Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Yaakov wrestles with an entity named “Ish”
A name change brings a personality change
Crying and Changing
The Prohibition of Eating the Gid H’anawsheh
The Rape of Dinah
Yaakov prepares to confront his brother Eisav by…
• Sending messengers to express his submissiveness
• Preparing gifts for him
• Preparing to do battle
• Praying to God
At night and all alone, Yaakov wrestles with an Ish and experiences a dislocation of his hip socket
Yaakov and Eisav meet, embrace, appear to reconcile and then part ways
Yaakov’s only daughter Dinah is raped by Shechem, son of Chamor, prince of a local clan
Yaakov journeys to Bait-Ail and, as predicted by Ish, is given an additional name, Yisrael, by God
Rachel gives birth to Binyamin, dies during childbirth and is buried on the road to Bait-Lechem
Following a practice among ancient Eastern for the heir-apparent to take possession of his father’s wives, Reuven lies down with his father’s concubine Bilhah
Listing of Yaakov’s descendants
Yitzchak’s death at 180 years (an event that takes place much later); he is buried by his sons Eisav and Yaakov
Listing of the Kings of Edom
Yaakov and the Ish: Dream or Reality?
Yaakov is fearful that when he meets his brother Eisav the next day, Eisav will murder him and his family for Yaakov’s having stolen the blessings from under him. He prays to God but gets no response. That night, after organizing into groups and moving both his family and the substantial number of animals he plans to give as a gift, Yaakov crosses the ford of the Yabbok river and falls asleep alone and afraid. To the ancients, crossing a river symbolized going forward to a new experience. It was also believed that rivers were infested by demons.
An Ish appears and wrestles with him all night and, when it realizes it cannot prevail, grabs Yaakov in the hollow of his thigh, knocking his thigh out of joint.
When Ish pleads to be let go because the dawn is breaking, Yaakov responds that he will only free him if Ish gives him a blessing. After asking Yaakov his name [i.e., his essence, his persona, how he defines himself], Ish says that Yaakov will be given another name, Yisrael, sometime in the future because he successfully fought both God and men. [Yisrael sounds like “saresa”, meaning “you conquered”.]
Wanting to know whom to thank for the blessing, Yaakov asks Ish to identify himself but gets no response, only another blessing. Awake, with the sun shining, but limping from the nighttime injury, Yaakov realizes that he has perceived God and was saved. To commemorate this experience and realization Yaakov names the place “Peniel” (Face of God). The text concludes “to this day the Children of Israel do not eat the gid h’anawsheh (sinew of the hip --sciatic nerve) which is on the hollow of the thigh, because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh on the sinew of the hip.”
How are we to understand this incident and its meaning(s)? Who is Ish? Did the wrestling really happen or was it a dream or vision? Why the detail on Ish’s fighting dirty by “hitting below the belt”? Why did Yaakov need to get a second name? Why the focus on gid h’anawsheh? Who instituted the prohibition and for what reason?
It is noteworthy that with the passage of time, the nature of dreams in the Torah changes. Initially, dreams were a vehicle for God to communicate with Man. But starting with Yaakov’s earlier dream of angels going up and then going down a ladder, dreams became expressions of internal, unconscious conflicts filled with extensive symbolism crying out for interpretation. [Interestingly, in the earlier, “ladder” dream, climbing also required use of sciatic nerve.]
Rambam thinks that any verse in the Torah that has an incident involving angels or angelic speech is a dream or prophetic vision. Yaakov was tormented, racked with guilt and fearful of what his brother Eisav would do when they met the next day. During the dark, lonely depressing night Yaakov struggles with his guilt over his treatment of Eisav some 20 years earlier. Agitation during a dream, tossing and turning, and sheer exhaustion from the moving during the day, combined to create physical injury.
Ralbag (Rav Levi ben Gershon, 1288-1344) explains “that when somebody in his sleep experiences a painful sensation…he may dream being locked in struggle with an opponent who causes, by striking him, a twinge in the sore part of his body. From transferring his kin and kit [possessions] over the wadi and from being in the water, Yaakov suffered sciatic twinges in his sleep.” Abravanel adds that “…things that become so fixed in the mind…leave a physical effect”. Psychosomatic injuries are the body’s response to unconscious desires or conflict.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ view is that during his entire life Yaakov wanted to be like Eisav who was older, stronger, and more mature and who was his father’s favorite. That night, Yaakov “wrestles with himself and finally throws off the image of Esau that he has carried with him all these years as the person he wants to be”. A psychological transformation process occurs through the night until recognition of who he really is fully “dawns” on him. It is only when the sun shines (when there is clarity and optimism) that Yaakov can face the Truth (“panim el panim”) in himself. Yaakov then returns the material blessings to Eisav by gifting him a large variety and number of livestock.
