Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’yishlach – B’resheet (Genesis): 32:3 -ch.36
"Then Ya'acov sent [va’yishlach] messengers - "mala'chim" - before him to his brother Esau…" (32:3). These are the opening words of our Parasha. "Mal'achim" are angels, messengers or emissaries. Ya'acov had seen them in dreams (aside from the famous ladder scene in 28:12, an angel also addressed him in a dream in 31:11 ff). He had also run into YHVH's messengers when he departed from Lah'van (31:1,2), and now he sends messengers, human “mal'achim,” to his brother Esav. The root of "mal'ach" (singular) is “la'a'ch” (lamed, alef, chaf), meaning "to send." It is from this verb (which is not in use) that we get the noun: "m’la'cha," occupation, work, workmanship (such as the kind that was preformed in the Tabernacle), possession and more. Later on, when Esav proposes that Ya'acov come along with him with his entire entourage, the latter refuses, saying that he will move "according to the pace of the cattle that are before him…" (33:14). "Cattle" here is also "m’la’cha," as the herds were going out ahead, or being sent forth in front of the retinue. When "YHVH rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done" (Gen. 2:2), it was His "m'la’cha" that He ceased from. This is one example of how the Hebrew language is able to accommodate, as it were, in one word or term, cattle, angels, occupation, the holy service rendered unto YHVH in the Tabernacle, His work of creation etc.
Such diverse 'blends' are not uncommon in Hebrew, and provide a window into understanding the thought pattern or mentality of the society which gave birth to them. When the root word for "work," for example, is "to send forth" what does it tell us about the society where this usage originated? What does it say about the basic understanding of the concept of "work" or "occupation"? It certainly speaks of a type of accomplishment or product which does not remain in confinement, or within one's immediate vicinity. Rather, it is something which is rendered or performed for the community. A work looked upon as a mission (by its very definition) cannot be considered incidental or self-serving only, but is goal-oriented. The word "m'la’cha" also speaks or refers to the one performing it; again, denoting a very socially inclined community. The content of the one and only proverb where "m'la’cha" is found, validates what the etymology of this word reveals. Thus, Mishley (Proverbs) 24:27 reads, "prepare your work ("m'la’cha") outside, and make it ready for yourself in the field; afterwards, then, build your [own] house."
Just before Ya'acov and company venture to cross the Yarden (Jordan), in anticipation of the unknown, the much concerned Ya'acov prays for safety and deliverance. He also expresses gratitude to the Elohim of His fathers, acknowledging his own unworthiness "of all the lovingkindness and of all the faithfulness which You have shown to Your servant; for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies (camps - "ma'cha'not")" (32:10). At the end of last week's Parasha we noted the word usage of the "double camp." Here, Ya'acov is actually dividing up his family (out of concern for their safety, employing a strategy typical of his cunning disposition) into "two companies" (again, "camps", 33:1ff.), which hints yet again of the future division of his house. We must note, however, that this present division does not conform to the way the 'nation of Ya'acov' eventually splits up.
In verses 22 and 23 we read: "Now he arose that same night and took his two wives and his two maids and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak." Wrestle here, "(va)ye'a'vek", is remarkably similar to the proper name "Yabbok” – “Jabbok” (remember, that in Hebrew b and v sounds are designated by the same letter), the root of both being a.v.k (alef, vet, kof), forming the word "ah’vak." What is “ah’vak”? Ah’vak is “dust” and naturally an 'engagement,' such as the one Ya'acov and the "man" were involved in, would have raised no small amount of dust, especially considering the location of the scene. "Ah’vak" speaks of very fine dust, not the kind that is translated "dust of the earth," which is "ah'far" (such as we saw in Parashat Chayey Sarah), referring to grains of sand. The dust contained in the river's name, as well as in the verb chosen to describe Ya'acov's struggle with the unnamed person in the dark, add all the more to the haziness and mystery which obscures the event itself. Even Ya'acov's name-change to “Yisra'el” is not quite clear. The reason for the change is given as, "For you have striven with Elohim and with men and have prevailed" (ve. 28). The name was bestowed in response to Ya'acov's demand to be blessed by the "man," whom he was not willing to release until and unless his request was granted. However, Yabbok may also be connected to the root b.k.k which forms the verb for to “empty out,” being quite appropriate to the scene that had just been imposed upon Ya’acov/Yisrael.
