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12/06/2011 09:59 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2012

Parshat Vayishlach: The Weekly Torah Portion Explained (VIDEO)

Editor's note: The Weekly HuffTorah Portion is an overview of the Torah reading of the week and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. It also gives me a chance to re-read some endlessly fascinating tales. At press time, none of the quotes below could be verified. Read the full text of Parshat Vayishlach with interlinear Hebrew/English.

Jacob sends angels to Esau, his brother, in Edom. He gives them a message to deliver: "My lord, Esau, your servant Jacob says, 'I've lingered with Laban as a stranger till now. I've accumulated flocks and servants. Please, my lord, find favor in your eyes.'"

The angels return and sow fear: "We came to your brother, to Esau. He's heading toward you. With 400 men."

Jacob is many things -- sacred, frightened, distressed, worried -- but he is not slow-moving. He immediately divides his people and flocks into two camps. This way, he reasons, Esau can strike one camp and the other will survive.

And he prays: "God of my fathers! God who told me to return to my land! God who promised protection! I'm not worthy of your kindness. I am like nothing. My camp is divided. Oh God, save me from Esau. I am afraid he will kill me and mine. Save me as you promised. Please."

There, at night, Jacob selects the best from his flocks: Hundreds of goats, hundreds of ewes, 40 cows, dozens of camels, 30 donkeys, 20 rams, 10 bulls. The perfect proportion of male and female. Magical mating guaranteed. He sends the animals ahead in droves. One after another. To appease his brother. He instructs each bedroved servant to say to Esau, who's sure to approach and ask their whereabouts: "These are your servant Jacob's. These are gifts for you, his lord. You'll see. He is behind us."

All night long, the droves pass by Jacob. He can't sleep. He rises, takes his wives and his sons and his possessions, and fords a river. He sends them along.

An Angelic Adversary?

And now, for a moment, he's alone.

A man approaches. Jacob wrestles with him till the break of dawn. Sun rising, the man sees he cannot overcome Jacob, so he strikes him in the hip -- dislocates it -- and says, "Let me go! it is dawn!"

"I won't. Unless you bless me," Jacob says.

"Fine, then," the man says, "What's your name?"

"Jacob."

"Not anymore it isn't. You're Israel now. A new name for a man who has struggled with the divine and with man. Who has struggled and overcome."

And Jacob: "What's your name?"

"Why do you ask?" The man responds. A rhetorical question, it seems, for he blesses Jacob and leaves.

And Jacob, limping off into the distance, declares: "I'll call this place Peniel -- 'Face of God.' I have seen that face and I have lived."

And even now, right this second here, the Children of Jacob -- the Children of Israel -- do not eat from the part of the hip of any animal where the nameless man struck Jacob.

Let Me Walk Down The Highway With My Brother In Peace

Jacob raises his eyes and sees Esau coming toward him with 400 men. He divides his children among his wives: Bilhah and Zilpah and their kids first. Leah and hers next. Rachel and Joseph last.

Jacob walks ahead of his family. He takes his time, bowing to earth seven times till he reaches Esau.

Esau doesn't take his time. He runs forward. Rushes. Charges. He falls upon Jacob.

He embraces and kisses Jacob.

The brothers weep.

And Esau raises his eyes and sees women and children. He asks: "Who are they?"

"They are your servant's children. Gifts from God," Jacob says, and his loves and his progeny come forward, bowing, bowing, bowing.

And Esau: "What was your intention with that other camp?"

"To gain favor in your eyes, my lord."

"I have plenty," Esau says. "Keep what's yours, brother."

But Jacob insists, adding, "Your face is radiating. Like something divine."

Esau accepts and says, "Well, let's keep on keepin' on. I'll walk beside you."

But Jacob: "My children are young. My flocks can't handle too much fast-paced travel. Go on, and I'll catch up. We'll meet again soon at your home."

But Esau: "Let me at least assign men to assist you."

But Jacob: "Nonsense! Just find favor, my lord."

The Brothers Shechem

Esau trudges off, while Jacob and his crew journey to the city of Shechem, in Canaan, where they arrive whole and well. Outside of the city, Jacob sets up his tent, buys the patch of land under it, builds and altar and proclaims: "God is the God of Israel!"

Now, Dinah. Sweet Dinah, Jacob's daughter, is lured outside, where Shechem son of Hamor sees her. And covets her. And takes her. And lays with her. And rapes her. And falls in love with her.

Shechem tells his father that he wants Dinah for a wife. "Take her for me," he says.

Meanwhile, Jacob hears that Dinah has been raped. His sons are out in the field, so he tells no one and awaits their arrival.

