In the portion of Vayishlach, Jacob prepares to face his brother after many years apart, cognizant of Esau’s vow to destroy him one day. He readies his camp and prays, sending also gifts to appease his brother. Before the encounter, Jacob struggles with an angel who blesses him and gives him a new name. When Jacob finally meets up with Esau, the reunion is more positive than he had hoped.
Jacob settles in the land of his fathers, but tragedy mars the experience, as his daughter Dinah is raped in Shechem. His sons avenge her violation, much to their father’s consternation.
Ultimately, Jacob returns to his father before Isaac’s death. The portion closes with an accounting of Esau’s family tree.
Preparing to Meet Esau
Jacob sends messengers ahead to his brother to alert Esau that he is coming home. The messengers return with an ominous report: Esau is coming out to greet him with four hundred men!
To prepare for the potentially hostile encounter, Jacob divides his camp into two groups, so that if one is attacked, at least the other group might escape. He also prays to God to protect him and his family, as He had once promised to do. Finally, he prepares a massive tribute to his brother in the hopes that he would be appeased by Jacob’s generosity.
The Israel Bible points out that when the same Hebrew word is used in two places in the text to refer to unrelated events, there is, in fact, a connection between them. Here, Jacob refers to part of his camp as the playta, or escaped remnant. The same term is used in Obadiah (1:17-18), where it says, “But in mount Zion there shall be those that escape, and it shall be holy; and the house of Jacob shall possess their possessions. And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them; and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau; for the LORD hath spoken.” Thus, Jacob hints that only Zion is a refuge for the Jewish people in all future encounters with Esau.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Jacob makes these preparations in the order which he does? Why not pray first and foremost?
Striving with an Angel
Overnight, Jacob rises and crosses the Jabbok river with his family and belongings. Jacob is left alone, however, at some point in the night, and spends the rest of it striving with a mysterious opponent. The two wrestle throughout the night, and Jacob’s opponent cannot overcome him. At daybreak, the mysterious stranger inflicts a serious wound in Jacob’s thigh, yet Jacob does not relent.
The stranger asks Jacob to release him, but Jacob refuses unless his opponent blesses him. The stranger asks Jacob his name, then tells him he shall be henceforth known as Israel, for he has struggled with man and God and has prevailed. When Jacob asks for the stranger’s name, however, he refuses to give it, and Jacob realizes he has met an angel. He calls the place Peniel, meaning Face of God, in recognition of the fact. As a result of Jacob’s injury, his descendants to this day do not eat the sciatic nerve of any four-legged animal.
Points to Ponder
Jacob asks for a blessing, and we are told instead he is given another name. How can you explain this unusual “blessing”?
An Encounter with Esau
When Jacob spies Esau in the distance, he again divides and organizes his camp. He walks ahead of them and bows seven times before his brother. Esau embraces Jacob, and the brothers weep. Esau is awed by the magnitude of Jacob’s camp. Jacob tells Esau that everything he sent before him is a gift for his older brother. When Esau tries to decline, saying he, too, has much wealth, Jacob insists he keep it, as God has already granted him everything. Esau invites his younger brother to travel with him, but Jacob begs off, saying Esau’s pace is too difficult for Jacob’s camp, and they would one day meet up in Esau’s home of Seir. Thus assured, Esau departs for Seir, but Jacob heads instead to Succoth, so called for the succot, or booths, he builds for his animals.
From Succoth, Jacob travels to Shechem, where he purchases a piece of land and settles peacefully with his family. He builds an altar there for God, calling it El-elohe-Israel, or the God of Israel.
The Israel Bible notes that Jacob’s actions are a sign for future generations: the first thing he does after escaping Esau’s clutches is purchase land, teaching us that to remain secure, the Jewish people must continue to build up their homeland, Israel.
Points to Ponder
There is a subtext of a power struggle in the encounter between Jacob and Esau. What do you think is really going on between them?
Dinah in Shechem
Despite Jacob’s hope that he could settle peacefully in the land of his fathers, tragedy strikes his family when his daughter, Dinah, is kidnapped and raped by the eponymous prince of the city. Prince Shechem becomes enamored with her and wishes to marry her, so his father, Hamor, seeks Jacob’s permission. He insists, however, on waiting for his sons.
The brothers are furious over what had happened to their sister. They trick Hamor, Shechem and the other inhabitants of the city, saying they will assimilate into their society if the men undergo circumcision. On the third day after the procedure, when the men of the city are at their weakest, Simeon and Levi rise up and slaughter them all.
Jacob is horrified at his sons’ actions, worried that it will cause the neighboring towns to turn on him and his small family. However, the brothers are adamant that such treatment as their sister received must not go unavenged.
The Israel Bible cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who learns from this incident that while Torah teaches gentleness and humane behavior, it does not make the Jewish people a cowardly nation. Like Simeon and Levi, there are times when the nation of Israel must take up the sword to defend itself. With God’s help, Israel has been successful time and again in standing up to her hostile neighbors.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Jacob and his sons see things so differently here?
Jacob’s Return Home and Esau’s Family Tree
God now tells Jacob he should fulfill his early promise and return to build an altar at Beit El. Jacob prepares his household, stripping members of vestiges of idolatry and burying them in Shechem. The family then travels unmolested towards Beit El, as God has extended His protection over them.
The Torah notes that at this point, Deborah, nursemaid to Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, dies and is buried near Beit El.
God then appears again to Jacob and blesses him, also changing his name from Jacob to Israel. He tells him that a congregation of nations shall descend from him, and the land which He has promised to Abraham and to Isaac shall belong to Jacob and his offspring. Jacob, for his part, made libation offerings to God at the site.
From there, Jacob continues journeying towards Efrat. Along the way, Rachel goes into labor, and is in great distress. She gives birth to a second son, calling him Ben Oni, or “son of my suffering”, and then dies. Jacob renames his youngest son Benjamin, meaning “son of my right hand”. Jacob then buries his beloved Rachel on the road.
The Israel Bible explains why, according to the Sages, Jacob did not bury Rachel in the family tomb in the Cave of the Patriarchs (it is Leah who is buried there alongside Jacob). Rachel’s tomb lies on the road out of Israel, and throughout the generations, when the Jews were exiled from their lands, they were led past her tomb. Her presence offered comfort and hope to the exiles that she would plead for them before the Throne of God. According to tradition, it was Rachel’s own son, Joseph, who first found comfort at his mother’s grave, as he escaped his captors briefly on his way down to Egypt and sought out her resting place. The Tomb of Rachel remains a popular destination for prayer today.
Jacob continues his meandering journey back towards his father, and during one stop, Reuben interferes with his father’s marital bed. Jacob finds out, though the text is mum on his response at this point (on his deathbed, in Genesis 49:4, Jacob alludes to this event when he chastises Reuben).
At long last, Jacob and Isaac are reunited in Hebron, and when Isaac dies at the ripe old age of 180, both Jacob and Esau are there to bury their father.
The portion ends with an overview of Esau’s family tree, including the houses of Seir into which he married and the princes and kings he begat. Included in the list are those kings who reigned before any Jewish king ever sat on a throne in Israel.
The Torah states that Esau moved to Seir on account of Jacob’s presence in the land. The Israel Bible points out that in so doing, he acknowledged Jacob’s rightful claim to the birthright that includes the Land of Israel.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think God renames Jacob the same name the angel already gave him?