Most often, readers of the portion Vayishlach focus on the encounter between Jacob and Esau near the river Jabbok. For good reason! It is dramatic, climactic, and mysterious. Jacob's struggle with the man who "wrestled with him until the break of dawn" (Genesis 32:25) has provided fodder for centuries of commentaries. But who was this "man"? An angel of God? An image of Esau? Jacob himself, confronting at long last, the demons of his own lusts and deceptions? The image of Jacob's lonely struggle by the river Jabbok has inspired and informed us, creating a paradigmatic image of the Jew as the "God-wrestler" who strives for meaning and hope in a world often seemingly devoid of both.
But there is another episode, another encounter that is equally mysterious and full of spiritual potential and power. After his reunion with Esau and the brutal rape of Dinah in the city of Shechem, Jacob makes his way back to Bethel, the very place in which he dreamed of a ladder stretching to heaven when he was fleeing his brother's anger. Bethel means "Abode of God" (see Genesis 28:17). After Jacob's return to this sacred place, the text tells us: "Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died and was buried under the oak below Bethel; so it was named Allon-Bacuth ['Oak of Weeping']." (Genesis 35:8) Now this verse raises significant questions. The death of the matriarchs Rebekah and Leah are not mentioned in the Torah, yet we are told about the death of Deborah, Rebekah's nurse. Is this the same nurse that accompanied Rebekah to Canaan when she went there to wed Isaac? (Genesis 24:59) Why is Deborah buried in a particularly sacred spot near an oak tree, which is often associated in the Torah with holy people? Some of the classic commentators, like Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), explain that the Torah is actually hinting at the death of Rebekah. Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac) offers the explanation that Deborah had been sent by Rebekah to inform Jacob that Esau's anger had abated and it was time to return home. If so, then Deborah, whose name means "Bee," is truly among the first biblical figures to be sent on a mission of peace and reconciliation. Thus just as the honeybee is instrumental in creating sweetness, so, too, was Deborah, the bringer of peace.
But neither of these explanations helps us understand the association among the symbols of spiritual importance in this parashah: the site of Bethel, the oak tree, and even the possible association with the later prophetess Deborah. (See Judges 4:4, where the prophetess Deborah sits under a (palm) tree near Bethel!)
I tend to agree with Nahum Sarna, who argues that there were ancient traditions about Rebekah's nurse, Deborah, that were simply not included in the Torah (JPS Genesis Commentary, 1989, p. 241) In other words, Deborah was a more significant biblical figure than the present text reveals. It is also quite interesting that connected with the journey to Bethel is Jacob's removal of the idols that he had brought from Haran, the "old country." Is it possible that Deborah, who also hailed from Haran, represented another religious tradition that had to be expurgated before the covenant with Jacob (now Israel) and his family could be firmly established? Was this "old country" religious tradition, more matriarchal in nature, hinted at in the death of Deborah and her association with a sacred place and tree? One of the great contributions of liberal Judaism has been its effort to hear once again the voices of women in our sacred traditions. Both tradition and modern scholarship have provided us with worthy female role models: Miriam, who was the prophetess and singer of God's praise; Hannah, who was the first to utter private prayer and who taught us that God listens to the heart; Sarah, who brought others under the wings of God's Presence. And to this list we might now add Deborah, who was the emissary of peace and reconciliation.
For Further Reading
The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, Nahum Sarna, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989
Rabbi Douglas Sagal serves Temple Emanu-El of Westfield, New Jersey
When you ask any of our students or even their parents what they remember about Jacob, they may tell you about how he deceived Isaac to obtain Esau's birthright. They may even know that he was Joseph's father. It is likely, however, that they are not familiar with Jacob's reunion with Esau as an adult in Parashat Vayishlach and what happened on that occasion.
It is also probable that the rape of Dinah and the ensuing cruel retribution by Jacob's family is not a popular topic in most of our synagogues and religious schools. This is a difficult subject and one that we may not have time to present properly or at the right time to the right audience. Current affairs in Israel have also been a challenging topic, but one that we make the time to discuss. Yet the lessons that can be learned from Jacob and his family long ago may be relevant to what is currently happening in Israel.
