Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Parshat VaYishlach

There are four Sedra Shorts on Parshat VaYishlach. Scroll down for each Dvar Torah:

Reuven and Bilha

Wrestling with the Present

Israel and Shechem – a Varied Relationship

Seeing the Face of God

Reuven and Bilha

Upon his return to Canaan, Yaakov managed ward off all his threats, to successfully settle in Canaan and to pay his dues to God.

He had paid off Esav (Bereshit 33:11), bought a field near Shechem (ibid 19), “the fear of God was upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue Yaakov's sons” (ibid 35:5) after the incident with Dina, and Yaakov built an altar in Bet El (ibid 6-7), keeping the promise he had made to God over 21 years earlier when he had fled (ibid 28:20-22).

However out of the blue, we have strange, barely reported incident: “It came to pass when Israel sojourned in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine, and Israel heard…(ibid 35:22).

What is going on here? What is Reuven trying to do? Is he merely succumbing to his lust like Shechem did with Dina and Amnon with Tamar, or is there something greater going on?

In order to answer this question we have to examine similar incidents of people taking the concubines of others.

Avner and Ishboshet

After Sha’ul’s death there was a civil war between Yehuda, led by David, and the rest of Israel, led by Ishboshet, Sha’ul’s only surviving son. Ishboshet was a weak man. The real power lay with his general, Avner ben Ner. Avner decided to take Sha’ul’s concubine, Rizpa.

Ishboshet challenged him saying: “Why have you gone unto my father's concubine?' Avner was furious over Ishboshet’s words” and threatened to defect to David, thereby handing over the kingdom to David. Ishboshet “could not answer Avner another word, because he feared him (II Shmuel 3:6-11).

Avshalom and David

After having forced David, his father, to flee Jerusalem, Avshalom seeks Achitophel’s advice on how to secure the kingdom. Achitophel responds: “'Go unto your father's concubines… the hands of all your supporters will be strong.' So they pitched a tent for Avshalom on the roof of the house; and Absalom went unto his father's concubines in the sight of all Israel (ibid 16:21-22).

Adoniya and Shlomo

Shlomo had previously spared the life of his half-brother, Adoniya, when he had crowned himself king. However, he warned him that should he attempt to usurp him, he would execute him.

Some time later Adoniya approached Batsheva, the Queen Mother. He asked her if she would ask Shlomo “for a small thing”; if he could give Avishag the Shunamite, David’s companion in his final years, to him as a wife. Shlomo responds angrily to Batsheva saying that is not a small request. She might as well “ask for him the throne” (I Melachim 2:22). Shlomo subsequently orders Adoniya’s execution.

From all these sources it is clear that taking a person’s concubines is tantamount to declaring oneself their successor. Avner was positioning himself as the real successor to Sha’ul, Avshalom was declaring himself as David’s successor and Adoniya was trying to assert himself as the true heir to David’s throne.

So too, Re’uven. He had already seen how two younger brothers, Shimon and Levi, had seized the initiative regarding Shechem. He is also aware of the impending challenge of Yoseph, the oldest of Yaakov’s favorite wife, and he knows that both Yishmael and Esav were overlooked in favor of the younger brother. He tries a desperate act in order to establish his rights over the brothers. He takes Bilha, his father’s concubine.

However, it was this act that actually cost him the leadership: “The sons of Reuven the first-born of Israel, for he was the first-born; but, forasmuch as he defiled his father's couch, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel…” (I Divrei Hayamim 5:1).

Wrestling with the Present

Shortly before Yaakov's reunion with Esav, the Torah presents us with a strange episode: "He was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn" (Bereshit 32:25). The man then dislocates Yaakov's hip, and Yaakov forces him to bless him. The blessing he received was that his name would become Yisrael. What is going on here?

Yaakov was the father of Galut - the prototype of the Jew in exile. He flees from Canaan, to an unknown future, and encounters darkness and fear. He is cheated countless times by Lavan and has no recourse but to accept his predicament. Lavan's sons blame him from usurping their father's wealth and Yaakov flees once more. Yet throughout all, Yaakov succeeds and grows into a rich and powerful dynasty: "for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps" (Bereshit 32:11).

