The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Vayishlach: Wrestling with an angel

In this week's Torah portion, Jacob returns to his family in Canaan after twenty years of servitude to his uncle Laban. His brother, Esau, from whom he hed fled for his life after cheating him out of his father's dying blessing, now dominates the region of his family, and Jacob is terrified that Esau still wants to kill him. Jacob has been blessed by God with wealth and a large family, and they are in a large caravan when Jacob sends forth messengers to Esau to announce his return and to offer gifts of livestock and slave girls. Esau informs the messengers that Esau will send 400 men to greet Jacob. Fearing that the 400 men will slay him and his family, he splits the caravan into two groups, reasoning that if one is massacred, the other might survive. I have mentioned previously that the rabbis of the Talmud regarded Esau as the embodiment of evil, and the father of all the enemies of the Jews. In the rabbinic commentaries, the perfidy of Esau is emphasized, and illustrates the source of Jacob's terror.

At the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob puts the two camps on the further bank, and then crosses again alone to wait out the night. He prays to God, asking Him to remember His promise to Jacob during the dream of the Ladder.

Just before dawn, an angel appears in the guise of a man and wrestles Jacob. The angel initiates contact, engaging Jacob in grappling to test his resolve. Jacob wrestles the angel through the dawn, and ultimately the tables are turned and the angel struggles to flee from Jacob's grip, but Jacob will not let him go until the angel gives him a blessing. The angel dislocates Jacob's hip with a touch, but Jacob will not let go of the angel. The angel changes Jacob's name to Israel (Yisrael means one who wrestles with God), and prophesied that Jacob would become mighty before God and man. Jacob asks the angel his name, but that knowledge is forbidden him. Jacob named the place Peniel, or the Face of God, declaring that he had seen the Face of God and had withstood it [Genesis 32:31]. Jacob walked with a limp, with great difficulty, from that day forward.

Israel is the name of the whole Jewish people, of whom Jacob is the father. We are the people who wrestle with God. We do not come into faith naively. We question everything. We criticize, analyze, doubt, argue, question and ponder every detail of the revealed texts, and our own traditions. A Jew can doubt the existence of God and still be a Jew. A Jew has grabbed an angel and has wrestled with it. Sometimes the angel grabs us, and sometimes we cling to the angel long after it wishes to depart. We do not let go until we receive a blessing, however begrudgingly given. This defines us as a people. We are a nation of God-wrestlers.

Esau, the next morning, runs to meet him and kisses him, and they both hold each other, weeping. The anti-Esau crowd has a hard time with this. There is one midrash that Esau attempted to bite Jacob, and that Jacob's neck turned to marble, that Esau's teeth broke on the marble, and the bite appeared as a kiss to someone observing from far away. I find such interpretation repellant. Esau kissed Jacob. Esau forgave Jacob. This is one of the most precious moments of redemption in the Torah, and should not be trivialized. Esau refused Jacob's gifts, saying that he was sufficiently wealthy without them.

Jacob tells Esau that seeing him is like seeing the Face of the Divine (and Jacob should know). Esau offers to escort Jacob and his family, but Jacob declines. Again, the interpretation is that Esau plans to waylay Jacob and steal his riches (which he could have done by the banks of the Jabbok, but did not). Jacob travels to Sechem and sets up roots there, buying the land he is to live upon.

Jacob's daughter, Dinah, is raped by the prince of Sechem (himself named Sechem). The Torah does not always have contemporary meanings to terms, but in this case, Sechem has sex with Dinah by force, even though the Torah tells us that he is in love with her. Sechem's father asks Jacob if the prince can marry Dinah. In ancient patriarchal societies, a rapist could escape punishment by marrying his victim and paying her father a large bride-price. This seems pretty disgusting from a modern perspective, but in ancient times rape was seen as as much a crime of property as a crime of violating one's person. A daughter who was not a virgin could not normally marry.

Sechem begs Jacob for permission to marry Dinah. The sons of Jacob agree on the condition that every man in the city of Sechem get circumcised. Sechem agrees on behalf of his people, persuading his people that the wealth of Jacob could add to the wealth of the city. Every man in the city agrees to undergo circumcision.

While they are recovering from this painful procedure, Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brothers, enter the city and murder every man in the city of Sechem, including Sechem and his father, and took Dinah home with them, along with all the plunder of the city, its wealth, its livestock, and its women as slaves. Jacob is furious. He excoriates them for disgracing him and his family, and for inviting scorn and retaliation from the other peoples of Canaan. Simeon and Levi reply to their father: "should he deal with our sister as an harlot?".

Jacob and his family flee to Beth-El. Eventually, Rachel dies, and Isaac dies of old age. Esau and Jacob bury their father together. The Torah portion ends with a description of Esau's household and wealth, and the agreement that Esau will move to Edom to separate his household from Jacob's. It is mentioned that among Esau's Edomite descendants is Amelek, the great enemy of the Jewish people.

I think the anti-Esau crowd use this mention to justify why they despise Esau so much, but nobody can control whether or not they have evil descendants. But it does set the stage for much of the drama to come, when the Israelites free Egypt and engage in war in Moab in Edom.

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