These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Vayishlach: Take Two

Posted on December 15, 2016 by Seth Korelitz

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Although we sometimes forget it, the Torah is not just a great religious text, it’s also a great literary text. For instance, the Torah often uses doubling — particularly of words or events — as a narrative technique. We’ll see probably the clearest example of this in the coming weeks, in the story of Joseph. (Two dreams, twice thrown in a pit, two more dreams in the Egyptian jail, two dreams of Pharaoh, and more.) This kind of echoing and repetition can help highlight themes within a story, or sometimes themes and connections between seemingly disconnected Biblical stories.

There are numerous examples of doubling in Jacob’s story, as well. Not as many as in his son’s story, perhaps, but unlike with Joseph the doubling is not so much external to Jacob as it is deeply connected to his identity and key moments in his own life: he starts life with a twin, he receives two blessings from his father, he has two wives, he has two names, he is given his new name twice (once by a “messenger” and once directly by Gd), and he twice leaves the Land of Israel. In addition, Jacob flees twice (once to Haran and once from Haran), and in a defensive strategy he splits his family and possessions into two groups.

Perhaps the most complex doubling in Jacob’s story — morally if not linguistically – is his twice taking from his brother Esau, first Esau’s birthright and later Isaac’s blessing intended for Esau. This conflict in the brothers’ relationship comes to a surprising resolution in our parsha. Jacob has just returned from his twenty year sojourn in Haran. Upon re-entering the land, Jacob’s scouts/messengers relate that his brother Esau — the one whose death threat forced Jacob to flee lo those many years before — is approaching with (an army of) 400 men. After much struggling and planning on Jacob’s part, the two brothers reunite. Jacob offers Esau gifts, which he initially declines, until Jacob says to him (33:11) קַח־נָ֤א אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֻבָ֣את לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי־חַנַּ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים וְכִ֣י יֶשׁ־לִי־כֹ֑ל. Standard translations of this verse render it along the lines of “Please accept my gift which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.”

Yet we should notice something odd here. In the previous verse Jacob had asked וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ מִנְחָתִ֖י מִיָּדִ֑י/take my gift from my hand; in our verse Jacob changes the word for gift to בִּרְכָתִי֙. While the root .ב.ר.כ does have a minor meaning of ‘gift,’ many readers of Hebrew might be inclined to read this not as my gift but my blessing. Rashi and other commentators were troubled enough by this possibility to try and explain why בִּרְכָתִי֙ should be translated as gift in this verse, but even if ‘gift’ is the plain meaning for the word here, there can be no doubt that ‘blessing,’ the primary meaning of the root, will at least be brought to our minds. Why choose בִּרְכָתִי֙, when the perfectly serviceable and far less ambiguous מִנְחָתִ֖י was readily available in the previous verse? There is great power in the idea that Jacob here is in fact returning the blessing he had taken from his brother decades before.

The Midrash (Pesikta Rabbati, 13), understands בִּרְכָתִי֙ in this more obvious way. Imagining Esau angrily confronting Jacob, it explains that “Jacob did not return his [Esau’s] hatred, but said instead: ‘Are you hostile to me because of the blessing? Behold, it is given to you: ‘Take, I pray you, my blessing that was to have been bestowed upon you.’ ” בִּרְכָתִי֙ here comes to show us Jacob’s magnanimity in the face of Esau’s relentless anger.

The midrash reads returning this blessing as an easy, almost off the cuff decision by Jacob, yet we know that Jacob had gone through much before reaching that point (not least of all his dark night of the soul and his wrestling with “the man” the night before). This blessing had been his mother’s deepest desires for him. It had arguably cost him his relationship with his brother, and had been the immediate cause of his separation from his parents, exile from the Land, and long and often tumultuous stay in Haran. Giving it up must have come at a great cost to Jacob. Examining his past and contemplating his future, we can well understand why some see Jacob as having wrestled not with an angel the night before, but rather having wrestled with himself. Coming to terms with his double taking from Esau could not have been an easy choice for Jacob.

Like Jacob, there may be times in our lives when we have to give up something dear if we want to make peace and move forward. This is an important lesson for us as individuals, communities, and even nations. When the repetitions in our own lives come around, the second chances to examine our past relationships and decisions, may we all be blessed with the wisdom to choose wisely.

Seth Korelitz