As the parsha opens, Yaakov is once again on the move. This time he is returning home, to the Land of Israel. As has been the case since before his birth, drama and intrigue seem to be Yaakov's constant companions, and this journey is no exception: He fled Israel to escape his brother Esav, who had sworn to kill him, and as he leaves his father-in-law Lavan's home, he is once again being pursued. God Himself intercedes on Yaakov's behalf and warns Lavan against harming Yaakov, clearing the way for Yaakov to finally confront his brother Esav.
This parsha, not unlike the preceding one, is a study in identity. Who is Yaakov - really? From the moment of his birth, his identity is seen through an ever-shifting prism: Yaakov is given a name which reflects his problematic relationship with his twin brother. He is then described as "ish tam, yoshev ohalim" (1) - a pure or innocent man, morally unblemished, a man of home and hearth, a man of the study hall. Yet this is an "editorial" comment on his true character which seems quite different than the way his own parents view him, and it is a description which clashes spectacularly with the trajectory that his life takes. Yaakov, the innocent, makes his brother 'an offer he can't refuse', and assumes the identity of firstborn. Later, he is forced to take on the identity of his brother Esav. As a result, the "man of the tents" is dispossessed of his home and family, and for years is left to survive by his own cunning and wits in an extremely corrupt environment. Does Yaakov even remember who he is? The simple, introverted, studious man we met last week has become a shrewd businessman, a very wealthy man, a formidable adversary at the negotiating table - a far cry from the ish tam, indeed.
In fact, the question of Yaakov's identity comes bubbling to the surface as he stands poised to meet Esav. Yaakov fears this confrontation, and as he reaches the border of his ancestral land, he prepares for it in various ways. This is a moment of introspection and stock-taking, as well as tactical, practical preparation. Both types of preparation have much to tell us about the nature of Yaakov's fears, and the identity crisis involved.
Yaakov prepares his household for the worst, and sends in a reconnaissance unit with a conciliatory message for Esav, hoping to avert confrontation. The commentaries approach these preparations from different angles. First, Yaakov's message is examined; more precisely, the messengers themselves become an important topic of discussion. Who were these messengers?
And Yaakov sent emissaries ahead of him to his brother Esav in the Land of Seir, to the fields of Edom. (Bereishit 32:4)
Rashi examines the word malachim, which may be construed as either human or celestial messengers. Were these emissaries men in his employ - household staff, or "angels" - celestial messengers? (2) Rashi says that they were the latter: Yaakov sent angels to his brother Esav. While this may sound like a highly imaginative interpretation to some readers, who would prefer the simple, more mundane interpretation -"messengers", it is wholly in keeping with what we know about Yaakov, and the context in which this episode appears. Yaakov has had interaction with angels before, especially when he travels. When he left Israel, he had a vision of a heavenly ladder upon which angels ascended and descended. This was no simple dream; the vision of these angels changed Yaakov's perspective, changed his life: he understood the holiness of the place on which he stood, and the ability to connect, through it, to God. The angels that he saw were not merely the product of an over- active imagination, part of a strange and disturbing dream. Angels became a very real part of Yaakov's life as he left the Land of Israel, and now, as he is poised to return, his travels are once again accompanied by angels. Note the verses that immediately precede this week's parsha:
And Yaakov went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Yaakov saw them, he said, 'This is God's encampment; and he called the name of that place Mahanaim. (Bereishit 32:2-3)
Just as Yaakov saw angels in a dream as he prepared to leave Israel, he is met by angels as he prepares to re-enter. And as he prepares to confront Esav, in the very next verse, the angels are his emissaries. This being so, we may be even more puzzled than before Rashi's comments: If these angels of God are in Yaakov's service, and Yaakov is fulfilling the will of God, why all the angst? Why is Yaakov so fearful of the confrontation with Esav? In the words of the Shem Mishmuel, if any single angel could have wreaked havoc upon Esav and his camp, why fear the confrontation?(3)
Then Yaakov was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks, and herds, and the camels, in two camps. (Bereishit 32:8)
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Yaakov makes a pragmatic military decision, and divides the family into two separate camps. Lest we forget, this happens at the very place Yaakov was met by angels - the place Yaakov names Machanaim. The connection between the preceding parsha and the present parsha, the angels who meet and accompany him and the angels he sends to Esav, is reinforced by the name which reflects both the "encampment of God's angels" and his own household, divided into two camps.
