Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’yishlach B’resheet (Genesis): 32:3 - ch.36


"Then Ya'acov sent  [va’yishlach] messengers - "mal’a'chim" - before him to his brother Esau…"  (32:3). These are the opening words of our Parasha. "Mal'a’chim", as we know, 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 31:10-13). He had also run into YHVH's messengers when he departed from Lah'van (32:1,2), and now he sends messengers, human “mal'a’chim”, to his brother Esav. The root of "mal'a’ch" (singular) is “la'a'ch” (lamed, alef, chaf), meaning "to send". It is from this verb (which is not in use as such) that we get the noun: "m’la'cha", occupation, work, workmanship (such as the service that was preformed in the Mishkan), possession and more. Later on, when Esav will propose that Ya'acov come along with him with his entire entourage, the latter will refuse and say 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 would typically go out ahead, or be 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" from which He had ceased. 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 His Abodde, and even His work of creation.

Such diverse ‘blends’ are not uncommon in Hebrew, and provide a window to the understanding of 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 production or labor which does not remain in confinement, or only within one's vicinity. 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 member of 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. At the same time 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). The text of 32:11-12a is sung (in Hebrew) by Yonatan Razel. Here is the link: 

At the end of last week's Parasha we noted the usage of "double camp" – “machanayim”. Here (in 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 shrewd disposition). This division hints, yet again, at the future state of his house/family/progeny. We must note, however, that the present division does not conform to the way in which the 'nation of Ya'acov' will eventually split up. In his prayer, in 32:10, he makes reference to having become “two camps” (translated “companies”), which unlike last week’s “double camp”, here is a plain “shney machanot” (“machaneh” singular, “machanot” plural). When meeting up with his brother, Esav, the latter refers to Ya’acov’s family as a “machaneh” (33:8). In 32;21, Ya’acov is said to have “lodged that night in the camp”.

Shortly after, the following scene ensues: "Now he [Ya’acov] 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" (32: 22, 24). 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/b.k (alef, vet/bet, kof), forming the noun "ah’vak", which is “dust”. Naturallly, an 'engagement' such as the one in which Ya'acov and the "man" were involved 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" (mentioned and discussed in Parashat Chayey Sarah in Gen. 23). 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 even more (proverbial) haziness and mystery to the already obscure event. 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" (32:28). 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. Additionally, the river’s name, “Yabbok”, may also be connected to the root b.k.k (bet, kof, kof) which forms the verb for to “empty out”, thus lending another possible perspective to the scene that had just been imposed upon Ya’acov/Yisrael.

The name “Yisra'el” is a composite word formed by 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 was his life, at least up to that point, congruent with the definition of this 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? Whether Ya’acov ‘merited’ this name at that moment, at least the persistence that he demonstrated that night did, to some degree, validate the meaning of the new name.

Incidentally, if one were to read the consonants making up “Yisrael” without any vowels (which would have been absent in the original Scripture writings), it could be read as “yashar-el” – El is upright (and hence in the future even Yaacov-Yisrael will be ‘nicknamed’ Yeshurun – the one who has been made straight/upright).

 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?" (32:29). 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). Another one who was conferred the name “wonderful” (counselor) is the “child who was born to us and th son who was given to us” (see Isaiah 9:6).  In the case before us the reply is followed by, "and he blessed him there". What was the blessing? Did it simply constitute the name change? Additionally, seeing that the story of Yaacov is so replete with “mal’achim” it is quite intriguing that in this particular episode the one, whom we just compared to the person who appeared before Shimshon’s parents, is not called a “mal’a’ch”, but rather “a man” – “ish”! But in Yaacov’s eyes this “man” was Elohim Himself (see 32:31).*

That “mal’achim” are an inextricable part of Ya’acov’s life experience will become evident even later on, as even close to death and while about to bless Yosef’s sons,  when Ya’acov reflects upon his life he makes reference to the “angel who redeemed me from all evil” and even invokes him as the one who was to “bless the lads” (Gen. 48:16). In Hosea 12:4, the “man” whom Ya’acov struggled with, who as we noted was not defined as a “mal’ach” in the original scene, is recognized as such.

