Vayishlach - Gen 32:4 - 36:42

B'resheet/Genesis 32:8   And Ya'akov was very frightened and he was distressed. And he divided the people ... into two camps.


This looks as if it might just be the end of the road for Ya'akov. Esau, his older and - we assume - still mightily aggrieved brother is coming out to meet Ya'akov with four hundred men, as he starts to draw near to home. Ya'akov sees this as a sure sign of trouble at the very least and quite possibly - remembering what we last heard from Esau on the subject of Ya'akov, "Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Ya'akov" (B'resheet 27:41, JPS) - a lynching party! As Nahum Sarna explains, "Ya'akov's troubled conscience and the memory of Esau's terrible resolve lead him to imagine the worst. He cannot retreat because of Laban; he cannot flee because of the small children and livestock. In the event of an attack, the most he can do is to minimise his losses."

The first clause in the text is started by the verb , the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , with an initial vav-conversive to render it as a past tense narrative step. Davidson gives only two small sets of meanings: firstly, to fear or be afraid/frightened, to be anxious about or afraid to do something; secondly to reverence or be in awe of someone or something. In this text, used as an intransitive verb and without any secondary verbs, we are limited to the first part of the first option. The verb is qualified by the adverb , very or exceedingly, to tell us just how much Ya'akov is afraid. In the vernacular, we might say that Ya'akov is almost scared witless. The second short phrase in the text is also started by a verb: , the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , with a second vav-conversive, and then followed by an indirect object, , to him. Davidson gives three options: to be straitened, to be distressed or anxious. Here the subject changes; no longer is Ya'akov acting but is acted upon: the presumed subject is either his fear or the impending arrival of Esau: it distressed him. Rabbi Who Is ...

Hirsch: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism
Hirsch comments that " is such a narrowing of circumstances that we feel we have no power to oppose its restrictions. It obtains such power over us that it can do what it likes with us."

Some of the rabbinic commentators gloss Ya'akov's concerns. Who Is ...

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE), French rabbi who wrote commentaries on the Torah, the Prophets and the Talmud, lived in Troyes where he founded a yeshiva in 1067; focuses on the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text, although sometimes quite cryptic in his brevity
Rashi suggests that "he became frightened lest he be killed; and it distressed him if he were to kill others." The Who Is ...

Ramban: Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman of Gerona or Nachmanides (1194-1270 CE), Spanish rabbi, author and physician; defended Judaism in the Christian debates in Barcelona before making aliyah
Ramban proposes that "he thus greatly feared for his life, for he said, 'He has not taken all these men except for the purpose of waging war against me,' having refused to accept Ya'akov's first messengers. Instead, Esau came with wrath in his heart, with the purpose of doing Ya'akov evil." Hirsch goes perhaps the furthest, when he comments that "Ya'akov was afraid, although he had been guided by the protection which G-d had promised him. Our Sages teach that there can be no unconditional assurance to the righteous in this life. Every such assurance is implicitly conditional on continued blamelessness, it can be forfeited at any minute by a false step." Perhaps this is based on verses such as, "When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it (Ezekiel 33:18, ESV).

Let's take a closer look at Ya'akov and see what we can learn from what he does and the way he acts. From the reports of Ya'akov's first messengers, Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. The Torah doesn't say that they are armed, but Ya'akov obviously fears both that they are and that confrontation with Esau in now inevitable. With no place to run and hide, Ya'akov is just going to have to face both his fears and his brother. More, he knows in his heart of hearts that he hardly qualifies as a righteous man! So what does he do first; what is his top priority? Ya'akov divides his family, his household and all his livestock into two groups. If Esau gets one group, he thinks, the other may survive. Ya'akov has no way to defend himself against armed and trained men, so he moves to minimise the losses. The family is divided, the livestock is divided; probably the retainers and household servants are divided - each camp needs to be abel to survive as an autonomous unit. That way, if Ya'akov himself is killed, then he hopes that some of his sons could survive with enough wealth to carry on the family line. Given the relative abilities of his and Esau's groups that he has already recognised - that Esau and his men are close enough to meet them on the following day and the speed and flexibility available to a group of trained men travelling light, compared to the slowness of movement of his own parties due to women, young children and livestock, with tents and fodder - in his right mind, Ya'akov would know that splitting up his household into two camps, with all the potential issues of becoming separated or lost, stragglers or wounded being isolated in the wilderness, was a vanishingly thin hope. But he is so scared that he can't think properly - and he must do something.