And Yaakov said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, Return to your country, and to your family, and I will deal well with you. I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which you have shown to your servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I have become two camps. (Bereishit 32:9-11
Only now, when Yaakov separates his family and makes mention of the two camps, the full meaning of the name of this place, where he saw angels for the second time, seems clear. Strangely enough, Yaakov made no mention of his earlier vision of angels when he first named this place. Only now, when he divides his family and possessions into two camps, he is given to introspection and retrospection. He recalls that he was destitute and alone when he crossed the river in the other direction, and he makes a comparison with his present status. But how unequivocal is his description of his good fortune? Is the fact that he has just divided his household into two separate camps in order to avoid a holocaust a completely positive statement? And if the reference is somewhat tentative, the overtones are downright ominous: The Targum (Pseudo) Yonatan teaches that the division itself portended tragedy: Yaakov separated Leah's camp from Rachel's, along the deep fault-line whose negative impact has shaped Jewish history ever since. Is this, or is this not, one family? Are Yaakov's children united? Do some enjoy a favored status? Are they all equal, or are some are "more equal" than others?
When the moment to meet Esav arrives Yaakov again divides the camp; this time, the division is precise and specific, the hierarchy clear:
And Yaakov lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esav came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children to Leah, and to Rachel, and to the two maidservants. And he put the maidservants and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Yosef after. (Bereishit 33:1-2)
What kind of impact would this favoritism have on future generations? (4) The rift that existed from the very start persisted for generations, and eventually caused the disintegration of the United Commonwealth. The prophecy of Hoshea, in whose lifetime this rift burgeoned into a chasm, has much to say about this division, its origins - and its eventual resolution:
The word of God that came to Hoshea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Yotam, Ahaz, and Yehizkiyah, kings of Yehuda, and in the days of Yerov'am the son of Yoash, king of Israel...And the number of the people of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor counted; and it shall come to pass, that instead of saying to one another, 'You are not my people,' they shall say to one another, 'You are the sons of the living God.' Then shall the people of Yehuda and the people of Israel be gathered together, and appoint themselves one head, and they shall come up from the land; for great shall be the day of Yizra'el. (Hoshea 1:1-2:1)
Hoshea examines the political and national landscape, and sees before him the just desserts of a corrupt society that has turned its back on truth:
Hear the word of God, People of Israel; for God has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, no mercy, no knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and adultery; they break all bounds, and blood leads to blood. Therefore shall the land mourn, and everyone who dwells in it shall languish, with the beasts of the field, and with the birds of heaven; the fishes of the sea shall also be taken away... My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I will also reject you, that you shall not be a priest to me; seeing that you have forgotten the Torah of your God, I will also forget your children. (Hoshea 4:1-6)
How can the People of Israel have sunk so low? How can this "kingdom of priests and holy nation" have deteriorated to this degree? Hoshea lays the blame for their decadence at Yaakov's feet; he sees the seeds of their iniquity and disunity in Yaakov's behavior in our parsha:
Ephraim surrounded me with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit; but Yehuda still rules with God, and is faithful with the holy ones. Ephraim guards the wind, and follows after the east wind; he daily increases lies and desolation; and they make a covenant with the Assyrians, and oil is carried to Egypt. God has also a controversy with Yehuda, and will punish Yaakov according to his ways; according to his doings will he reward him. He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and by his strength he had strove with the powerful; And he strove with an angel, and prevailed; he (the angel) wept, and made supplication to (Yaakov); he found him in Beit-El, and there He spoke with us; And the Almighty is the God of hosts; the Almighty is his name. Therefore turn to your God; keep loving kindness and judgment, and wait on your God continually. ... And I, Almighty your God, will yet redeem you from the land of Egypt, and make you dwell in tents, as in the days of the (past). (Hoshea 12:1-16)
Yaakov is criticized for wrestling with his brother in the womb, and the prophet draws a line directly to the wrestling years later, between Yaakov and a mysterious stranger. After dividing the camp for the first time that night, before Yaakov faces his brother, before he divides the camp a second time, he finds himself alone and vulnerable in the dark, and he is accosted:
And Yaakov was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the break of day. And when he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yaakov's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, 'Let me go, for the day breaks.' And he said, 'I will not let you go, unless you bless me.' And he said to him, 'What is your name?' And he said, 'Yaakov.' And he said, 'Your name shall be called no more Yaakov, but Yisrael; for you have struggled with the powerful and with men, and have prevailed.' And Yaakov asked him, and said, 'Tell me, I beg you, your name.' And he said, 'Why is it that you ask my name?' And he blessed him there. (Bereishit 32:25-30)
The entire scene circles around the question of identity - shrouded, revealed, mistaken, hidden. While the struggle changes Yaakov's identity, the identity of the mysterious attacker is never revealed. As readers, millennia of Jewish persecution may make us overlook the fact that this unprovoked attack is carried out by a nameless adversary: Random attacks, or fear of such attacks, are nothing out of the ordinary in Jewish history. Yaakov himself seeks no explanation or motive; he asks only that his attacker identify himself. Generations later, in the prophecy quoted above, Hoshea reveals the identity of this mysterious adversary; it is yet another angel. "And he strove with an angel, and prevailed."
