By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
In last week’s Parsha (VAYETZEI), we read about how Jacob had betrayed both his father (Isaac) and his twin brother (Esau), motivated by his mother, Rebecca. Jacob’s mother favored him over his brother, and was aware that Isaac’s birthright and blessings would be endowed to Esau, who was the first born. To ensure that Jacob was the one to receive Isaac’s birthright, she contrived a scheme, so that Jacob could imitate his brother, and receive his father’s last words thereby deceiving Isaac. When Esau learned of this fraud, he vowed to kill Jacob. Rebecca, fearing for Jacob’s life, urged him to leave and travel to Haran, the home of her brother, Laban.
In Parsha (VAYISLACH), more than twenty years have passed from the time that Jacob left his home in Canaan. Now, Jacob with his two wives (Rachel and Leah), maid-servants, man-servants, thirteen children, livestock, and all his possessions are prepared to leave Haran and return home.
Jacob is terrified of an encounter with Esau. All of these years, Jacob has lived with the guilt of his reprehensible acts of deceit of both his beloved father and brother. He anticipates that his brother’s wrath and resentment have probably festered over the years, to the point that his life is still in danger.
Jacob sent angels ahead of him to Esau, and he commanded them: “So shall you say to my master Esau – – I have lived with Laban, and I have tarried until now” (1). He then told the angels to inform Esau that he had gifts of oxen, donkeys, man-servants, and maid-servants “to find favor in your eyes” (2).
Apart from the personal history between himself and Esau, Jacob had another reason for concern. As the sun set, Jacob was alone, and he was accosted by an unknown assailant. This was certainly not a good omen. In fact, rabbinical tradition identifies this nocturnal opponent as the spiritual power of his brother Esau. To make matters worse, as the sun rises, Esau approaches with four hundred ruffians. Jacob’s chances of survival seem dismal.
Then something strange happens: The ruffians turn out to be no more than a benign prop, part of the scenery, as Esau is overcome with emotion and fraternal good will. The two brothers forge an understanding. Long years of fear, dread, and anger melt away, as friendly chatter takes the place of violence.
Esau suggested that Jacob and his family move to Seir, his home in Canaan. Jacob politely refuses the offer, explaining the slow pace they would require, in consideration of all the children and property. Instead, Jacob moved his family to the city of Shechem, which is also in the land of Canaan.
“Dinah, the only daughter of Leah and Jacob, went out, hoping to make friends with some of the girls of the land” (3). Shechem, the son of the King Hamor, saw Dinah; and he took her and violated her. Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, avenged their sister by slaughtering the entire male population; and, taking their goods and livestock as spoil (4).
Jacob strongly disapproved of his sons actions: “You have troubled me, to discredit me among the inhabitants of the land. I am few in number, and they will gather against me, and I and my household will be destroyed” (5). Simeon and Levi’s emphatic response: “Should our sister be treated like a harlot?” (6).This brief, but poignant query appeals to the reader, to understand their behavior, and even to approve of it (7). ”Then the family traveled to another place, and the fear of God was upon the cities around them, so Jacob’s sons were safe, and not pursued” (8).
(1) GENESIS (32:5)
(2) GENESIS (32:6)
(3) GENESIS (34:1)
(4) GENESIS (34: 25-29)
(5) GENESIS (34:30)
(6) GENESIS (34:31)
(7) Jewish Virtual Library
(8) GENESIS (35:5)
By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant