Sedra of the week: Vayishlach

Sedra of the week: Vayishlach

Ariel Abel is rabbi of the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation

by Rabbi Ariel AbelSedra-of-the-week-300x208

After his dramatic exit from Laban’s household, Jacob sent messengers ahead of his return to Canaan and heard that his brother Esau was preparing to meet him with a company the size of an army.

Afraid for his life, Jacob split his family into two camps, reasoning that if one group got attacked, the other would be able to flee from his brother’s vengeance. The night before the fraternal meeting, a mysterious man wrestled all night with Jacob until morning dawned, when he blessed him and renamed him ‘Yisrael” – he who struggles with God and wins.

During the wrestling Jacob suffered a dislocated thigh, for which reason to this day Jews must remove the sinew before consuming the hindquarter of kosher quadrupeds. Esau had hated Jacob for more than two decades for appropriating his blessing in their father’s old age. On meeting his brother, Jacob offered to return the birthright he had purchased many years earlier.

Esau refused it – on the grounds of having plenty – and soon departed from his brother, bloodlessly. Jacob settled on a parcel of land he bought outside Shechem, modern Nablus.

His daughter Dina, charming and beautiful, caught the eye of a young Canaanite prince. One day, the prince snatched her from her female friends and slept with her.

The prince, Shechem, son of Hamor, asked Jacob’s family for her hand in marriage to unite the two tribes through intermarriage and shared enterprise.

Jacob’s sons intervened, suggesting that the townsmen circumcise the males first as a precondition for Dina’s handover. On the third and most painful day after their operation, the brothers attacked and killed every male in the town. Jacob was furious at the wanton bloodshed, but his sons were unrepentant.

God instructed Jacob to move to Beth-El and after the death of Deborah, the nursemaid of his mother Rebecca, confirmed Yisrael as Jacob’s official name. On the way to Bethlehem, Rachel died while giving birth to Binyamin.

Jacob buried her near the roadside. Rachel’s place among the Prophets – in the Book of Jeremiah – is that of the restless matriarch interceding in Heaven for her suffering descendants.

Following Rachel’s death, Reuben slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. In spite of this trespass, he remains included as one of the 12 sons of his father. Isaac’s death is recorded, and Esau’s dynastic history is related, all the way down to Saul, the first king of Israel.

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