After his first heavenly encounter, upon departing from the land, Ya’acov’s experience was marked by the  'Elohim of a place', as he deemed to have been in what he called, "the house of Elohim" (“bet El” - Gen. 28:16,17,19). However, now, upon his return, it is the "face of Elohim" that he encounters – “P'ni'el (ref. 32:31). 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", he is now able to view even Esav differently.

As he re-enters the land of his fathers, Ya'acov walks in the footsteps of his grandfather Avraham (see 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 cf. 28:21, where Yaacov prayed for a safe return - shalom). The literal rendering here is, “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 that are 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. Included in what they said about Ya'acov and his family were also the following words: "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 (see 34:25-29).

In chapter 35:1 Elohim tells Ya'acov to "rise ("kum") and go to Bet-El… and 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 (ref 28:19). Now, having completed a full cycle, Ya'acov is to go back there and continue to "rise up." Truly, from that point Ya'acov's on going maturation process becomes evident. First, he orders his family to "put away the foreign gods which are among you…" (v. 2). In last week's Parasha (31:32b etc.) 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 were gathered (some of which may have been part of the plunder of the Shechemites 34:29), Ya'acov buried 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, seems to be more prevalent.  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 an indigenous tree 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).

Back to our narrative in chapter 35, where Ya'acov calls his Elohim:  "The El who answered me in the day of my distress…" ("tzarati") (35:3, 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 tzadi, resh) 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 –  straits, Egypt, and more. 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".

Immediately after Dvorah’s burial 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 (ref. 35:9-11). This is the first time that Elohim reveals Himself to Ya’acov also as El-Shaddai (the “breasted Elohim”). The death of the nurse maid signified severance (for Yisrael) from the natural “breasts” and having to now cling to Elohim’s.  In commemoration of the event, Ya'acov-cum-Yisrael sets up a pillar over which he pours oil (v. 14).

Next comes the birth of Binyamin, whom his mother named Ben-Oni, commonly translated “son of my sorrow”, although the usage of “on” as “strength” is much more prevalent. Thus if the labor and birth of Binyamin (as the name is pronounced in Hebrew) drained all of Rachel’s energy and vigor, she could have easily meant his name to be   "son of my strength". His father, on the other hand, called him "Ben-Yamin", meaning "son of the right (hand)" (35:18). Naming him as he did, Ya'acov was actually conferring upon him a firstborn position, perhaps because he was the first and only one to be born in the Land. In B’resheet 49:3, in Ya’acov’s last words to his sons he says about Reuven: “you are my firstborn, My might and the beginning of my strength…” “Strength” in this instance is also “on”. Thus a certain symmetry emerges here; Ya’acov’s last words to his sons echo the words of his beloved wife about the youngest son, who exhausted her strength, while Yisrael’s firstborn exhausted more than once his father’s expectations of being mighty and strong  (and hence ended up losing this position, see 1st Chron. 5:1).

Upon Ra’chel’s death, Ya’acov set up a pillar on her grave (35: 20). Doing this he was 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 (yod, tzadi, bet/vet), meaning to “station” or “take a stand”. Just as he did in last week’s Parasha (ref 28:18), Ya’acov again commemorates the events in his life by signposts. There is a significant reference to signposts and landmarks in Jeremiah 31:21 (while in 14-15 there is reference to Rachel), where the command to the virgin daughter of Yisrael, using the same by-now-familiar verb, is issued: “set up” (signposts and landmarks) – ha’tzivi  (imperative, feminine, singular).

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). However, this piece of information is somewhat curious, because in 32:3 we are told that Esav’s dwelling place was in “Seir, in the country of Edom”. Could it be that up until Ya’acov’s return, his brother held on to the land on both sides of the River?

Let us also take note of 36:12, which tells us that Esav's first born, Elifaz, had a firstborn by his concubine Timnah (who herself was of a noble family of the Horites, 36:22), 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 carried his grandfather Esav’s hatred for, and murderous impulse against Ya'acov, and has therefore always targeted the latter’s progeny, resulting in a state of perpetual animosity (ref. Gen. 27:41; Ex. 17:8-14, 16; Deut. 25:17-19).

 * “Hypostatic union” is the theological term used for the ‘union’ of Messiah’s humanity and divinity.

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