This Week’s Torah Reading Vayishlach Teaches Us How To Cling To Life And Win At All Costs

In this week’s reading, Jacob is transformed from a follower into a leader of men and a builder of an enduring nation, a nation that still bears his new name of Israel

Jacob’s sons exacting revenge upon the dwellers of Shchem for the defilement of their sister Dinah
Copyright: Phillip Medhurst [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

The linguistics of the Hebrew language are intimately intertwined with Jewish history and nothing demonstrates that fact better than the common root in the names Sarah and Israel. This root has the meanings of both power and struggle, reminding us that obtaining power without struggle is impossible, that holding on to power is a continuous struggle, and that the only way we can make a name for ourselves is taking it by force from others, just as Jacob did with the Angel of God.

This week’s Torah reading recounts two famous and perhaps even infamous incidents: Jacob’s struggle with the Angel of the lord rendering him nameless by appropriating his name and the slaughter by Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi of all the men of Shchem as they were recovering from circumcision. There is another, perhaps less celebrated incident, the one in which Jacob, who is rich, but has no army, deals with his aggrieved brother Esau. It is this less celebrated incident that is, however, the more important one because it sets the stage for Jacob’s metamorphosis from a follower, a conniver, a “macher” as one would say in Yiddish denoting a savvy businessman of sometimes unscrupulous character, to a leader, a conqueror, and a father of a nation that has endured for more than three millennia.

In his hasty departure from Laban, Jacob hardly has time to think of the welcome his brother Esau whom he arguably cheated out of his primogeniture and correspondingly the Blessing may have in store from him back in the land of Canaan. So Jacob arrives at the eastern bank of the Jordan with nothing but women and young children and a vast wealth in livestock, in short, easy pickings for the warlike Esau.

Not having swords, Jacob uses the trifecta tactics of delay, bribe, and evasion. He gathers intelligence and sees that his brother’s intentions are indeed hostile: he is at the head of a 400-strong army. He divides his family and his riches so some may survive. He scatters along Esau’s path alluring tidbits of choice herds of livestock. He says nothing that is not kind, he presents the meekest of all fronts. The impulsive Esau with his short-term thinking is appeased. He misses his chance to wrestle the Blessing back from Jacob, which he could have easily done by simply killing him. The Torah implies that by doing that he proves himself, yet again, unworthy of the terrible burden that is the Blessing. Esau is just a guy who wants to live well in the here and now. He bears no grudges, he doesn’t have what it takes to be anyone’s patriarch.

But the ever suspicious Jacob does not believe in his brother’s forgiveness; not just yet anyway. He leaves his camp and hides in the wilderness where he is assaulted at night by a “man”. It is worth recounting this encounter in simple English (Genesis 32:25-32:30, in my translation after Chabad) :

Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. He saw that he could not prevail against Jacob, so he dislocated Jacob’s hip as he wrestled with him. Finally, the angel said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” but Jacob said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” “What is your name?” asked the angel and Jacob replied, “Jacob.” And the angel said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and you have prevailed.” And Jacob asked and said, “Now tell me your name,” and the angel said, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” And he blessed him.”

It is important to understand that names in tribal societies held and still hold magical meanings. In an age before surnames and before everyone was called by Biblical or pop culture fad names, names had an endless variety; in a very true sense, names were all that men and women alike had to define them. Jacob’s name, the Hebrew Yaakov marks his as a follower, not a leader. As our contributor Rabbi Yosef Rosen explains, the angelic struggle is a true moment of metamorphosis for Jacob. He is essentially reborn. By fighting the angel to a draw, he overcomes his own nature and completes the journey from a follower to a leader from father of his clan to the father of a nation, a nation that still bears his new name.

Angels famously have names and they are not shy about sharing them. Such are Michael, Gabriel, and even Azazel (a fallen angel). Why then the sudden timidity of the angel who could not defeat Jacob in answering the simple question of his name? Was he ashamed of himself for not having won? Perhaps. Harold Bloom recounts another hypothesis, one that I find more believable. The angel’s name was Israel, but he had to surrender it to Jacob once he could not prevail against him. Thus when Jacob inquired of him his name, the angel was literally nameless having bestowed his own name on Jacob as the spoils of battle.

The subject of war spoils brings us to the outskirts of the Canaanite city-state of Shchem, in modern Samaria. Israel is parked there with his clan and his livestock. When his daughter Dina, the only daughter out what must have been many that is actually named in the Torah, goes to visit some Gentile girlfriends in the city, she is deflowered by one of the sons of the local king Hamor. Now Hamor means “donkey” in Semitic languages like Hebrew and Canaanite, so one must wonder if that was his real name, especially since the Torah and the Bible in general are wont to use names to assign their bearers either vice or virtue. Anyway, this kind of thing was hardly uncommon. It was a power move by the entrenched local elites towards the immigrant Israelite clan; you’d better deal with us or else, was what it was all about, and on our terms. What follows sets the course of history and is best recounted verbatim (Genesis 34:1-34:31, in my translation after Chabad):

“Dinah, the daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Jacob, went to check out the daughters of the land. Shchem, the son of Hamor the Hivvite, the prince of the land, saw her and lay with her. His soul cleaved to Dinah the daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl and spoke to the girl’s heart. Then Shchem spoke to his father Hamor saying, “Take this girl for me as a wife”. Jacob had heard that Shchem had defiled his daughter Dinah, but his sons were in the field and Jacob kept silent until they came home. At that time Hamor, Shchem’s father came to Jacob to speak with him.