Yet even upon return, Yaakov remains with his exilic mentality. He is panicked when facing Esav (ibid 8). He tries to pay him off with a huge tribute and even hints at returning the blessing he had decieved him out of: "Now take my blessing" (ibid 33:11), after repeatedly stating that he is Esav's servant.

Yaakov needed to change. The man stops Yaakov from fleeing. He does this by holding him back and eventually dislocating his hip, forcing him to limp. Yaakov can no longer flee. Yet more than that, he changes Yaakov's name, i.e, he gives him a new identity.

Yaakov means "heel" (i.e. low see 25:26), and "crooked" (i.e. cheat - see 27:26) - identities appropiate for exile. Yisrael means "prince" (sar [
שר] - high) and "straight"(yashar [ישר]). Furthermore, the man blesses Yaakov implying that rather than fleeing (being on his heels), Yaakov should face up to his problems and struggle [שרית] with them. The process may injure him but he will at least he would be in control of his own destiny. This blessing was a process for Yaakov to develop. Yaakov still remains Yaakov but begins to adopt Yisrael capabilities.

Perhaps this metamorphis is a process that the Jews of Israel have begun, but have not yet completed.

Israel and Shechem – a Varied Relationship

This week's parsha brings two explanations as to how Shechem became a possession of ancient Israel.

"Yaakov came safely [to] the city of Shechem…He encamped near the city. He bought the part of the field where he had pitched his tent from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, for a hundred kesitas" (Bereshit 33:18-19). Israel took control of the area peacefully when Yaakov purchased the city from a noble Shechemite family.

However, in the next chapter, we see a different explanation: "Now it came to pass on the third day, when they were in pain, that Yaakov's two sons, Shimon and Levi, Dinah's brothers, each took his sword, and they came upon the city with confidence, and they slew every male. They slew Hamor and his son Shechem with the edge of the sword" (ibid 34:25-26).

Israel became masters of the city through violent conquest, in the aftermath of Shechem's violation of Dinah, Yaakov's daughter.

This was the beginning of Israel's strange relationship with this Canaanite city.

Historically, Shechem was different to other Canaanite cities. Regular Canaanite cities were city states, i.e. they were ruled by a king. Canaan's topography effectively allowed each city to remain self-sufficient and independent from each other. Indeed, Yehoshua conquers 31 kings (see Yehoshua Ch.12) in a tiny country barely the size of New Jersey. Indeed at least eight distinct nations lived in this land. Interestingly enough, Israel was the first nation to unite the land into one country.

However, Shechem's status was different. It was not ruled by a king: "Chamor and his son Shechem came to the gate of their city, and they spoke to the people of their city, saying, 'These men are peaceful with us'" (ibid 20:21). Note how Shechem and his father Chamor, have to persuade the inhabitants of Shechem to accept the agreement they had made with Yaakov's sons. Shechem might have been a leader of Shechem but he did not have ultimate power.

Interestingly enough, Shechem does not appear in the list of cities that Yehoshua captured. In fact, no conquest of Shechem is ever noted. Yehoshua even took all the people to make a covenant there (Yehoshua 8:30-35), and yet he does not fight with it. Moreover, from the Sefer Shoftim, it is clear that the people of Shechem were Israelite citizens, even though they were not Israelites.

There, Gaal Ben Eved inadvertently causes an uprising against Avimelech, Gidon's son and Israel's leader, saying: "'Who is Avimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should serve him? is not he the son of Yerubbaal (Gidon)? … serve the men of Chamor the father of Shechem" (Shoftim 9:28). From this source it is clear that the inhabitants of Shechem were clearly descendents of Shechem's original inhabitants, and yet they were Israelite citizens.

How did this happen? It is unclear. I would like to suggest two possible explanations that are linked..

Firstly, we have already seen how Israel in Yaakov's day became the legal masters of Shechem. It is possible therefore, that Shechem already saw itself as loyal servants of Israel at the time of Yehoshua's conquest, and hence, there was no need to conquer it.

