the mast,” is lured by sailors to “entertain themselves.” Once trapped in their nets, “this aerial colossus, shorn of his pride/goes hobbling pitiably across the planks and lets/His great wings hang like heavy, useless oars at his side.” Baudelaire’s sailors tease, imitate, laugh at the grounded bird. Baudelaire concludes: “The Poet is like that wild inheritor of the cloud/A rider of storms, above the range of arrows and slings/Exiled on earth, at bay amid the jeering crowd/He cannot walk for his unmanageable wings.”[vii]
The chosen/the blessed are set apart, and as such, rendered vulnerable to murderous envy. Those who are blessed must, like Ya’akov, acknowledge that they have, inadvertently, hurt their brothers. This is what Ya’akov does when he refers to and addresses Esav as “my lord,” and when he bows down seven times to his older brother. Ya’akov is trying to restore honor to Esav as the first-born. Like Abraham who insisted on paying for the burial cave of Machpelah, Ya’akov insists that Esav take the material presents he has brought even though Esav protests that he does not need them.
Ya’akov finally understands he must return some part of the stolen “bracha.” More: Ya’akov understands that he must appease Esav’s anger, restore his lost honor: “Achaprah panav” (32:21). Nachmanides understands this as a ransom offering for his life.[viii] Leibowitz writes that prayer helped Ya’akov understand the difference between a “minha” and the partial return of a “blessing.”[ix]
Esav is bearing down upon him with 400 men; Jacob should be afraid. I would be. I have been. I have two younger brothers who cheated me of my mother’s love. As a daughter of my generation, I was denied many “blessings” and opportunities, including that of having a Bat Mitzva, an aliya, delivering a Dvar Torah in shul. Like Ya’akov, I also fled my home for more than twenty years—I lived a worldly life and forged a path without a family. (Esav lived close to home; Ya’akov lived with his maternal uncle). I yearn for the comfort of brothers. It is not to be: we are not about to “fall upon” each other’s necks.
In Vayishlach I learn that sharing the same womb is no guarantee that one will share one’s brothers’ character or destiny. As Ya’akov understands, it is wise for certain siblings to live apart. I wish things were different, but I accept them as they are.
Ya’akov’s very name remains connected to Esav, to their joint birth. Ya’akov’s name is changed to Yisrael only after a night of wrestling with Self and God.
After their brotherly embrace, it is no accident that Ya’akov moves on to Sukkot, and Esav back to Se’ir. Jews who repent on Yom Kippur move immediately into the holiday of Sukkot. Jews leave the comfort of home and eat in makeshift, outdoor booths to remind themselves that the physical world is a temporary one. Only when Ya’akov struggles with God, and with God’s angel, with himself, with his brother, with his brother’s guardian angel, does Ya’akov become Yisrael.
Although Ya’akov bows down to Esav, Esav is the one who bows to the inevitable—at least, in that single, amazing moment. This moment of brotherly embrace is both miraculous and momentary; momentary—and deceptive. That moment in which we recognize our common humanity and common blood in a brother who is profoundly different, is a powerful, poignant, terrifying moment.
Nechama Leibowitz quotes Rabbi S. R. Hirsh: “Esau betrays his Abrahamic origins and shows himself as not merely a cruel hunter…when the strong, i.e. Esau, falls on the neck of the weak, of Jacob, and casts his sword away, then we know that humanity and justice have prevailed.” Leibowitz views Esau as the progenitor of both Rome and Hitler; she lauds Ya’akov for not being taken in by the momentary ruse or by fleeting sentimentality. Ya’akov is right to “decline Esau’s offer to escort him. Jacob went his own way, alone.”[x]
Leibowitz also quotes Ha’amek Davar: “Both [Ya’akov and Esav] wept, implying that Ya’akov’s love too was aroused towards Esav. And so it is in all ages. Whenever the seed of Esav is prompted by sincere motives to acknowledge and respect the seed of Israel, then we too are moved to acknowledge Esav, for he is our brother.”[xi]
Those who are blessed must try to share the material and spiritual fruits of that blessing with their brothers and sisters. These riches do not belong to us and must not be hoarded. We have not so much earned them as earned the right to share God’s gifts with others.
[i] Arthur Waskow, Godwrestling (New York: Schocken, 1978). Waskow suggests that our foremothers were the first God-wrestlers; perhaps they teach the men. Rachel says : “With Godlike wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister [Leah] and have prevailed.” Did she, like Esav, get over her jealousy about Leah’s fertility, given her own barrenness? Does her son, Yosef, continue his mother’s struggles with siblings who cause heartbreak? Or, is Rachel the one who continues her mother-in-law Rivka’s torment while pregnant with “two warring nations?” Does Ya’akov remember the prenatal wrestlings with Esav; is this what he shares with his mother Rivka—not just the memory, but the capacity to wrestle, to survive it, to create something great from it?