Hamor comes to speak with Jacob, and Jacob's sons arrive simultaneously. They exchange glances with their father and learn what has happened. And they're outraged -- such a thing is not done in Israel. But Hamor says: "My son longs for Dinah. Deeply. Please, give her as a wife. And gives us your other daughters. And we'll give you our daughters. And we'll be a big old family. And you'll live here. Find favor in your eyes. Whatever you ask, I'll give. Ask for something ridiculous, and I'll give that too. Just give me Dinah."

Jacob's son reply: "This we cannot do. Your son is uncircumcised. It is a disgrace. So! Become like us. If every man in Shechem becomes circumcised, we will give you our daughters. We will dwell with you. We will become a unified people. If not, we'll leave."

This seems easy enough to Shechem, the most respected man in his father's household. So, quickly, he and his father come to the gates of the city to speak to its inhabitants: "These people come in peace! Let them do business with us and live here. We will take their daughters and give them ours. They will become like us if we become like them. Men, listen up: Circumcise yourselves, and all their possessions will be ours." Some try to flee, of course, but Hamor and Shechem and the other converted set up a checkpoint at the city gates and every man who tries to leave is circumcised.

And three days of pain pass. As the men of Shechem lounge about, Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brothers, enter the city with sword and stealth and kill every one of them. And they took Dinah from the house of Shechem and leave. And the other children of Jacob enter the city and plunder, plunder, plunder. Wealth. Wives. Children. Everything plundered.

But Jacob: "Children! Why've you done this? Everyone around will band together and attack us. What then?"

But Simeon and Levi: "Should we just sit back and let him treat Dinah like a prostitue?"

And we know of no reply.

The International House Of God

God says to Jacob: "Go to Bethel and make an altar."

Jacob says to his people: "Discard the idols that you have taken. Purify yourselves of idol worship. Then, we'll go to Bethel and make an altar." So Jacob buries the lifeless amassed deities near the wasted city, and all gathered set out for Bethel.

All the surrounding cities cower in Godly terror, and the entourage escapes easily. In Bethel, Jacob builds an altar and names the place anew: El-Bethel -- God's House of God.

Around this time, Deborah dies. And everyone knows that Rebecca dies now, too.

And God appears again to Jacob and blesses him: "Your name is Jacob, but you won't always be called Jacob. Israel is your name." And God blesses him with the same old blessings. So Jacob anoints El-Bethel with oil and the whole crew journeys on.

On the road, approaching home, Rachel goes into labor. It's a painful birth. Another son. And Rachel, as the boy is born and as the breath escapes her lungs, names him Ben Oni -- Son of My Mourning. And she dies. And Jacob names the boy Benjamin -- Son of My Endless Numbered Days.

Jacob buries Rachel in Bethlehem and sets up a marker there, where it resides today.

Israel journeys on. Reuben, his oldest son, thinks his mother Leah isn't getting enough attention. So he hatches a plan and lays with Bilhah, Jacob's concubine. And Israel hears what has happened.

And these are the sons of Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher.

Jacob comes to his 188-year-old father, Isaac, in Hebron. Isaac dies, and all his people gather together. Jacob and Esau bury him.

Be Evil And Multiply

And these are some of the many descendants of Esau from Edom: Reuel, Nahat, Mizzah, Eliphaz, Omar, Gatam, Omar, Jalam, Korach and Amalek.

Curses be to Amalek.

And in the land of Edom, eight kings reigned over the people before a true king ruled over the Children of Israel. And eight kings died before a true king ruled over the Children of Israel.

Questions for Reflection

Why do the angels give Jacob so little information, causing him to fear the worst?

Who -- or what -- is the man with whom Jacob wrestles? Why does he have to leave at dawn?

Why does Esau forget his grudge? And why does Jacob insist that Esau go ahead of him?

How do Jacob's sons know what has happened to their sister, Dinah?

Why doesn't Jacob confront Reuben after he sleeps with Bilhah?

Who are the eight kings and why does the torah portion end by listing them?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection:

  • Haftorah Vayishlach Summary (MJL)
  • WATCH: The Animated Parshat Vayishlach (G-DCAST)
  • Commentary: Small Vessels (Canfei Nesharim)
  • Commentary: Shooting From the Hip (Sixth St. Synagogue)
  • LISTEN: Jacob Prepares for Chaos (Alternadox)
  • Commentary: Rashi on Parshat Vayishlach (Chabad)
  • Commentary: Energy of the Week: Re-establishing Bonds/Healing Rifts (IYYUN)
  • LISTEN: Jacob's Gifts and Addressing Global Hunger (AJWS)
  • Commentary: The Real Work of Giving (Breslov)