Saturday, December 5, 2020

Parasha Vayishlach

 Vayishlach - He sent
B'resheet 32:4(3)-36:34

This parasha begins with Ya'akov returning to the land of Kena'an and facing his brother, Esav. This is a trying time for Ya'akov. When he left the land, he was fleeing from the wrath of Esav. He had every expectation that his brother would still hold a grudge. When his servants informed him that Esav was bringing an army of 400 men, Ya'akov feared the worst. He split his family, servants, livestock, and belongings into two camps.

At the end of the last parasha, Vayetze, we see Ya'akov refer to  the place they entered the land as "Elohim's camp", a singular designation, but then he named it Machanayim, or "two camps". This turns out to be a prophetic name since he then ended up splitting into two camps. Was he simply foreshadowing what was about to happen to his family? No, he had a different meaning in mind when he named the place. I hope you'll allow me a moment to discuss Vayetze before digging further into this week's portion.

When Ya'akov left the land many years earlier, he saw angels going up and down a ladder. We have all heard of this "Jacob's ladder" story many times. What was this about? Why were they going up and down? There is a rabbinic tradition that I believe is probably accurate. They say that there was one set of angels whose job was to guard and protect Ya'akov in the land of Kena'an. They had a specific assigned territory. When it was time for Ya'akov to leave their territory, they ascended the ladder to heaven and another group of angels descended to replace them for the journey outside the land. This second group stayed with Ya'akov during his time in the house of Lavan. When Ya'akov returned to Kena'an, there was another changing of the guard. The angels from outside the land ascended and the angels for inside the land descended and returned to Ya'akov. There were two camps of angels, each serving a specific purpose. This could be one explanation for the plural name he gave it. Another possibility, still fitting with the angels using that place as a guard post, is that he named it for Elohim's camp and Ya'akov's camp being in the same place. He recognized that this was a place where YHVH's will and Ya'akov's life were linked. It was the place where he had to put his faith in YHVH when he left the land and his life was forever changed.

Now let's get back to this week's portion and the second "two camps." Ya'akov splits everything in the hopes that if Esav attacks one camp, the other may have a chance to get away. Who knows? It might have worked. After splitting the camps, Ya'akov spends time in prayer. He tells YHVH "I’m not worthy of all the love and faithfulness you have shown your servant, since I crossed the Yarden with only my staff. But now I have become two camps." Another translation says "I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps." Once again, as is common in Hebrew thought and writing, I think there are multiple meanings to this verse. The first half of the verse shows Ya'akov being humble (becoming small) and saying that YHVH's love and faithfulness are more than Ya'akov deserves. Ya'akov left the land with only his staff and now he has enough family, servants, and livestock to fill two camps! He has been blessed far beyond what he deserves. But there is another meaning to the last part of this verse. He is also telling YHVH of his fear. When he escaped Esav, he was alone and had nothing to lose. Now, he has so much to lose that he has had to split into two camps in the hopes of saving at least part of it. He reminds YHVH in his prayer of the promises that YHVH made that "I will do you good" and would make his family as numerous as the grains of sand by the sea. This is a not so subtle cry for help. "I think he wants to kill me and my family. Do something!"

Ya'akov then ends up spending the night wrestling with "some man." After being blessed by the "man" when he refuses to give up the fight, he calls the place they fought P'ni-El (face of God). He saw the face of Elohim and lived. He survived a situation that he knew should have killed him. He recalls this moment when he faces his brother the next day. In verse 33:10, Ya'akov tells Esav "Just seeing your face has been like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me." Esav doesn't realize that Ya'akov is saying that he expected to die, but miraculously lived.