Tuesday, November 27, 2012

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 (32:1,2), 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 used as such) that we get the noun: "m’la'cha," occupation, work, workmanship (such as the service 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" (or “livestock”) 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, and even His work of creation.

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 say about the society where this usage originated? What does it tell us 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 only within one's vicinit. Rather, it appears that the work is rendered or performed for the community and is looked upon as a mission (by its very definition) and therefore cannot be considered incidental or self-serving. The word "m'la’cha" also refers to the one performing it, again, pointing to a 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" (italics added).

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 usage of "double camp." Here (ref. 32:7; 33:1), Ya'acov is actually dividing up his family into two (out of concern for their safety, but employing a strategy typical of his cunning disposition). This division hints, yet again, at the future state of his house/family/projeny. We must note, however, that this present division does not conform to the way in which the 'nation of Ya'acov' eventually split up.

In chapter 32: 22, 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 noun "ah’vak," which is “dust.” Naturallly, an 'engagement' such as the one Ya'acov and the "man" were involved in would have raised no small amount of dust. "Ah’vak" speaks of very fine dust, not the kind that is translated "dust of the earth," which is "ah'far" (which we discussed 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 obscure 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" (v. 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.

The name “Yisra'el” is a composite word formed from the verb "sara" (s.r.h. sin, resh, hey), to “rule, persist, persevere, strive,” and "el" - “strong” or “mighty one,” from which the word “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 the definition of the name? Were his 'dusty' struggles on behalf of self' taken into account in this lofty pronouncement? Or was it simply a statement of facts, devoid of any qualitative and personal evaluations? Was the name Yisra’el and its meaning 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?" (v. 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 reply is followed by the words, "and he blessed him there" (v. 29). What was the blessing? Did it simply constitute the name change?

After his first heavenly encounter, when he had depated from the land, Ya’acov’s experience was marked by the 'Elohim of a place.' He had literally deemed to have been in what he termed as 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. 32:20). 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," 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 (Gen. 13:6) 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 will turn out to be 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 on going maturation process, from that point, becomes evident. First, he orders his family to "put away the foreign gods which are among you…" (v. 2). In last week's Parasha (chapter 31:31ff.), 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 (v.4). This small tree, along with the "alon" (“oak”) share the root "el," pointing to strength, and hence "el” - "god," which has been surfacing often in these narratives about Ya'acov. In fact, in these Parashot (plural for Parasha), the title "Elohim" (plural of "el"), rather than YHVH, is the more prevalent one. 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 Yisrael, 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 35:3 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 two 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, 10 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. v. 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 meet and are 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. v.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 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 (v. 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 “take a stand.” Just as he did in last week’s Parasha, Ya’acov again commemorates the events in his life by signposts.

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 Yisrael's fiercest enemy. Being a firstborn (and a son of a firstborn), Amalek must have inherited his grandfather Esav’s hatred for and murderous impulse against Ya'acov, and has therefore always trageted the latter’s progeny, resulting in a state of perpetual animosity (ref. Gen. 27:41; Ex. 17:8-14, 16; Deut. 25:17-19).