December 5, 2020, 5 Kislev 5781
Torah: Genesis 32:4-36:43; Triennial 34:1-35:15
Haftorah: Obadiah 1:1-21


In this week's Torah Sparks, you'll find a dvar torah on Parashat Vayishlach. Ilana Kurshan writes about "Keeping Things Whole". Vered Hollander-Goldfarber poses questions titled "Fight or Flight or…". And Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes about "Measure for Measure - The Musical Version" in the haftorah.
D'var Torah:
Keeping Things Whole 
Ilana Kurshan
In this week’s parsha, Jacob is described as being shalem, a term that is often translated as “whole” and connotes peace, completion, and perfection: “And Jacob arrived shalem to Shechem” (Gen. 33:18). This verse appears after an account of the patriarch’s mounting anxiety as he anticipates encountering Esau and the surprising anticlimax that follows. Jacob, after sending abundant gifts of cattle to appease his brother and praying to God for deliverance, resorts to the desperate measure of dividing his family into two camps, in the hope that if Esau were to attack, he would lose only half his family. To his surprise, however, he finds himself struggling not with Esau but with a mysterious figure who approaches him in the darkness while he waits alone on a river bank. Somehow Jacob succeeds in fighting off the unnamed aggressor and concludes that he has seen “Peniel” – the face of God. Even more surprising, when Esau finally makes his appearance, he kisses and embraces Jacob, and the brothers part in peace. Having successfully navigated these two encounters – one with an angel who acts like an aggressor, and one with an aggressor who acts like an angel – Jacob arrives at Shechem in a state of perfect, complete, and peaceful wholeness. 

The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) interprets this type of wholeness as having three components: It refers to Jacob’s body, his finances, and his Torah study. In spite of his limp, and in spite of his generous gifts to his brother, and in spite of the fact that he has just spent twenty years working as a shepherd for his uncle, Jacob nonetheless arrives at Shechem feeling content physically, financially, and intellectually. It seems that this sense of wholeness is related less to objective circumstances and more to the way that Jacob feels about himself following the challenges he has managed to overcome. The Torah goes on to relate that Jacob, upon his arrival in Shechem, “encamped before the city” (Gen. 33:18). The word for “encamped,” va-yichan, comes from the same root as chen, meaning “grace.” The rabbis explain that Jacob graced the city by acting as benefactor, furnishing it with new coins, marketplaces and bathhouses. Jacob arrives in Shechem feeling so whole and complete that he is able to give of himself freely and generously. 

The Talmudic discussion of Jacob’s arrival in Shechem appears in the context of the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) a first-century sage who spent thirteen years hidden in a cave studying Torah with his son to escape Roman persecution. When Rashbi emerges from the cave, it is after years of subsisting on only the carobs and water miraculously provided by God. His skin is so flayed that his son-in-law immediately takes him to a bathhouse to tend his wounds. Presumably he has no material possessions to speak of, having just spent his life cut off from human society. But as he assures his son-in-law, his years of privation have been worthwhile, since he has attained prominence in Torah. He declares, “Since a miracle has been performed for me, I will go and fix something.”

It is at this point that the Talmud references Jacob’s sense of wholeness, noting that Jacob, too, made a contribution to the city where he had newly arrived. The juxtaposition of the stories of Jacob and Rashbi allows for one story to illuminate and fill in the gaps in the other. Rashbi believed that a miracle had been performed for him, and presumably Jacob did as well, having just been spared a potentially violent and devastating clash with his brother. Jacob assured Esau that “God has favored me and I have plenty” (Gen. 33:11), just as Rashbi assured his son-in-law that he did not mind his wounds because they were a testament to his single-minded devotion to Torah. Both men found themselves at a place in life where they felt safe, secure, satisfied with their accomplishments, and ready to give to the world around them. 

When Jacob and Rashbi reach that place of wholeness, they do not rest or retire; they immediately look around them to see what needs repair. Rashi, commenting on “vayeshev Yaakov”—"and Jacob settled” (Gen. 37:1)—explains that Jacob wanted to settle down in tranquility at the beginning of next week’s parsha, but God said to him that righteous people do not merit to settle in tranquility in this world. They must always be rushing around to make the world better. It is only by moving that they remain whole, complete and shalem, as American poet Mark Strand captures so beautifully:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in   
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

When we feel whole, we are able to keep other things whole. After Jacob’s intense introspection and Rashbi’s extended isolation, both men reached a point in life where they were able to turn their focus outward and share their gifts with the world. Indeed, perhaps their greatest gift is the worthy example they set for all of us. 
Fight or Flight or…?
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb
In preparation for returning with his family to the land of Israel, Yaakov has to face his brother Esau, who was last heard from planning to kill Yaakov when their father dies in retribution for taking his blessing.  Now Esau is heading towards Yaakov.

