Monday, December 11, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Vayishlach


וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר

And Jacob remained by himself and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. (32:25)

We always hear of Jacob wrestling with an "angel," but this is not what the text says. It uses the word איש, not מלאך of Jacob's opponent. Who it is is never explained in the text. Some have argued that it was Esau's guardian angel, and that the מלאכים that Jacob sends are his own. As charming a reading as it is, it turns this into more a magician's battle than anything else, befitting the mindset of the midrashic period. But it seems to me to be fairly likely that it is Esau himself. And, though he does not let on, I think Jacob knows it. The thing that Jacob demands of this personage that comes to wrestle with him is his blessing. What would the blessing of a stranger be worth? And God has already given him His blessing, but the blessing of Esau - that would be a prize indeed.

Back in Toldot, Jacob voiced discomfort with his mothers plan for obtaining his father's blessing. He did it, it can be argued, under duress from her. She was acting according to what God had told her, but she did not let him in on that. So Jacob has discomfort - he does not feel he holds his father's blessing with legitimacy, and the only person who can grant that legitimacy is the person he wronged to obtain it -- Esau. So Jacob triumphs and receives his blessing, and then names the place "PeniEl" "Because I have looked upon the face of God and lived."

The face of God? This is what causes us to speculate that this is an angel. But I think something else is going on here, in this moment, in wrestling with Esau, Jacob sees for the first time that his brother is created בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהים, in the divine image. Hence he later says to Esau: רָאִ֣יתִי פָנֶ֗יךָ כִּרְאֹ֛ת פְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים "I have seen your face like the face of God." Why "רָאִיתִי" in the perfect; why not "seeing" your face? Why not an infinitive; why not "to see" your face. It is perfect, because earlier, he noticed that his brother too, like himself, contained a spark of the divine.

I heard it said that Dinah was six years old at the time of the event. The math was very good, being the same sort of math that puts Isaac at 37 for the Akedah. This math relies on the assumption that there is no gap in the narrative. Torah narrative is episodic. We do not know, because we are not told, how much time passed between Jacob settling in sh'chem, and Dinah going out to see the local girls.

The rape, and the rather curious phrase "וַתִּדְבַּק נַפְשׁוֹ בְּדִינָה בַּת־יַעֲקֹב וַיֶּאֱהַב אֶת־הַנַּעֲרָ וַיְדַבֵּר עַל־לֵב הַנַּעֲרָ" "and his soul cleave in Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and he loved the girl and spoke over the heart of the girl" raises questions. וַיְדַבֵּר עַל־לֵב הַנַּעֲרָ is often rendered "he spoke tenderly to the girl," but I would press another reading: he overrode her objections. על means "over" "on" or "above," so it seems to me that rather than being an indication of kindness, it is a willful ignoring of her wishes.

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