“Yisra'el” is formed from the verb "sara" (s.r.h. sin, resh, hey), to “rule, persist, persevere, strive,” and "el," which is “strong” or “mighty one,” from which “Elohim” is derived. What was meant by the declaration to Ya’acov, and in what way did his life, at least up to that point, conform to this definition? Were his 'dusty' struggles on behalf of self' taken into account in this lofty definition? Or was this definition simply a statement of facts, devoid of any qualitative and personal evaluations? Was the name Yisra’el and its definition simply the Almighty's way of bestowing pure and unadulterated grace upon him - the name possessing more of a prophetic significance for a future day when Ya'acov would be empowered by his Elohim - rather than a description of present day facts? Still, the persistence that Ya'acov demonstrated that night did, to some degree, validate the meaning of the new name.
When it was Ya'acov's turn to ask the ‘mystery man’ for his name, the response came in the form of a question: "Why is it that you ask my name?" (ve. 29). When Ma’no'ach (Manoah), Shimshon's (Samson) father, asked the very same question of the messenger ("mal’ach") who came to him, the response was "for it is wonderful" (Judges 13:18). In the case before us, the response is followed by the words, "and he blessed him there" (ve. 29). What was the blessing? Did it simply constitute the name change?
When Ya'acov first departed from the land and had this first heavenly encounter, his experience was marked by 'Elohim of a place.' He had literally been in what he termed the "house of Elohim"! (Gen. 28:16,17). However, upon his return, it is the "face of Elohim" that he encounters – “P'ni'el” (ref. ve. 31). An echo of his P'ni'el experience may be detected in what he says to his brother Esav in 33:10, "for I see your face ("pa’ne'cha") as one sees the face of Elohim ("p'ney Elohim")" (italics added). Ya'acov's perspective certainly seems to have changed. Having seen "Elohim face to face" (v. 31), he is now able to view Esav differently.
As he re-enters the land of his fathers, Ya'acov walks in the footsteps of his grandfather Avraham and comes to Sh'chem (Shechem). His coming to that town after the encounter with his brother does not pass by unnoticed, "and Ya'acov came safely to the city of Shechem" (33:18). Ya'acov came "shalem" - that is, whole, in one piece and in peace to Sh'chem ("shalem" of course being of the same root as "shalom"). Perhaps this is also an ironic preamble to the events about to follow, which were far from peacful. Thus the next chapter introduces us to the conflict between Ya'acov's family and the local populace. In 34:21 the root sh.l.m comes up again, when Cha’mor (Hamor) and his son Sh'chem attempt to talk the town folk into being circumcised. Among some of the things that they say about Ya'acov and his family, they also mention that "these people are peaceful toward us…" - "sh'lemim," “whole hearted, with good intentions, undivided.” We soon learn that nothing could be further from the truth.
In chapter 35:1, Elohim tells Ya'acov to "rise ("kum") - and go to Bet-El…and to make an altar there to Elohim, who appeared before you…." Last week we noted that Ya'acov's call to "rise up" started sounding when he first found himself in the "makom" (place) which he named Bet-El. Now, having completed a full cycle, Ya'acov is to go back there and continue to "rise up." Truly, Ya'acov's continual growth from that point is evident. First, he orders his family to "put away the foreign gods which are among you…" (ve. 2). In last week's Parasha (chapter 31), we saw that Ya'acov's household was not free of idolatry, indeed the ‘man about the house’ seemed to tolerate that state of affairs - but not so now! After all the foreign idols and the earrings are gathered, Ya'acov buries them under the "ela," the terebinth tree. This small tree, along with the "alon" (“oak”) share the root "el," speaking of strength, and hence "el," "god," which has been surfacing often in these narratives about Ya'acov, along with his new name, Yisra’el. In fact, in these Parashot (plural for Parasha), the title "Elohim" (plural of "el"), rather than YHVH, is the one which is used more often. In verse 8 of our passage, Rivka's nurse, D'vora (Deborah), dies and is buried under the "alon," and thus the place was named Alon Ba'chut ("oak of weeping"). Many other place names bear titles connected to the oak tree (Elon Moreh, Eloney - "oaks of…" - Mamreh etc.), which is indigenous to the land of Israel, and is known for its strength and rejuvenation ability. The oak and the teberinth have both remained symbols of strength and durability, and as such, the remnant of the Nation is compared to them in Yishayahu (Isaiah) 6:13, "Yet there will be a tenth portion… and it will again burn, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains when it is felled…." (italics added).
