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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Skorka

Vayishlach - The fraternal encounter

Much of this parashah describes in detail the encounter between Jacob and Esau. One of the several notable characteristics of the book of Genesis is its repeated presentation of conflicts between brothers. Cain killed Abel, Isaac and Ishmael lived apart from each other; after the conflict in this reading, the one of Joseph with his brothers will soon follow. The only one of these disagreements that was totally resolved was the last one, to which the Torah dedicates three parashot (Vayeshev, Miketz and Vayigash).

Jacob, on his way to the land of his father and grandfather, sends emissaries to Esau his brother, to the red lands east of Canaan (32: 4) where he was and finally he settled (33: 16; 36: 6-8). Some sages in the Midrash Rabba say that Jacob should have ignored him (Chapter 75). Jacob knows that his brother is coming to meet him with four hundred men (32:7) and prepares a strategy to awaken fraternal sentiments in him. He prays to God and he remains in solitude the night before his meeting with Esau. During the night he grapples with an angel (in the biblical text appears the word man, but all the exegetes explain that it refers to an angel), whom he overcomes. Rabbi Hama ben Rabbi Hanina (Bereshit Rabba Chapter 77) commenting centuries later on this passage say that the angel was the one accompanying his brother. According to this explanation, Jacob was really dreaming and fought with his memories, with the conflicts he still had in his mind with Esau.

Jacob achieves his task. He joins in an embrace with his brother. They reconcile. They do not live together because they are very different, but they solved the problem of any hatred between them. After this encounter they met again only to bury their father.

There is a biblical tradition that indicates that hatred, although it was overcome by these two brothers, recurred among their descendants. Amalek, the people begotten by the grandson of Esau (36:12), was the one who attacked Israel as they departed from the land of Egypt (Exodus 17:8). Although he was defeated on the battlefield, it is said that there will forever be warfare war between God and Amalek from generation to generation.

One of the commands that the king of Israel latter had to fulfill was the elimination of Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:19, Yad, Hilkhot Melakhim 1: 1). Saul partially fulfilled the task, but he did not totally destroy them (1 Samuel 15). Haman, the minister of King Ahasuerus of Persia who wanted to destroy all the Jews was a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek against whom Saul fought (Esther 3: 1). The Edomites, the people begotten by Esau, helped the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem (Psalm 137: 7), and Malachi prophesied that God would punish them (1: 4).

Seeing this story of continuing hatred, and having in their memories the defeat in 135 C.E. of Bar Kochba by the Romans, some sages of the Midrash identified Esau with Edom and said that Jacob should have ignored his brother, that the kiss that Esau gave him was really intended as a bite, and that there would never be true peace between them or between their descendants.

In spite of all these later interpretations, Jacob in the Genesis text received the name Israel for his grappling with God and strived for peace with his brother.

We, his descendants, must follow his example, even if we must be prepared to deal with Amalek from generation to generation.

Shabbat Shalom!


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