Parshat Vayishlach 2017
Yaacov is coming home. He left home, as he describes it so poetically, with only his staff in his hand, and now he is returning with wives, children, livestock, slaves and wealth. On the surface, this seems to be a continuation of last week’s story, where we read about his 21 years in Charan with Laban. But it isn’t. Yaacov is coming HOME, and home is where his family lives and his God prevails, or will in the future. He has plans, an agenda.
Yaacov’s struggle with the night visitor – dream, illusion, man or angel – is a huge turning point. He receives a new name. Of course, Avram became Avraham, and Sarai became Sarah – but that was cosmetics. This is the first time that a person receives a totally different name, which is (of course) symbolic.
If the name Yaacov implies something crooked, hanging on, inferior – the name Yisrael implies being straight and strong. Thus becoming Israel is a tremendous event. No more seeking ways to bend the rules – now he can shoot straight and deal with matters properly.
Except that our lives don’t always follow a feel-good Hollywood script, and Yaacov/Israel have to dwell simultaneously, symbiotically, in the same body and soul, which is why both names continue to appear.
The two faces of Yaacov are the personal and the national. Last week’s parsha dealt with Yaacov’s personal life. His flight to Charan, taking wives, having kids, sparring with Laban. Now that he is reentering the land, the land of his fathers, his land, Yaacov wants to turn his attention to the national. He builds an altar. He buys a plot of land outside of Shechem and sets up his tents, not pup tents for a dozen people, but a large area to accommodate his growing family, servants and extensive livestock.
But plans are merely a basis for change and Yaacov-Israel’s family affairs upset his grandiose scheme. The story is known. Yaacov’s one daughter, Dina, is tired of having only boys (12 brothers) around her and wishes to see what the girls of the neighborhood are like. Except that one of the local guys takes a shine to her, Shechem the son of Hamor who is mayor of the city. He abducts her, rapes her and then, in a reverso of the Stockholm syndrome, he falls in love with her.
Yaacov is nonplussed. The locals are too many and too strong for him, he does not know what to do. Not so his sons Shimon and Levi. They get Hamor to agree to circumcision for all the males in the city (on the same day) and when they are maximally incapacitated the brothers go and slay all the males, including Hamor and Shechem, take the livestock and leave.
Aside from the collateral damage that is caused, one of the many modern criticisms leveled against the brothers and the whole story is that Dina’s desires are not taken into account at all. Perhaps, even after all the topsy-turvy rape-courtship events, she actually liked the guy, thought he was cool. But a closer reading of the text shows that Dina’s story is not Dina’s story. It’s a cover story and it’s a test for Yaacov.
What is the tempting offer Mayor Hamor offers Yaacov and family? Let’s intermarry – we’ll take your girls and you’ll take our girls and soon we’ll be one big happy family (and, Hamor adds to persuade his citizens to suck it up and cut it off, we’ll be able to take all their livestock and wealth too).
There are echoes here of what Laban wanted to do in Charan. That Yaacov and family would stay there and mingle with the people and soon they would all be the same idol worshipping grubbers.
But wasn’t this exactly what Avraham and Yitzhak wanted to prevent? Avraham sent his servant to find a wife for Yitzhak back in the mamaland, and Yitzhak sent Yaacov to the same place – and in both cases the biggest no-no was “do not marry a woman from Canaan.”
So this was an emotional tsunami for Yaacov. He certainly could not have been indifferent, so why did he not react? The explanation of the Ramban is that a son does not speak before his father, and here Shechem, the son, spoke before his father Hamor. Thus it was not proper for Yaacov to answer, so he waited for his sons.
So why was he angry with Shimon and Levi who acted with Yaacov’s knowledge. Again, according to the Ramban, Yaacov agreed only to the circumcision ruse, to be able to take Dina back more easily, not to murder the whole city. That was the sons’ idea. And that is why Yaacov chastised them later, before his death.
Later, Yaacov sets up a new camp, spreads out and then finally meets with Yitzhak. He and Esau have made up, realizing that each one has what he wants and needs.
And with this, Yaacov’s role as the main character ends. He will play a supporting role in the story of Yosef, as he settles down and watches his family framework begin to crumble.
The truth is that Yaacov did a tremendous job. He was a strong guy but he had an inferiority complex, being second to Esau, yet he learned how to take care of himself. He leaned with the punches, which were many, and as a result succeeded where failure seemed likely, such as with Laban. He had four wives – no easy task – yet seemed to mold a generally functional family. He was the most human of the forefathers – no one could be like Avraham and who wanted to be Yitzhak – and he is proof all that even with problems problems everywhere – there’s also hope to spare.