Vayishlach: Becoming Israel

Jacob, the man of truth, was forced to deceive and connive.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

The prophet Micah prophesied during the reigns of Kings Yotam (Jotham), Ahaz, and Yechizkiyah (Hezekiah) of Judah, and he prophesied the events that were to befall Samaria, the capital of Israel (the northern Kingdom) and Jerusalem, the capital of Judah (the southern Kingdom).

He castigated both Kingdoms for their rebelliousness against G-d, and their inhabitants for their callousness towards their fellow-Jews. He warned them of the dire consequences of their actions – invasion and exile.

And he also prophesied the more distant future, the majesty and the glory that await Israel in the time to come. He prophesied the restoration of “the Mountain of the House of Hashem” at the end of days (Micah 4:1), when “it will be exalted above the hills, and nations will stream to it...because from Zion the Torah will go forth, and the Word of Hashem from Jerusalem” (v. 2).

And Micah concludes his prophecy: “You will give truth to Jacob, loving-kindness to Abraham, which You swore to our forefathers from the earliest days” (Micah 7:20).

Jacob was born and destined to be the man of truth. Yet he had to overcome his basic nature in order to fulfil his destiny. Jacob, the man of truth, was forced to deceive and connive.

Though he was the younger twin, he succeeded in inheriting Esau’s birthright (25:29-34): when Esau came home from his hunting in the field and saw his younger twin cooking the lentil-stew, his request was: הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה, “feed me, please, from this red red” (Genesis 25:30), and Jacob gave him a meal of bread and stew in exchange for his birthright.

Over half a century later, he employed deviousness to receive his blessing (27:1-29). Consequently, fleeing from Esau’s wrath, he found refuge with his devious and mendacious uncle Laban, where he was again forced to use chicanery to receive his just wages for his twenty years of labour (30:31-43), and ultimately to be able to leave and return home with his wives, children, and property (31:1-21).

This week, Parashat Vayishlach opens with Jacob sending messengers (whether humans or angels) ahead of him to report on what his twin brother Esau was doing, and how he was planning on greeting his brother upon his return to his native land (32:4).

Receiving the ominous report that Esau was approaching with 400 men (32:7), men who were military commanders (Targum Yonatan and Tergum Yerushalmi ad loc.), Jacob utilised three stratagems to protect himself and his family: he divided his entourage into two camps, so that if one were attacked the other would survive (Genesis 32:8-9); he prayed to G-d to protect him and his family (vs. 10-13); and he sent generous gifts to placate his brother (vs. 14-22).

And that night, he rose and took his wives, his handmaids, and his children across the River Jabbok (v. 23), giving them additional protection from his brother Esau (Rashbam and Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch ad loc.)

Then “Jacob was left by himself, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn broke. And when saw that he could not defeat him, he touched the socket of his thigh, so Jacob’s thigh-socket was dislocated by his wrestling with him. And he said: Send me forth, because the dawn has broken! And he said: I will not send you forth unless you bless me!” (vs. 25-27).

Who was this mysterious “man”? This dark entity who could only oppose Jacob in the dark of night, and who had to be sent on his way, back to wherever he had come from, as soon as dawn broke? Who could not exist in the open honesty of daylight?

According to Targum Yonatan (ad loc.) and the Midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 3:3 and Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 37), this was an angel in the guise of a man. Other Midrashim (Bereishit Rabbah 77:3, Shir Hashirim Rabbah 3:3, and Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 132 and 133) identify this angel as the angel of Esau.

Each nation has an angel who protects it and directs its destiny; Esau’s angel was protecting his nation and directing its destiny by fighting against Jacob. Hence the Midrash Tanhuma (Vayishlach 8) identifies this angel as “Samael, the angel of Esau, who sought to kill him”.

Samael is one of the names of the Satan. This was the force of darkness and of evil which confronted Jacob as he was returning to his homeland.

When Jacob returned to Canaan, a new phase of his life began: he would no longer be devious to achieve his destiny. For the first time, he confronted an adversary directly, fighting against him in open conflict.

This adversary demanded that Jacob release him and send him on his way – and Jacob held him hostage, making a demand in return: “I will not send you forth unless you bless me!”