Rabbi Benno Jacob adds that, ironically, it was the physical weakening of Yaakov (limping, hobbling along with difficulty, appearing like a defeated man) that saved him from the hateful wrath of his brother Eisav. Seeing Yaakov in this condition brought on a change in Eisav (who was thirsting for revenge), prompting him instead to run toward, embrace, kiss then weep together with his younger brother. “God saved Jacob by making him weaker and thus defeats Esau’s purpose”.
When Yaakov awoke the next morning, “the sun shone for him as he passed Penuayl”. A new day and a new life have dawned for him and he experiences both a personality and spiritual regeneration. Though weakened physically, now he feels psychologically enabled to confront the brother he feared earlier.
The Midrash identifies Ish as the “Patron of Eisav”, embodying his nation’s unique culture, strength and attributes. It is the battle of the cultures; ours versus theirs. The struggle in the dream is a forerunner of the Jewish people’s constant battle--for both physical survival and ethical behavior-- against surrounding cultures. The word yerech (literally, side) is used in many places in the Torah as a euphemism for genitals. The enemies of Israel in every generation use every means at their disposal to destroy us by murdering us and by crushing our ability to procreate, to survive and to flourish.
Ish can also refer to the dark, selfish side of us all --the yeitzer harah. Yaakov wrestled with his guilt about or ambivalent feelings toward his brother. The active internal battle sets the stage for meaningful change. When he wakes up the next morning, Yaakov realizes that because of his struggle the night before “my soul was saved” meaning he was saved from himself, from his dark, gloomy mental state. He goes from the nighttime/darkness of struggle to the sunshine of self-awareness, change for the better and victory over the yeitzer harah.
Rabbi Sacks sees a more universal prediction here for our nation. Although through the ages we will be forced to wrestle with many idols such as paganism, superstition, fanaticism, secularism, and materialism, we can defeat them.
A Name Change Signals a Change in Personality
Yaakov’s new name reflected the change in his personality as he matured into a man of Truth (Emes). “Yaakov” is from a Hebrew root-word aykav that can be a noun meaning a heel, or an adjective meaning crooked. The name was given based on his reaching out to grab the heel of his twin brother Eisav (seeming to want to pull him back) when they were born. A heel is curved and bends and can swing around. It is symbolically reflective of a personality that instead of being straightforward, answers or acts in a crooked or roundabout way. Up until this point in his lifetime, Yaakov did seem to be less-than-forthright on several occasions:
• The way he purchased the birthright from his brother Eisav
• Purposely mis-identifying himself when his blind father Yitzchak was preparing to bless his older son Eisav
• Some of his dealings with his father-in-law Lavan
But we now see emerging changes in Yaakov’s persona. After twenty years of no contact, it is Yaakov who purposely travels to Canaan on a route that takes him through Edom. It is Yaakov who…
• Initiates the meeting with Eisav in order to reconcile
• Wants to “be whole” with Eisav
• Wants to express his love and to apologize for his past behavior.
• Wants to deal with his brother in an open and direct way.
He is even willing to accept the risk of the possible loss of half of his possessions.
The additional name Yisrael means “to be straight by [or with] God”. Rabbi David Fohrman concludes that the newly added name reflects Yaakov’s newly-found ability to face and then deal with his challenges in a straightforward manner “face-to-face”. This emphasis on the “new” personality is supported by the many times the word “face” (panim) appears in the text.
Crying and Changing
Rabbi Fohrman links three different episodes in Yaakov’s life that show how his personality changes with time and with life experiences.
I. Earlier, when Eisav realized that it was his brother Yaakov who disguised himself and who received the blessing that he was expecting from his father Yitzchak, he lets out loud, ferocious and bitter screams… “And Eisav raised his voice and began to weep” [“vayisah es kolo vayayvch”].
II. When Yaakov leaves his home to find a wife, he happens upon a well which happens to be the one used by the shepherdess Rachel who happens to be his relative and with whom he immediately happens to fall in love. “And Yaakov kissed Rachel and he wept loudly.” The pained crying of Yaakov here at the well has its roots in the frightful crying of Eisav earlier when he realizes he has been deceived by his brother Yaakov. In both instances the exact same Hebrew expression for crying [“vayisah es kolo vayayvch”] is used. The Torah is letting us know that Yaakov cannot escape crying in his lifetime because of the painful tears that he once caused Eisav to shed. When he meets Rachel, he has a premonition that his penniless condition will become the basis for being taken advantage of by Lavan, his father-in-law to be. Often in life, what goes around comes around.