When Jacob went to meet Esau twenty years after he had deceived his brother, Jacob was not sure how Esau would receive him. Would Esau greet him in anger, seek retribution, or come in peace? Jacob felt it prudent to make contingency plans based on each of those scenarios. If Esau intended to take retribution, Jacob wanted to insure that at least part of his family and property would be safe. So he divided his family into three groups to guarantee that some of his offspring would survive if Esau tried to kill him and his family when they met. Jacob also sent messengers with presents to appease Esau's anger. Finally, Jacob prepared to meet Esau in peace, as witnessed by his bowing to Esau seven times when he presented himself.
The story of Dinah, which also occurs in this parashah, includes an account of the massacre of an entire town in retaliation for her rape by its leader's son. Much time had passed since Jacob and Esau had met near the river Jabbok, and Jacob's children were now adults. When Dinah went out to visit the daughters of the land, Shechem, son of Hamor, the chief of the country, raped Dinah. Shechem then offered to marry her. Jacob heard that his daughter had been defiled but kept silent, waiting for the return of his sons from the field. When Dinah's brothers heard what had occurred, they were very angry. Their reply to Shechem and Hamor was that Dinah could not marry a man who was uncircumcised.
So Shechem and Hamor persuaded all the men in their town to become circumcised so that they could intermarry with Jacob's family: "Their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours if we only agree to their terms, so that they will settle among us." (Genesis 34:23) On the third day after the circumcisions, when Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi knew that Shechem and his people were still in pain, they came and killed all the males. They took Dinah home and seized all the flocks and assets in the town.
This story is generally not told in religious schools because of its R rating, but it certainly has a purpose. What can we learn from it? Some commentators answer that this incident explains Simeon and Levi's landless status. It also provides us with a moral explanation for the geopolitical realities of this area. In addition, it reveals a worst-case scenario for the insincerity of faith and a blind refusal to discuss peace. One can argue that the Palestinian leaders who incite children to throw stones and Molotov cocktails or the more fanatic Jewish settlers in the West Bank are no different from Simeon and Levi.
Perhaps Israelis today must also have contingencies for dealing with the Palestinians, just as Jacob had for his reunion with Esau. Perhaps Arafat may be using the same approach. Each side, however, seems unable to forget what happened in the story of Simeon, Levi, and Shechem. More important, neither side knows which character the other is playing. Is the other side being cautious as Jacob was when he met Esau, or is it planning retribution as Simeon and Levi did? One thing is clear: Some Israelis and some Palestinians believe their respective governments are playing the role of Shechem and Hamor and they have no intention of letting their leaders circumcise them symbolically.
As the Israelis respond militarily to the Palestinians, they must also be mindful of the media war. If Israel cannot successfully battle and win this war of words and pictures, it risks being compared to Simeon and Levi and losing something significant. It is not easy to teach about that land to students who hear about Israel only as the aggressor. The pictures they see on TV and in the newspapers graphically paint a terrible picture of Israel. Our young people do not have memories of the jubilation that the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 elicited, the profound grief that the 1973 Yom Kippur War brought, or even the national pride that the 1976 air raid on Entebbe evoked.
How can we make Israel as important to today's youth as it has been to us? How can we help Israel compete for junior year abroad with places like England, France, and Italy? We must continue to teach and give every one of our students and our congregants a taste of Israel. They must understand that Israel is being prudent, just as Jacob was when he prepared to meet Esau. They should also know that Israel is ready to make peace, just as Jacob was with Esau. These lessons may be hard and difficult to teach or discuss, but if we don't tackle them, who will?
Vanessa M. Ehrlich, RJE, is the educational director at Lakeside Congregation for Reform Judaism in Highland Park, IL.
Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 217–237; Revised Edition, pp. 218–240;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 183–208