Yitzhak becomes a little more like Yishmael: Yitzhak is already “in the fields” when Rivka first sees him. Ya’akov becomes more like Esav, becomes more skillful at multiplying. Brothers wrestle for what they do not have, and, as long as they cannot share, are defeated by their differences. Yosef is vain, and like his mother, Rachel, too-beloved, both by his father and by God. Brothers who feel less favored cannot easily overcome their feelings of having been cheated. To be blessed, gifted, is also a burden; it will invite the wrath of those who feel cheated of this blessing and who would rather extinguish the light that illuminates what they feel are their own limitations.
[ii] I am indebted to Rivka Haut for her insight about both Sarah and Rivka’s “separating” of the brothers.
[iii] Bereshit Rabba 63:11. In this midrash, the “elder [Avraham] has died.” Shocked, grief-stricken, Esav exclaims: “If this can happen, if such a pious man can die, then there is no justice…[and] my life and death are of no consequence.” The rabbis judge Esav harshly as a man of no faith. However, a psychological reading suggests that at this very moment, Esav is as depressed as only his mother Rivka could be. “If I am plagued with such terrifying pregnancy pains, then why do I live, what’s the point?” Thus, when Ya’akov asked Esav to sell his birthright, Esav was not only hungry, he was also deeply depressed, in a Lamentational kind of way. Yosef understands that both he and his brothers had destined parts to play—and that his part was far easier to play than the parts of brothers who had to engage in intended fratricide in order to bring about Yosef’s rescue of Yisrael from famine.
In his commentary on Toldot, Nachmanides disagrees with Ibn Ezra’s comments on Rivka’s pregnancy. Nachmanides concludes: “The correct interpretation in my opinion is that she said, ‘If it shall be so with me, lamah zeh anochi (why am I in the world)? Would that I did not exist, that I should die or never have come into existence.’ This is similar to the verse, ‘I should have been as though I had not been born’ (Job 10:19). See Ramban. Commentary on the Torah. Genesis, Trans. and Ed. Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel. (New York: Shilo Publishing House, Inc,, 1971). 315-316.
[iv] Aviva Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire. Reflections on Genesis. (New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 1995).
[v] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (World Zionist Organization: Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, 1981).
According to Nehama Leibowitz, the rabbis (Pirke derabi Eliezer; Bereshit Rabbah, 78, 12; Tanhuma Vayishlach 4) do not believe that Esav kissed Ya’akov but that he bit him and then wept because Ya’akov’s neck had turned to marble. “‘Your [Ya’akov’s] neck is as a tower of marble.’ (Song of Songs 7:5). Esau wept because Jacob’s neck had turned to marble and Jacob, for fear that Esau might return to bite him.” Leibowitz also points out that Yosef also falls upon his brother Binyamin’s neck, who, in turn, falls on Yosef’s neck. And he [Joseph] fell upon the neck of Benjamin and cried, and Benjamin cried upon [Yosef’s] neck.” “Vayipol al tzavirei Binyamin achiv vayevk, u’Binyamin bacha al tzavarav” (Genesis 45:15). Also, Moses kisses his brother Aaron (Exodus 4:27).
[vi] Zvi Kolitz, Yosl Rakover Talks to God. (New York: Pantheon, 1999).
[vii] Charles Baudelaire, Flowers of Evil (1857), translated from the French by George Dillon, introduced by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Harper and Brothers, 1956, New York and London.
[viii] See Nachmanides (Ramban), Commentary on the Torah: Genesis, Translated and Annotated by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel. (New York: Shilo Publishing House, Inc, 1971).
According to Rabbi Ari Kahn: “In attempting to explain the concept of the Yom Kippur scapegoat, Nachmanides pulls it all together for us. He explains that in offering this peculiar sacrifice on Yom Kippur, the Jews would give a bribe to ‘Sama’el’ in order to appease him and to facilitate his testimony before the heavenly court on their behalf. (Commentary to Vayikra, based on Pirki D’Rebbi Eliezer Ch.45). Who is this ‘Sama’el?’ None other than the angel of Esav, with whom Ya’akov has struggled’ (Midrash Tanhuma).” Ya’akov’s gifts have come to “serve as the prototype for the yearly sacrifice on Yom Kippur, which is offered to the power of Esav in the world.
[ix] Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit.
[x] Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit.
[xi] Leibowitz, Commentary on the Torah: Genesis. Translated and Annotated by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel. (New York: Shilo Publishing House, Inc, 1971).