The angel’s puzzling response was to ask him: “What is your name?” (Genesis 32:28), to which Jacob gave the simple answer, “Jacob”. And the angel gave an equally puzzling blessing: “No longer will your name be spoken as ‘Jacob’, rather ‘Israel’, because you have fought with G-d and with men and you have defeated”.

Why did Samael, the Satan, the adversary, the angel of Esau, respond to Jacob’s demand for a blessing by asking his name? Did he not know Jacob’s name? Did he not know perfectly well who he was fighting? Was he not fully aware who he was desperately trying to prevent from returning to the Land that G-d had promised to him and his descendants?

According to Rashi, “this question introduced his words, as with ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9), ‘What is that in your hand?’ (Exodus 4:2), and other similar examples; because he knew his name when he was sent to him”.

Nevertheless, even as an introductory question, this remains intriguing. Why ask “What is your name?”, rather than “Where are you going?”, or “Where are you coming from?”, or “Who are you afraid of?”, all of which would seem more appropriate as an introduction to a blessing.

And to compound the puzzlement – what kind of a blessing does Esau’s angel confer upon Jacob? “No longer will your name be spoken as ‘Jacob’, rather ‘Israel’”. Why is this name-change a blessing?

I suggest: –

Thirty-four years earlier, when Jacob (justifiably?) used deceit to acquire Esau’s intended blessing from his father for himself, Esau was outraged: “Is it because his name is ‘Jacob’ that he has outwitted me these two times?! My birthright he took! And look – now he has taken my blessing!” (Genesis 27:36).

This is Esau’s bitterly cynical interpretation of his younger brother’s name. Jacob – “Ya’akov”, from the word “eikev”, “heel”, because Jacob was born clutching Esau’s heel (25:26). But Esau here interprets “Ya’akov” to mean “he-will-supplant” (Rashi and Ohr ha-Chayim to Genesis 27:36) – perfectly correct Hebrew. Both the Ibn Ezra (ibid.) and the Radak (ibid.) note that the word “eikev” connotes “deceit” – supplanting or overtaking or replacing by deceit.

And indeed, every important event of Jacob’s life until his encounter with the angel involved deceit.

His receiving the birthright, his receiving his father’s blessing, his leaving home to escape his brother’s murderous fury, his employment with his uncle, his marrying the girl he loved, his receiving his just wages for 20 years’ labour, his leaving his uncle’s house to go back home – in every single defining event of his life he either deceived others or was deceived by others.

This was the result of his being named Jacob – “Ya’acov” – “He-will-supplant”, connoting “He-will-supplant-by-deception”.

But when confronting Esau’s angel, for the first time he was direct and forthright. Hence the angel’s question: “What is your name?” Are you Ya’akov, He-will-supplant-by-deception?

Hence the angel’s blessing: You will no longer be called Ya’akov, “He-will-supplant-by-deception”. Instead you will be called יִשְׂרָאֵל, Yisra’el – Israel – meaning “fought with G-d”, also connoting יָשָׁר אֵל, “straight to G-d” or “straight with G-d” (following the Kli Yakar on Genesis 32:29 and 35:10 and the Ohr ha-Chayim on Numbers 23:9).

And since these works were unvowellised in the original, יִשְׂרָאֵל could also connote יְשָׁר אֵל, “the straight one of G-d”.

We now understand Esau’s angel’s blessing: You will no longer be called Ya’akov, he-who-supplants-by-deception; instead you will be called Yisra’el, straight-to-G-d, straight-with-G-d, the straight-one-of-G-d. You will now live your destiny as the man of truth.

Indeed, there can be no greater blessing than this.

When Esau had discovered that Jacob had supplanted him by deception and taken the blessing that his father had designated for him, וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד מְאֹד, “he screamed an exceedingly great and bitter scream…and Esau raised his voice and wept” (Genesis 27:34-38).

The Midrash tells us that “the evil Esau shed three tears: one from his right eye, one from his left eye, and the third remained bound up in his eye and did not descend. When was this? – When Isaac blessed Jacob, as it says ‘and Esau raised his voice and wept’” (Tanhuma, Kedoshim 15).

And in greater detail: “There were three people who wept and God heard their weeping – Hagar, Esau, and Hezekiah… Esau wept – ‘and Esau raised his voice and wept’ – and because of these three tears that he shed, Israel was conquered by a foreign hostile army” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 47).