Secondly, I would like to suggest that the Shechemites were part of the Givon alliance, the people who tricked Israel into making a non-aggression pact: "The men of Israel said unto the Hivites…" (Yehoshua 9:7). The Givonites were Hivites. So was Shechem: "Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her" (Bereshit 34:2).

Simon and Levi tricked Shechem and took advantage of them. The Hivites then turned the tables and tricked Israel by making a treaty with Yehoshua. These people then caused havoc in Israel during the period of the Judges.

Perhaps the seeds to this incident were planted in this week's parsha.

Seeing the Face of God

The night before meeting Esav, Yaakov struggles with a man at Nachal Yabbok. As it turns out, the man is a divine being. He gives Yakov a new name: Yisrael. We have discussed why a divine being was fighting Yaakov in the first place and the significance of Yaakov's additional name in a previous Sedra Short (see

This week, I would like to discus Yaakov's reaction. "Yaakov named the place Peniel (lit. the face of God), for [he said,] "I saw an angel face to face, and my soul was saved" (Bereshit 32:30).

It is clear from this statement that Yaakov expected to die. Seeing divine beings is meant to be beyond the human narrative and so when he saw the angel, Yaakov should not have continued living.

Indeed, Moshe asks God "show me your glory" (Shemot 33:18), God responds that "you cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live (ibid 20)."

In fact, the first time that Moshe encountered God, he almost died. Moshe sees a burning bush in the wilderness and is surprised that the bush is not being consumed. He decides to have a better look. "The Lord saw that he had turned to see" and so quickly calls out saying "Do not come close" (Shemot 3:4-5). To be sure, as soon as Moshe realizes that God is within the bush, he "hid his face because he was afraid to look toward God (ibid 6).

Gidon also saw an angel and thought he was going to die. At first, Gidon thought that the angel giving him the mission to save Israel was an ordinary person and so Giodn refused to accept the mission. The angel decides that Gidon needs to understand that his mission is from God and so he reveals himself by performing a supernatural act and then disappearing.

Gidon then realized that he was an angel and said: "Alas, O Lord God! Because I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face" (Shoftim 6:22). He assumed he was going to die, so "the Lord said to him, "Peace be to you, fear not, you shall not die (ibid 23)".

Manoach and his wife, Shimshon's parents, also met an angel. Manoach also did not believe that he was an angel until the angel revealed himself.

"Manoach (then) knew that he was an angel of the Lord. Manoach said to his wife, 'We shall surely die, because we have seen God" (ibid 13:22). However, his wife seemed to be more intelligent than him. "But his wife said to him, "If the Lord wanted to kill us, He would not have received from our hand a burnt-offering and a meal-offering, and He would not have shown us all these things; and at this time He would not let us hear (such things) as these (ibid 23)".

While seeing only God himself would lead to death, as happened with Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu (see Shemot 34:10-11 and VaYikra 10:1-2), seeing angels would not lead o death.

Nevertheless, as is clear from the episodes recorded here, people, including Yaakov, were frightened about seeing all divine beings.

Perhaps the Torah is trying to give us a monotheistic message. Only God is truly a Divine Being. Everything else, including angels, is just his tools. They are not worthy of worship.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How accurate are your interpretations? You should site other commentaries for your conclusions, and prove why you are right against others. Not just give an account.

6:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this post. It is thorough and detailed. I find the interpretations very interesting!

This is Nancy from Israeli Uncensored News

8:55 AM  
Blogger Moshe Abelesz said...

Thank you both anonymous and Nancy for your comments:

Anonymous - Firstly I apologise for my late response, i was ill at the time and then neglected the response.

Generally, I do quote the source if it is a classical source. regarding accuracy, we are not talking halacha, where one has to be accurate. regarding Biblical interpretation, there are 70 faces to the Torah - I can't vouch that my interpretations are more correct than anyone else's - but they don't need to be as they do not affect our behaviour - it's not halacha. What is so beautiful about the Torah is that each time I read them I see new concepts and ideas coming up.

Nancy - Thank you for your comments. I have neglected my blog recently. But your comments have inspired me to do more. Thank you.

6:50 PM  

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