Why did the angel attack Yaakov? What had he done wrong? The Targum (pseudo) Yonatan (5) seems to weave Hoshea's prophecy into his commentary, suggesting that God sent this angel because Yaakov had not been truthful: Before leaving the Land of Israel, Yaakov had vowed to tithe one tenth of everything God gave him, and that vow had not been fulfilled.(6) Now, as Yaakov took stock of his situation, one of the things he thanked God for was the truth bestowed upon him: "I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth,(7) which you have shown to your servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I have become two camps." Apparently God does not think that Yaakov has embraced truth. This same problem surfaces in Hoshea's prophecy, in the form of a dubious legacy passed down from Yaakov to his descendents which eventually leads to their ruin.
Rabbi Eliezer of Germiza, a mystic of the Middle Ages, said that the angel who attacked Yaakov came dressed as Esav, and he had a complaint: He said to Yaakov, "You are a liar! Why did you say (to your father) 'I am Esav your firstborn"? Yaakov protests: he had purchased the birthright from Esav years earlier. The angel then asks, "What is your name?," and points out that " 'Yaakov' is a name of deception and chicanery. Your name should be 'Yisrael' - a name that implies yosher (being straight or upstanding): You must be yashar(straight) with God.(8)
This seems somewhat of a departure from the straightforward meaning of the text. The angel himself explains (9) the name that will replace 'Yaakov'; this new identity has to do with struggle, with overpowering invincible adversaries.Sarita, the word that lies at the root of Yisrael, denotes both struggle and power. The name is pronounced with the letter sin (sarita), and not the lettershin (yashar). Apparently, Rabbi Eliezer of Germiza looked beyond the explanation of the word itself, and sought the essential lesson for Yisrael - the individual, and the nation of his namesakes: The identity of the Jew, the essence of what Yisrael and all of the Children of Yisrael should strive to be, is reflected in this name: honest, truthful, upright - yashar. In the words of the Kli Yakar, the name Yisrael comes from the word Yashar El, to be straight with God. Although other men will not always perceive the righteousness of Yisrael's ways, God can see to the heart of the matter. The struggle to maintain inner clarity, to pursue God's truth despite obstacles and seeming falsehood, is the struggle that Yaakov/Yisrael faced, and he prevailed. Many of the episodes in his life seemed to lead him off the straight path of truth, but he never lost sight of God's plan, of God's will.(10) This was his true identity, his eventual identity. He was able to follow his internal moral compass despite the situations into which he was thrust. Although his actions were looked at askance by human eyes, although he struggled with mortal and divine challenges to his inner truth, he emerged victorious. To rephrase Rabbi Eliezer's comments: the nameYisrael derives from sarita which means struggle; the meaning of the struggle is to achieve yosher.
Yaakov spent the majority of his life dealing with dishonest people, and often played according to their rules. In order to contend with Esav and Lavan, Yaakov acquired survival skills. What lessons are there in Yaakov's behavior for future generations? The Prophet Hoshea was unequivocal: "God has also a controversy with Yehuda, and will punish Yaakov according to his ways; according to his doings will he reward him. He took his brother by the heel in the womb..." (11)
While Yaakov's actions may have been justified, Hoshea lays the blame for future generations' immorality at Yaakov's doorstep, implying that many generations of unscrupulous businessmen learned from Yaakov's ways.