III. In this week’s Parsha, Yaakov cries again: when he and Eisav approach each other “Eisav ran to meet them…he hugged Yaakov and throwing himself on his shoulders kissed him…they [both] wept.” This is an embrace of reconciliation when Yaakov implores his brother to accept the expansive gifts he is offering, as repayment for the blessings that he “stole” from him some twenty years earlier. This is the “new” Yaakov-- now named Yisrael because of his face-to-face struggle with God-- who henceforth deals with both his brother and with God straightforwardly, face-to-face. This is the man who has now earned the appellation and embodiment of Ish Emes [man of Truth].
The Prohibition of Eating the Gid H’anawsheh (ischiatic nerve)
After the wrestling match with Ish that left Yaakov/Yisrael limping, the Torah injects the idea that “the children of Yisrael therefore do not eat the displaced nerve on the hip joint to this very day. This is because [the stranger] touched Jacob’s thigh on the displaced nerve.” [Note: this is the first time that the expression “Children of Israel” is used in the Torah.]
The Halachic source for the prohibition is its inclusion with all the other commandments promulgated at Mount Sinai. It is presented here for its historical context. (The same applies to the Mitzvah of Bris.)
“…the children of Yisrael do not eat” means, according to Radak, that it was Yaakov’s sons who immediately took it upon themselves to adopt this rule as a sign of respect for their injured father or, according to others, for their failure to respect their father (perhaps by failing to stay with him that night to insure his safety). Following are some alternate explanations of the rationale for this prohibition:
o Rabbi B. S. Jacobson views the prohibition of eating the animal’s thigh with the sciatic nerve, a mainspring of locomotion, as a metaphor for our need to avoid improper and impure behavior in our lives.
o Rav Avigdor Miller thinks that the prohibition serves as a reminder of the painful consequences that can result from letting down one’s guard in fighting Evil for even one minute (as Yaakov did)
o Sefer Hachinuch believes that this serves as a reminder that even though we will experience much suffering in exile at the hands of the nations and at the hands of the children of Esau, we are assured that we will not be destroyed but will endure. The sinew of the thigh-vein, source of the limp, is the sign of the suffering yet surviving righteous nation. Sandra Gottesman elaborates that the prohibition reminds us that throughout our history we have come so close to death at the hands of our enemies, but were saved by God and given the opportunity to again “walk in the sunshine” (i.e., remain alive and optimistic).
o Rashbam points out how we were given a lighter sentence: Ish, the embodiment of Evil, sought to castrate but instead “only” caused injury to the area.
o Some think that “you are what you eat” is the operative idea. Ish touched the most vulnerable part of Yaakov. Eating that body part would remind us of our weaknesses and stir up an internal state of negativity. Yehuda Valladares observes that we do not want to ingest “weakness”. B’nai Yisrael should not consume and absorb some of the crooked behavior associated with the name (and person) Yaakov.
o Marty Langert thinks the Torah did not want us to eat anything having to do with displacement (of hip from socket) in that it would stir up the memory of the many displacements, expulsions and exiles that the Jewish people endured over the course of time.
The Rape of Dinah
When Dinah, the only daughter of Yaakov was born, no explanation is given for her name: “[Leah] bore him a daughter and named her Dinah”. After her birth the only other time we hear about her is in this week’s Parsha when she is a young woman.
When she leaves the safety of home to go out to “look at the daughters of the land,” Dinah is raped by Shechem, son of Chamor, prince of a local clan. When Yaakov learns that his daughter has been defiled he says nothing but waits until his sons return from working in the field. They are furious when they learn what happened.
Chamor visits and proposes to Yaakov that his son be permitted to marry Dinah. Neither Chamor nor Shechem acknowledges or apologizes for the rape. Chamor expresses his son’s deep love for Dinah and his willingness to do whatever is required to marry her. Both father and son apparently “regard it as quite normal for a young man to rape a woman to whom he is attracted and then, if he so wishes, marry her” (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin).
Yaakov’s sons agree to the request, but only on the condition that all the men of the city undergo circumcision. [Their ruse was designed to get their sister back from imprisonment in Shechem’s house. The brothers no doubt thought that their painful proposal would be rejected. Likely, they did not plan to murder anyone.]
Chamor, the powerful and influential leader agrees and then, appealing to their greed, convinces his fellow citizens to concur. [“Their cattle and their substance and all their beasts will be ours”.] On the third day after the circumcision, when the people were in pain, Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers from the same mother Leah, murder all the males and rescue their sister. When Yaakov objects to their actions, the brothers respond, “Could we allow them to make our sister into a harlot?” It is only years later, when he blesses his children on his deathbed, that Yaakov goes out of his way to express his moral outrage at these two of his sons’ behavior:
“Simeon and Levi are brothers—
their swords are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council,
let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger
and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
and disperse them in Israel.”
Rabbi Sacks notes that the Torah text leaves us undecided about who was in the right and who in the wrong.