In verse 3, Ya'acov calls his Elohim: "The El who answered me in the day of my distress…" ("tzarati") (emphasis added). Before that, in 32:7, we read that he "was greatly afraid and distressed." The word for "distressed" there is "(va)ye'tzar." The root of both these words is tz.o.r. (tzadi, vav, resh). The two main consonants (tz.r.) happen to be used in numerous other words, such as “adversity, affliction, anguish, distress, tribulation or trouble,” and in several more such as tza'ar - sorrow; tzar - enemy, adversary; tzarar - bind, tie up, restrict, narrow, scant, cramped, a show of hostility, vexing; tzaraf - smelt, refine, test; matzref - a crucible or instrument of refining; tzir'ah - hornet; tzorev - burn, scorch; tzara'at - leprosy; batzoret - drought; matzor - siege; mitzrayim – Egypt, and more. Finally, Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 30:7 contains a reference to "tzarat Ya'acov," Ya'acov's trouble: "Alas! For that day is great, so that none is like it; and it is the time of Jacob’s trouble, but he shall be saved out of it."
In 35:9, Elohim appears before Ya'acov once again, blessing and reminding him that his name is no longer Ya'acov, but Yisrael, repeating the promises He had given to his fathers. In commemoration of the event, Ya'acov-cum-Yisrael sets up a pillar over which he pours oil (ref. ve. 14). Thus, the first 15 verses of chapter 35 seem to sum up, bring to a conclusion, resolve, touch upon eternal principles (of redemption) and recall past events, while also reiterating blessings and future promises, as well as hinting at other events to come. Looking at this rather short, yet intense and power-packed passage from our (time) perspective, it appears that the past and the future met and were encapsulated in a dynamic moment in time!
Next comes the birth of Binyamin, whom his mother names Ben-Oni, "son of my strength," and whose father calls "Ben-Yamin," meaning "son of the right (hand)" (ref. ve.18). Perhaps Ya'acov does not want to perpetuate the sad memory of his beloved wife's waning strength, all of which was invested in giving birth to her son. Naming him as he does, Ya'acov is actually conferring upon him a firstborn position, perhaps also because he was the first and only one to be born in the land. Upon Ra’chel’s death, Ya’acov sets up a pillar upon her grave (35:20). Doing this he is actually repeating what he had done in verse 14 above, after YHVH had talked to him. In both cases it says, “va’ya’tzev ma’tze’va,” that is “and he placed a pillar.” The very act of placing, as well as the pillar itself are of the root y.tz.v. (yod, tzadi, bet/vet), meaning to “station,” or “make a stand.” Just as he did in last week’s Parasha, Ya’acov again commemorates the events in his life in this way.
In chapter 36, the Parasha’s last, there is a short episode (verses 6 and 7), interposed in the record of Esav's progeny, which explains the physical separation of the brothers - Ya’acov and Esav: "For their property had become too great for them to live together, and the land where they sojourned could not sustain them because of their livestock." This is a clear echo from the past, reminding us of Avraham and Lot's separation (ref. Gen. 13;1-12).
Let us also take note of verse 12, which tells us that Esav's first born, Elifaz, had a firstborn by his concubine Timnah, whom he named Amalek. The latter was to become Israel's fiercest enemy. Being a firstborn (and a son of a firstborn), Amalek must have been the direct recepient of his grandfather Esav’s hatred for and murderous impulse against Ya'acov, and therefore has always trageted the latter’s progeny (ref. Gen. 27:41; Ex. 17:14, 16; Deut. 25:17, 19 etc.).