Text Bereshit 32:8-21
8Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed. And he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks… into two camps. 9And he said: ‘If Esau come to the one camp, and strike it, then the camp which is left will escape.’ 10And Jacob said: ‘…,  LORD, who said to me: Return your land, and to your family, and I will do well for you; 11I am not worthy of all the kindness and of all the truth which You have shown to your servant;…12Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and strike me, the mother with the children. … 14And he lodged there that night; and took of that which he had with him a present for Esau his brother: 15two hundred she-goats and twenty he-goats…. 17And he put them into the hand of his servants  For he said: ‘I will appease him with the present that goes before me, and afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me.’ 22So the present passed before him…

  • What strategies does Yaakov employ to prepare for the possible scenarios of the meeting with Esau?
  • What do you think that Yaakov means when he says that he is not worthy of “all the kindness and all the truth”? What is the significance of his prayer in the midst of his physical preparations?

Commentary: Rashi Bereshit 32:9
Then the camp which is left will escape: In spite of him, for I will fight against him. He prepared himself for three things: to give him a present — as it states (Genesis 19:22) "So, the present passed before him"; for prayer — as it states (Genesis 19:10), "And he said, 'O God of my father Abraham"; for war — as it states in this verse, "then the remaining camp may escape", for I will fight against him.
  • Rashi lists the strategies in an order somewhat different from the order of the text. What might be his reasoning?
  • Which of the methods practiced by Yaakov would you feel would be most effective in this situation? Why? 
  • How would you translate Yaakov’s actions into modern day crisis management?
D'var Haftorah:
Measure for Measure - The Musical Version
Bex Stern Rosenblatt
“My object all sublime / I shall achieve in time / to let the punishment fit the crime / the punishment fit the crime,” sings the Mikado with full nineteenth century pomp in his eponymous comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. He’s not the first to invoke the idea of just retribution - it is central to the Tanakh. Our rabbis refer to it as middah k’neged middah, measure for measure (see, for example Tosefta Sotah 4:1). Whatever someone has done, whether good or bad, is returned to that person with equal force.  The punishment fits the crime. 

While this principal makes sense in theory, it’s uncomfortable in practice. Good leads to more good, but likewise evil begets more evil. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “If everyone lived by 'an eye an eye' and 'a tooth for a tooth, the world would be blind and toothless.” This tension is played out in the difference between Esau in this week’s parasha and the nation that comes from Esau, Edom, in this week’s haftarah, Obadiah 1. 

The Book of Obadiah is a prophecy against Edom. The first half of the very short book, all fifteen verses, describe how Edom has wronged Israel, likely referring to Edom’s complicity and participation in the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the first Temple. As a result of their behavior, Edom will be destroyed. Verse fifteen summarizes this philosophy of middah k'neged middah perfectly: “That which you have done will be done to you, your recompense shall return upon your head.” 

However, this principal does not play out exactly in the story of Esau and Jacob. Their story starts with thieving and deceit. Jacob takes Esau’s birthright when Esau is weak and then tricks Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. Although Jacob is later the recipient of deceit himself at the hands of Laban when Leah is switched for Rachel, one might expect that perfect measure for measure would involve Esau punishing Jacob in the manner that Jacob had harmed Esau. Yet in this week’s parasha the opposite happens. When Jacob and his large and defenseless family meet Esau and Esau’s four-hundred men, Esau hugs and kisses Jacob. Esau then tries to refuse to take anything from Jacob, insisting that he has enough as it is. Rather than enacting exact retribution on his brother, Esau forgives and rehabilitates. 

The difference between what Esau does to Jacob and what Obadiah calls to happen to Edom is striking. How are we to understand justice when it seems to happen only sometimes? When is forgiveness permissible and when are we called on to punish for transgressions? Why is the story of forgiveness enacted in a character whose descendants we will choose not to forgive? 

Perhaps the answer lies in the difference between the two stories. In this week’s haftarah, Obadiah describes the punishment that God will bring against the nation of Edom for what it did to the nation of Israel. In this week’s parasha, Esau, the individual, chooses to forgive his brother. As individuals, we can forgive and grant second chances to our fellow humans. Yet on a grander scale, when nations do wrong, the consequences of their actions will inevitably come down upon them. As individuals, we cannot necessarily interfere with the grand historical narrative of the world. God and justice play out in the long run. But in our daily lives, perhaps we should consider following Esau’s example and choose to recognize that we are the measure of our fellow humans. 
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