Rabbi Shafir's Weekly D'var Torah
B'reyshit (Genesis)
I publish a weekly D'var Torah on the Parsha of the week.  They are archived here.  
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1. Parsha Details
2. Questions (and a few observations) on the excerpts
3. Some Observations
3. Exercises
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Parsha Details:Gen 32:4-36:43 (tri 35:16-36:43) [Haftorah Obadiah 1:1-21]
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2. Questions and a few observations

As one reads or listens to the parsha from last week, one has the sense of a well assimilated cohesive narrative.  The tone for this week is very different.  This week's parsha has many little events 'collected' rather than assembled into the telling.  Many times, as one listens to the flow of the Hebrew and the details as they are recounted, there is a clear sense that the early audiences for these words knows much more than is recounted here.  This is very much such a parsha.  So what all is here?

Jacob's return from Laban and meeting Esau -- Jacob's plan and execution of making peace -- very orchestrated with different moments with God and a messenger (the well known wrestling).  The word pageantry comes to mind as one visualizes wave after wave of gift droves, capped off by each wife and her children coming up and bowing before Esau (who had married very well as we will see).  Jacob is probably richer than Esau, but Esau is powerful and well connected.

Jacob, of course calls on God to remember the promises made to him to get him home safely.  And Jacob wrestles with the Messenger and has his name changed to Israel.  Dinah is taken by Shechem and we have the town circumcision and their resulting deaths at the hands of Simeon and Levi. 

Then Jacob is called to Beth El with some interesting details, we hear that Deborah, a wet-nurse for Rivka dies, and we get a recap of Jacob's name change and a repeat of the patriarchal blessing.  Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin.  Reuben, Leah's firstborn, sleeps with Bilhah, Rachel's maidservant-wife of Jacob.  Jacob hears about this, but we do not hear about him doing anything.  There is a recap of sons and Jacob returns to Isaac, who dies and is buried by his two sons.

The parsha concludes with an extensive genealogy of  Esau and the father of one of his wives to demonstrate the powerful family with which Esau has established himself.

This parsha is basically everything that happens of significance TO Jacob.  After this parsha, details will shift to how they effect his sons and he becomes a supporting character.  But in this parsha, he is still very much the star.  Even if he is not feeling strong and mighty.

Imagine his emotions as he travels back towards his father who may die any day if not already dead.  We hear nothing about Rivka at first.  What has Jacob heard from his home for the past twenty years?  He cannot return to Laban with any self-dignity thanks to their parting treaty.  And what about Esau?  He is probably hearing about how well connected he is and how powerful he has become.  And the force of 400 men he brings in tow to greet Jacob is certainly a demonstration of Esau's position and might.  Even if he had heard part of this news while with Laban, he probably is only now grasping the full implications.

It is not surprising that he would say something to God about remembering his promise AND about not feeling too mighty himself.  This is a very candid and open prayer to God and Jacob is certainly feeling the need for some Divine protection.  It is not surprising that he wrestles with the messenger ( a restless night as he works through his own feelings of control and what parts he must 'give over' to God and feel the positive Energy?)

And Jacob's cleverness and resourcefulness shine through.  The meeting is well planned by Jacob and very effective. When the two brothers finally do come together, all is well and Jacob is able to continue on his wanderings.  Jacob buys a piece of land near Salem and sets of housekeeping and then the troubles begin again.  The incident of Dinah results despite the fact that the town wants to befriend Jacob and his household (exchange wives and trade, and so on) and even goes so far as to circumcise all the males, two of Jacob's sons kill all the males of the town and all the sons plunder, loot, and carry off "all their little ones, and their wives took they captive, and carried off all that was in the houses."  This is not a pretty scene and one has to wonder the resulting impact from these women and 'little ones' that become an involuntary part of the extended family.  Obviously the mixing of the peoples, cultures and even religions was not a concern to the brothers.

And when Jacob challenges them that retribution is a possible result from Hamor's allies, they simply respond: "Should he deal with our sister as with a harlot?" to which there is no further response.  Were the brothers saying they felt that they had to do it for her 'honor' (or theirs...)?  Or were they pointing out that no retributions would be expected because they were simply doing the brother-thing when a sister is mistreated?  And what about Dinah?  How did she feel about this?  And what happened to her?  We never hear a word more about her except in the recap of Jacob's children in Egypt.

Which brings up the lingering question of Rivka.  What happened to her?  She was supposed to send word to Jacob when Esau's anger subsided.  I believe she never did because of Jacob's fear of Esau on his return -- he did not know Esau's frame of mind.  The only word we have about Rivka is a fleeting mention of her nurse dying and the tree under which the nurse is buried is called "Allon-Bachuth" or Wailing Tree.  Traditional attempts to equate this death with Rivka's or to excuse the lack of mention fall a bit short.  For whatever reason, Rivka is not mentioned here nor is her death recorded anywhere.  After she arranges for Jacob to go to Laban to seek a wife, she simply does not contribute an overt act into the story again.  She is probably dead by the time Jacob returns to Canaan -- and somehow this note about her nurse must come from the story of her death which is not included in Torah.

And this points up two key thoughts.  One, not everything can be included in any history.  I, too, pick and choose what parts of the parsha I include, both in my discussion and in the excerpting.  Space is always a concern and the narrator or editor picks and chooses what to include, what to drash on and so on.  So we look at the intent.  The primary intent is to explain a heritage and a faith history -- those things that are significant from that standpoint.  Sometimes a bit is included here or there because of tradition or because it reminds the audience of other parallel information 'known to all' at least at the time of redaction.