However justified Jacob was in obtaining his father’s blessing, it was inappropriate for him to obtain it through dishonest means. And for this, Jacob’s descendants were punished.

A millennium and a quarter after Isaac blessed Jacob with the blessing he had intended for Esau, the descendants of both twins were living in Shushan, the capital of Persia. It was there and then that Esau’s descendant, Haman, passed the infamous decree of genocide against Jacob’s descendants, all the Jews of the Persian Empire.

And when the Jewish leader, Mordechai, knew of this decree, “Mordechai rent his garments, he donned sackcloth and ashes, he went out in the midst of the city, וַיִּזְעַק זְעָקָה גְדֹלָה וּמָרָה, and he screamed a great and bitter scream” (Esther 4:1).

It is no coincidence that the author of the Megillat Esther used the same expression to describe Mordechai’s reaction as the Torah had used to describe Esau’s reaction. (צְעָקָה and זְעָקָה are almost synonymous, the letters צ and ז being phonetically similar and interchangeable: see Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s comments on Genesis 18:20.)

As the Midrash expounds: “Whoever says that G-d compromises [on justice] – his life will be compromised! He is indeed slow to anger, but He exacts [justice]. Jacob caused Esau to scream once... – and where was he punished for it? – In Shushan the capital [of Persia], as it says ‘[Mordechai] screamed a great and bitter scream’” (Bereishit Rabbah 67:4).

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the initial letters of הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן..., “feed me, please, from...”, Esau’s request to his brother Jacob, spell the name הָמָן, Haman: “This teaches that just as Jacob bought the birthright from Esau with bread and lentils, so too Mordechai bought Haman as a slave with bread” (following Megillah 15b).

Though the initial letters of הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן are actually הנם, we look at the letters, not necessarily at the order in which they appear.

A millennium and a quarter would go by before Haman would burst onto the scene and give murderous expression to Esau’s request – and then Jacob’s descendants would bear the punishment for their ancestor’s dishonesty.

And then, at their hour of most desperate need, facing extermination, their ancestor Jacob/Israel stood by them to save them. When the angel blessed Jacob by changing his name, his Hebrew syntax was somewhat unusual: לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל, “No longer will your name be spoken as ‘Jacob’, rather ‘Israel’”.

I suggest that it is no idle coincidence that the final letters of the phrase ... יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם... are the letters of the name מָרְדֳּכַי, Mordechai. (As with Esau’s phrase foreshadowing Haman, we look at the letters, not necessarily at the order in which they appear.)

There was a reason that Esau’s angel used this unusual syntax. Purposely or not, he was already preparing his enemy, Israel’s descendants, to defeat the descendant of his own patron.

For decades, Jacob was constrained to use subterfuge to achieve his rightful destiny. But that stopped when he returned to his homeland, when Jacob became Israel, when “he-will-deviously-supplant” became “the-straight-one-of-G-d”.

In the night of exile, and when the Land of Israel was under foreign occupation, Israel was always forced to rely on subterfuge, cunning, devious plots, camouflage, to survive, scattered throughout the world as a minority among hostile nations.

In several days we will begin Hanukkah, celebrating the time when Israel retook control over his ancestral homeland, cleansed it of idolatry, and stood upright, going once again straight to G-d, becoming once again the straight one of G-d.

And over the last couple of generations, Israel has begun to shed the shackles of exile and of foreign occupation inside the Land of Israel. We have once again “crossed the river” to return to our ancestral homeland. Any number of dark angels have stood against us to prevent us from returning: the murderous angel of Esau (Christian or post-Christian Europe) and the murderous angel of Ishmael (the Islamic and Arab world) chief among them.

But the dawn of redemption is breaking, and we have again become Israel. We are living Micah’s prophecy from millennia ago – the time when “the Mountain of the House of Hashem...will be exalted above the hills, and nations will stream to it...because from Zion the Torah will go forth, and the Word of Hashem from Jerusalem”.

This the generation in which Hashem does indeed “give truth to Jacob, loving-kindness to Abraham, which You swore to our forefathers from the earliest days” (Micah 7:20).