Yaakov becomes Yisrael, and the struggle continues. The validity of the moral compass remains, but the path to becoming yashar still lies ahead. One more stage is required in the metamorphosis, a stage that links the innocence of Yaakov's youth with the strength and heroic behavior of his adulthood.(12) A bridge must be created between Yaakov ish tam yoshev ohalim, the "innocent (perfect) man, a dweller in tents", and Yisrael - sarita im elohim ve'im anashim vatuchal - the vanquisher of the mighty, the independent man who remains true to God's will.
In the book of Dvarim, we find the expression of this identity, the final stage in the development of Yaakov's persona - "Yeshurun":
And He was king in Yeshurun, when the heads of the people and the tribes of Israel were gathered together. (Dvarim 33:5) (13)
The name Yeshurun has the word yashar, upright or honest, as its root. Thus, while the name 'Yaakov' denotes trickery, (14) and the name 'Yisrael' indicates strife, The name Yeshurun is used here to describe a nation united as one, rallying around the ultimate goal of the Jewish People: to be upright and honest.
In the course of exile the Jews have often been forced to take use questionable means to protect themselves. While this behavior may often have been a necessary evil, it was far from ideal. It was not always 'straight and honest'. Ultimately, our destiny - our identity- is to be a light unto the nations, a beacon of morality, ethics and decency that will show all peoples of the world the beauty of the word of God. Yishayahu, the same prophet who spoke of being a "light to the nations," also spoke of comfort for the Jews that will come when we are finally returned to our land and our natural innocence, when what is crooked will be may straight, when Yaakov will be perceived as Yeshurun.
Comfort my people, comfort them, says your God. Speak to Jerusalem's heart, and cry out to her, that her fighting is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Almighty's hand double for all her sins. A voice cries in the wilderness, 'Prepare the path of God, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the ridges made into valleys; And the glory of God shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see as together that the mouth of God has spoken. (Yishayahu 40:1-5)
Similarly, in the same prophecy in which Hoshea rejects Yaakov's behavior, he speaks of the eventual resolution of Yisrael's strife: God's promise to him and his descendents is that they will one day shed the clothes of deceit and return to their true identity, to dwell in the tents of truth, kindness and justice:
And I, the Almighty your God, will yet redeem you ..., and make you dwell in tents, as in the days of the (past). (Hoshea 12:1-16)
The Jewish People will no longer define their existence through the seemingly-endless struggle with falsehood and evil. The transformation from Yaakov to Yisrael will reach its final stage, and both of these names will be left behind as our true identity emerges: Yeshurun, the straight and upstanding servant of God. This identity can only emerge when the rift in the Jewish People, expressed by the division of the family of Yaakov into two camps, is finally healed:
And He was king in Yeshurun, when the heads of the people and the tribes of Israel were gathered together. (Dvarim 33:5)
1. Bereishit 25:27.
2. Rashi 32:4.
3. Shem Mishmuel Parshat Vayishlach 5681.
4. Rabbenu Bachaya Bereishit 32:8, says it was future considerations that motivated Yaakov, that if one community is ever attacked, another community would still carry on.
5. The Midrash Tanchuma (Buber edition) Vayishlach section 22, also associates this attack with Yaakov's failure to fulfill his vow.
6. In a fascinating twist, the Targum suggests that the way to fulfill the vow is by giving one of his children to divine service. An accounting is done, and Levi is chosen.
7. The Sfat Emet questions the relevance of the word emet (truth) in Yaakov's prayer.
8. Rabbi Eliezer of Germiza, (12th Century) Hilchot Hakisei, Hilchot Melachim.
9. Bereishit 32:29.
10. Kli Yakar Bereishit 32:29.
11. Rashi, in his comments on 32:29, describing Yaakov's name change, cites this verse in Hoshea.
12. See the writings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov Liqutim page 405.
13. See Targum Onkelus who translates Yeshurun as Yisrael.
14. See the Ramban's commentary to Dvarim 2:10, and 7:12.