Rambam’s view is that Shimon and Levi were justified in what they did. Shechem had committed a capital crime. By their failure to bring him to justice and to free the imprisoned Dinah, the townspeople became accomplices.
Ramban disagrees. The Noahide laws require every society to set up courts of law, but a failure of its citizens to prosecute a wrongdoer does not make them accessories to the crime.
The Torah refuses to portray even the apparent villains in an unduly negative light. The young prince Shechem, the chief wrongdoer, is described as deeply caring for and adoring the object of his affections: “His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her”. Nor are the citizens of Shechem demonized. On the other hand, Shimon and Levi’s behavior is described as deceitful, using the same Hebrew word for deceit that was used about Jacob taking Esav’s blessing and about Lavan substituting Leah for Rachel. “The overall effect is a story with no irredeemable villains and no stainless heroes” writes Rabbi Sacks.
In his view, the Torah’s message in this story is about the insidious danger of violence. That is, the exercise of power accompanied by violence is like a disease with enormous and widespread harmful ramifications for society. “Shechem’s single act of violence against Dina forced two of Jacob’s sons into violent reprisal and in the end, everyone was either contaminated or dead.”
Biblical scholar Nachum Sarna (cited by Rabbi Telushkin) argues that the brothers did not intend to murder the men of Shechem. Rather, because their sister was held prisoner in the home of the perpetrator there was no way she could be liberated – “except by the exercise of cunning”. The brothers thought they could free their sister when the residents of the city would be in a weakened state (after the circumcision) and unable to stop them. Unfortunately, they did not anticipate the murderous, fierce and angry behavior of Shimon and Levi. Such is the outcome of unrestrained and unpunished anger.
“And Timna became the concubine of Eisav’s son Eliphaz”. The Talmud explains that because her application to convert to Judaism was rejected by the forefathers, she decided to join the nation by marrying into the family. Her giving birth to our arch-enemy Amalek was considered by the Sages to be a punishment for her being rejected. “Had Timna been accepted into the Israelite nation, there would have been no Amalek”!!!
Over the years an increasingly right-wing and Haredi Rabbinate has replaced a compassionate and inclusive approach to deal with would-be converts with ever-higher barriers to conversion. Rabbi Marc Angel’s observation is that “The Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinic High Court have equated conversion with total acceptance to observe all the mitzvoth; those who are deficient in religious observance are either not accepted in the first place, or now run the risk of having their conversions invalidated retroactively. Thousands of individuals have been thrown into spiritual turmoil, wondering about their Jewish identities and the Jewish identities of their children.”
The classical sources in Halacha present a much more sensible and straightforward procedure for conversion. Prospective converts are discouraged and are alerted to the dangers associated with being part of a persecuted community. Should they decide to proceed, they are taught the basic tenets of Judaism. Rabbi Angel notes that Jewish law offers “… considerable latitude when it comes to informing converts of the mitzvoth. Converts are expected to give a general acceptance to observe mitzvoth—but there is no indication that they first must study Judaism for years nor that they must answer very specific questions relating to the observance of all mitzvoth--requirements that now have become standard within the Orthodox rabbinic establishment.”
Rabbi Angel traces the present-day demand for a 100% commitment to observe all the mitzvahs to rulings made by Eastern European Rabbis in the late 19th century. With increasing numbers of Jews abandoning religious observance, these Rabbis seemingly felt that it was critical that converts to Judaism be obligated to pledge to observe all the mitzvahs. For them, Judaism equaled mitzvah observance. [Note: It is ironic that one who happens to be born Jewish retains that status even if he repudiates the religion and disregards all the commandments, but one who passionately desires to become Jewish is held to the highest and most rigorous standard!]
Times have changed. Today we have a vibrant, modern sovereign Jewish state --not a sheltered Jewish existence in the shtetl-- that welcomes people “finding themselves”, longing to be part of Judaism. Rabbi Angel argues that it has become incumbent on the Rabbinate to examine and “…to draw on the broad wellsprings of Jewish legal and ethical traditions” to develop a procedure to help people through the conversion process in a positive, non-threatening manner that is totally compliant with classical Halacha. The Orthodox Rabbinate “should be expanding opportunities for those who sincerely wish to become full members of the Jewish people”.
Rabbi Angel cites respected sages who allow conversions even in non-ideal situations, including some who argue for leniency in the application of the Halacha. Among them is Rabbi Benzion Uziel, a former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, who argued that adopting a restrictive policy does a tremendous disservice to the prospective converts, and to their families.
More recently, some Rabbis even have stated that the “Haredization” of the conversion process represents a sharp deviation from traditional Halacha.
Rabbi Angel concludes that “It is a sacred responsibility of our community—rabbis and lay people alike—to enable sincere candidates for conversion to be accepted lovingly within our midst. This is a mitzvah for the converts and for the Jewish people as a whole.”