And this parsha shows many signs of late editing: "that is the pillar of Rachel's grave to this day." and "before there reigned any king over the people of Israel."  In different ways, both of these little comments tell us that a later day editor was at work, even if only to add these little comments.  Both of these comments speak to a time after the exodus.  The reference to kings is obvious, but the reference to Rachel's grave is more subtle.  It is not far from Jerusalem, you see it "is Beth-Lehem", which is where the tribe of Benjamin lived.  

It is also interesting that Jacob names Benjamin (son of my right hand and/or a pun on strength) -- all the other sons were named by Rachel or Leah.  And Rachel had named Benjamin "Benoni" (son of my "manliness, strength, force, power, potency, wealth, grief, sorrow").  Rachel is the first wife to die and her sons were likely to spend much of their time with Bilhah and her sons.  We can see the dangerous family dynamics starting to form from this moment on.  The two children of his favorite wife, who dies in childbirth, spend much of their time with the 'second tier' sons.

Which brings us back to the second point to which I was alluding before, namely that women are usually only mentioned as they effect to key characters.  But they played powerful roles and exerted a great deal of influence, even when Torah does not make this so obvious.  For example, how different the Joseph story might have been if Rachel did not die at this point.  We already have grasped that she was a woman of independent action who could think on her feet.  She was probably the most business minded of the wives and her counsel was probably sought, even if this was not recorded.  How much of what Joseph knew had he already learned from her and her efficient running of the household?

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3. Some Observations

A definite collection of events and details and recapping.  Many obvious threads of very ancient material.  We see that pillars serve as witnesses to events and/or as markers.  Sometimes they are anointed although the purpose of this is not clear.  They are respected, but not worshiped.  Perhaps they were expected to exert the power as witnesses to maintain that to which they were a witness.

And what about the detailed description of going up to Beth-El?  God doesn't tell Jacob what to do, but he knows to put away (hide) the foreign (or anti-bad luck) gods, purify themselves and change their clothes.  We see everyone sprucing up and hiding the vain things, the magical things and getting dressed up and cleaned up to participate in the ceremonies and events for which Jacob is taking them to Beth-El.  We get a sense that these items were used to protect someone, especially when travelling since Torah goes on to explain that they were safe because the terror of God was upon the rest of the populace.

And, of course, why does Jacob hide them?  Two reasons come to mind -- keep them safe from theft by others since they were obviously valuable and also, quite obviously, to be able to collect them after the time in Beth-El is complete.  The Hebrew is a bit interesting in this verse and is subject to some interesting translation possibilities. Rashi explains that it is a tree, but the word can also be translated as a club or bludgeon or even a curse or a godess near Shechem.  In any event, Jacob and family knew where to look for these everyday things that had no part in approaching God and/or coming before His Presence.

God calls Himself 'El Shaddai' -- God Almighty.  This is a name we see several times in Torah -- one time was when Abram's name was changed to Abraham and here, where Jacob's name is changed to Israel.  Jacob prays to God Almighty when the brothers will go back down to Egypt with Benjamin.  There are well over fifty references to Shaddai in Tanakh.  Even Balaam talks of having the vision of Shaddai.  The Rabbis saw in it not just the word Almighty, but also an acrostic meaning to guard the homes of Israel.  And of course, we put it on the front of our mezuzot.  (Would an outsider see these as gods or good luck charms?  What do they mean to you?)

And one more interesting note.  The word "V'yishakehu", "and kissed him" from 33:4 where it talks about Esau embracing and kissing Jacob has a unique quality in Torah -- it is one of those words with little dots across the top of it.  We even do this in most Chumashim.  It only happens about 15 times in Torah -- but it is interesting that it happens at all.  Can you imagine the feeling of the first person to put those dots across words to 'mark' them, probably for the purpose of teaching from them and not wanting to miss them as Torah was read.  And now, all of our Torahs have them.  Little tiny notes brought down faithfully by scribes from one Torah to the next for thousands of years.  Makes one wonder about the first master scroll that has been copied more times than I can count.  Were the dots put there in a scroll originally kept in the Temple for safe keeping?  Our was it a scroll taken out of Jerusalem and kept safe only because it escaped some total destruction in the Temple itself.  And will we someday find another ancient scroll identical to our current Torah but without these dots? 

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Exercises

1. Dots:  Look through Torah and find the words with dots. (this or another place).  See the words of the Torah dancing with no written notes, with no written vowels, but with these tiny precious dots.  What did the teachers teach from this?  Did everyone who could read Torah know what the dots meant?  Feel those dots from that original teacher to now, teaching for thousands of years.  Scroll by scroll, dot by dot. 

2. Shin: Focus on the letter Shin.  Perhaps in STAM (Torah lettering), perhaps on your favorite Mezuzah, perhaps elsewhere that you see it.  (Where all do we use the Shin as a symbol?)

3. Shaddai: Almighty.  Protecting, Guarding, Renaming, Blessing.  God Doing.

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There are many traditional interpretations of the parsha that I neither talk about nor mention.  That is done from a position of space.  I trust that the average reader is either familiar with these or can find many of them easily in other commentaries readily available. 

Thanks for reading this. If I have offended you, please forgive me -- that was not my intention. If you found some joy or happiness in reading this, thank you for allowing me to be a part. If you found a reason to think about something more deeply - kol hakavod and thank you!

And to the people giving me feedback thank you so much! I enjoy all of it. (Including the typos)  You have made this weekly practice wonderful.

b'v'rakha,

Candy

(c) 2000 Candy Lobb All rights reserved.




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