Parashat Va-yishlah

Genesis 32:4–36:43
December 1, 2012 / 17 Kislev 5773

This week's commentary was written by Cantor Nancy Abramson, Director, H. L. Miller Cantorial School, JTS.

Assumptions and Appearances

Things are not always as they appear to be. And when assumptions are based on circumstantial or incomplete evidence, we are often surprised or disappointed by what unfolds. My son, who is traveling for a few months after graduating from college, shared this experience in his blog:

I arrived at the nearby train station. I had told Polly (one of my hosts) over the phone that I'd arrive at 1:15 on the train. As I waited for my transfer, [my destination] appeared on the departures board as a picture of a bus. I looked around and saw other people heading outside the station and figured it couldn't hurt to follow them. Sure enough, my "train" was a bus. And when it arrived at the prearranged time—when Polly had said she would be there to pick me up—I found myself alone at the station.

Well, almost alone. There was a woman, face barely visible beneath rings and chains of metal, sitting on a bench beside a young blonde girl, who, a few minutes [later] asked in French if I'd come on the train. Apparently I responded in French that I'd come on a bus, though this I don't remember; nor do I know how to conjugate that response. After a few more minutes, I got the idea, turned to them, and asked if they were waiting for me. In fact, they were. This literal "metal-head" was Polly, the British woman with whom I'd been corresponding, and the blonde was her very young-looking 19-year-old daughter, Summer Rose, whom I hadn't known to exist.

My son was confused by his assumptions and expectations. If one were to read Genesis simply as a work of literature, one could assume that a major leitmotif of the book is that appearances can be deceiving. Patriarchs introduce their wives as their sisters, brothers bring a bloodied coat to their father as evidence of death, and Jacob dons animal skins to secure his father's blessing.

In this week's parashah, Va-yishlah, the narrative begins with yet another story in which what is seen is misleading. Jacob prepares carefully for his meeting with his estranged brother Esau. First, he sends messengers to Esau, who report that Esau is coming with an entourage of 400 men to meet Jacob. Jacob is frightened, because he is unable to decipher Esau's intent. He divides his camp in two and prays for God's assistance and protection.

The next morning, Jacob sends gifts to his brother as a tactic to lessen the hostility he assumes Esau feels toward him. The gifts are arranged in droves of goats, sheep, camels, cows, and donkeys, each grouping presented on the heels of the preceding flock. The total number of animals offered as gifts is 550, a generous and impressive number, meant to incur Esau's favor. Even the Hebrew term minhah, used here to mean gift, encourages ambiguity. It can mean a gift of respect and friendship or an offering in recognition of the giver's lower status. Jacob's intent is to blur reality, and instill confusion in Esau's mind regarding his stature.

We know that the reunion of Jacob and Esau ends in reconciliation, but not before Jacob's solitary encounter with an angel. The night before meeting his brother, Jacob moves his family and entire camp across the Jabbok River, and remains alone on the bank nearest to Esau's approach route. He then wrestles with a "man" until the break of dawn. "Vayivater Yaakov l'vado, vayeavek ish imo ad alot hashachar." The meaning of the Hebrew verb vayeavek is unclear, and creates a play on the names Jacob and Jabbok. Rashi suggests that the verb is connected to both avak (dust) and chavak (to entangle). Are Jacob and the angel simply kicking up dust, or are they meaningfully entangled? Is the mysterious man an evil omen, meant to weaken Jacob before he meets his brother, or is this an instance of Jacob wrestling with his conscience? Jacob has never been what he seemed; his actions have all involved deceitful motivations. He tricked his father, he ran from Esau, and he snuck away from Laban's house. Many of Jacob's important acts involved misleading or incomplete motives.

The poem "To a Louse," penned in 1785 by the British poet Robert Burns, illustrates in verse the consequences of misreading a situation. In the poem, a louse crawls onto the bonnet of a beautiful young woman as she sits in church. She incorrectly believes that the winks and stares she receives from congregants are on account of her beauty and lovely hat. In the concluding stanza of the poem, Burns comments: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!" If only we could see ourselves as others do, Burns writes. When we make assumptions based on our perceptions alone, we can easily mislead ourselves.

In the dead of night, before his encounter with Esau, Jacob is given the gift to see himself as God sees him. While the angel wounds Jacob physically and emotionally, the Torah tells us that, when Jacob arrives in Shechem following the encounter, he is wounded in his hip socket, but he is safe and whole (shalem) [Gen. 33:18], and he has a new name. He is no longer Jacob, the man of entanglement, but rather Israel, father of a great nation. It is only when Jacob is given the gift of honest struggle before God that he becomes Israel. He names the place of the wrestling contest Peniel, meaning "Face of God." The one face that Jacob cannot manipulate is that of God.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.