Only then, when perhaps even he has to admit the futility of what little he can do, Ya'akov remembers TheNme(Right, HaShem). According to Leon Kass, "beholding his own defenceless position and beset by fear, Ya'akov the chronically self-reliant now turns to prayer. He has never prayed before; indeed, all his previous encounters with G-d were initiated by the L-rd. In fact, rarely has anyone before now prayed to the L-rd, or at least in this way, and not in the reader's hearing."1 Kass makes a number of critical points. Ya'akov, who has never prayed before and who has certainly never initiated contact with G-d, now prays and cries out to Him. Ya'akov, who has always been pointedly self-reliant, trusting his own eyes and wit, doing everything for himself, is almost paralysed by fear so that he can hardly think. Gone is the youthful strength that rolled the stone of the mouth of the well so that Rachel's sheep could be watered; gone is the bluster and bravado facing off against Laban's accusations of theft; gone is even the crafty switching of plain and striped rods in the sheep drinking troughs. All that is left is the man; the man Ya'akov who has spent his life wrestling with men and walking a path of deceiving and being deceived.

Reading on in the parasha, the text seems confused about exactly what happens next and in what order. At some point, Ya'akov organises massive gifts of livestock to appease his brother. At another, he goes with his family across the ford in the Jabbok river, but himself remains behind. At another he spends the night wrestling with a man whom he cannot best and who he finally describes as G-d until the sun starts to rise. Then he crosses the river with a limp and a new name to see G-d in the face of his brother Esau. Source critics attempt to solve the sequencing problems by suggesting that this block of text may have been composed from many sources which it is now impossible to identify and separate. What seems clear is that action is mixed up with prayer; that action usually precedes prayer and that Ya'akov ends up with a physical disablement, rather like Rav Sha'ul's "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7) to slow him down and remind him of his dependence on G-d.

The narrative at the start of this parasha presents us with a question of priority - which comes first: action or prayer? Does Ya'akov react in fear or does he trust in G-d who called him back to the land of Canaan at this time? Does he act first, assuming that G-d is in the whole situation and he simply needs to get on and do the common-sense things that are within his control, only then pausing to pray before launching into another round of activity? Or should he have prayed first and then waited to hear from G-d, either directly or through the unfolding circumstances? Isaiah offers an answer: "Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the L-RD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:30-31, ESV. Ya'akov's not inconsiderable physical strength was consumed; he had exhausted the resources at his command. He was a spent force; there was nothing else that he could do. And yet his engagement with G-d enabled him to reach resolution with Esau - "He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength" (v. 29, ESV). When the next morning came, he could face the moves of humility and apology that were necessary to rectify the deceptions of the past and find his way home to the land of his father and the promise of G-d.

Yeshua teaches us not to be anxious about the things that we need, or to run around trying to organise everything for ourselves: "your heavenly Father knows that you need them all" (Matthew 6:32, ESV. There is surely a time to do mechanical things, but our focus is to be on the priorities of the kingdom first: "seek first the kingdom of G-d and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (v. 33, ESV).

1. - Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, Chicago University Press 2003, page 451.

Further Study: Psalm 37:7-9; Isaiah 40:28-31; Matthew 11:28-30

Application: Can we find the time to wait upon the L-rd and overcome our natural impulses to rush around doing things, so that we will see His victory in our lives? Do we act or pray first?

© Jonathan Allen, 2017



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