Jacob’s sons returned from the field when they heard what happened to their sister and the men were grieved, and they burned fiercely because Shchem had committed a scandalous act, lying with a daughter of Jacob, and such ought not to be done. Hamor spoke with them saying, “My son Shchem has a liking for your daughter. Please give her to him for a wife and intermarry with us; you shall give us your daughters and you shall take our daughters for yourselves. You shall dwell with us and the land shall be yours; remain, do business here, and settle here.”

Then Shechem said to Dinah’s father and brothers, “May I find favor in your eyes. Whatever you tell me I will give. Ask me for a large dowry, and I will give as much as you ask of me, but give me the girl for a wife.” Thereupon Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor with cunning because he had defiled their sister Dinah. So they said to Shchem and his father, “We cannot do this thing, give our sister to a man who has a foreskin for that is a disgrace to us. However we will consent to you if you become like us, if every male among you is circumcised. Then we will give you our daughters and we will take your daughters for ourselves and we will dwell with you and become one people. But if you do not listen to us and be circumcised, we will take our daughter and go.”

Their words pleased Hamor and Shechem the son of Hamor and the young man did not delay to do the thing because he desired Jacob’s daughter and he was the most honored in all his father’s household. Then Hamor and his son Shchem came to the gate of their city and they spoke to the people of their city saying , “These men are peaceful with us and they will dwell in the land and do business there and the land is spacious enough for them. We will take their daughters for ourselves as wives and we will give them our daughters. However, only under this condition will the newcomers consent to dwell with us, to become one people: by every male among us being circumcised just as they are circumcised. But if we do this, then shall not their cattle, their property, and all their beasts be ours? So let us consent to them and they will dwell with us.”

All those coming out of the gate of his city listened to Hamor and his son Shchem and every male, all who went out of the gate of his city, became circumcised. Now it came to pass on the third day, when they were in pain, that Jacob’s two sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and they came upon the city with confidence, and they slew every male there. Hamor and his son Shchem they put to the sword and they took Dinah out of Shchem’s house and left .

Then the other sons of Jacob came and plundered the city that had defiled their sister. They took their flocks and their cattle and their donkeys and whatever was in the city and whatever was in the field . They took all Shchem’s wealth; all their infants and their wives they captured and they plundered all that was in the city.

Thereupon Jacob said to Simeon and to Levi, “You have troubled me, discredited me among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, and I am few in number, and they will gather against me, and I and my household will be destroyed.” To which they replied, “Should we have allowed him to make a harlot of our sister?” ”

Reading the plain text, we see that Jacob had two choices that were being foisted upon him by Hamor: he could integrate with the Canaanite city, assimilate as it were, accepting, of course Hamor’s leadership. He could become a vassal, perhaps even an important one, and enjoy the protection of Hamor and his city’s walls. Of course for this privilege he would have to pay with his livestock and turn a blind eye to the rape of his daughter, but it was a good deal and there was an implied “or else”.

The violence perpetrated upon the virgin Dinah was not random, neither was it an act of passion, no matter how much Hamor and his son wanted to make it seem so. It was an act of naked aggression. In a society that valued virgin females of high status above all else, the violation of defenseless and trusting Dinah, a young girl who put her trust in the honor and hospitality of the city, by no less than the heir apparent to city’s throne was a clear message: we are stronger than you and you had better negotiate terms or we will simply take what’s yours like we took Dinah’s virginity.

Accepting Hamor’s terms would have been tantamount to losing everything for which Jacob had fought and worked for. It would render meaningless his struggle to obtain the Blessing from Esau, and his decades of labor for Laban to build his family and his fortune. Most of all, it would have been a renunciation of the Divine name so recently bestowed upon him by the stymied angel. Had Jacob succumbed to Hamor’s attempt at extortion, there would have been no Jewish nation, no Jewish history, no Bible, no Christianity and no Islam.

But Jacob was not about to relinquish his life’s work. Or at least his sons were not about to let him. Their war against Shchem the city and Shchem the person was a defensive and fully justified one. Their collection of war spoils was both customary and legal recompense for Dinah’s stolen virtue. There can be little doubt that with their victory, the Israelites gained not only riches, but some street cred in their promised land of Canaan; a land that was far from empty, but rather occupied for many centuries by a number of technologically advanced peoples we know of as Canaanites.

What this week’s reading teaches us above all else is the importance of winning as a virtue; the necessity to cling to victory at all costs and by all available means. IDF, the Israel Defense Force, counts among its founding principles the value of adhering to the mission at all costs. There are always difficulties. One is never prepared for all eventualities and the risks abound. But giving up, this Torah reading teaches us, is never an option. Sometimes an act as simple as clinging for dear life and never letting go can change history forever. Cling to your own destiny, never let it go, and you will do just fine and may yet change the world, says the Torah.

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