Parashah Va-yishlach, 19th November 2021 – Leslie Wheeler

Old Moishe Applebaum arrived at the post office with a post card in his hand. He approached the young counter assistant and said, “I’m sorry to bother you but could you address this post card for me? My arthritis is acting up today and I can’t even hold a pen.” “Certainly sir,” replied the young counter assistant, “I’d be glad to.” He wrote out the address and also agreed to write a short message and sign the card for old Moishe. Finally, the young counter assistant asked, “Now, is there anything else I can do for you sir?” Old Moishe thought about it for a moment and then said, “Yes, at the end could you just add, ‘PS: Please excuse the sloppy hand-writing.’”

Just like the cancel culture in today’s society in their attempts to blot out what they consider to be undesirable aspects of our history, so too did the priestly scribes while writing the descriptions of Jacob and Esau.

Anyone who has visited Beer Sheva will be fully aware of just how harsh life would have been during the time of the Patriarchs. In addition to the arid desert environment and its frequent droughts and high mortality rates, with deaths due to disease and malnutrition. Food would have been scarce with meat a rare luxury, a diet consisting of mainly beans and lentils. Overriding all of these would have been the defence of the family and cattle from attacks by wild animals, marauding Bedouins and Canaanite tribes.

Imagine if you or I were alive at this time, and we had to choose who to lead us, Esau the skilful hunter able to add deer to our meagre diet of lentils, a man of the fields depicting a person of physical strength, virile, a frontiersman capable of offering us protection? Or would we have opted for Jacob the mummy’s boy, mild, plain and quiet, the book reader who was able to turn his hand to a bowl of lentil soup? Fortunately for us this choice was never our’s to make, the leader of the Jewish people was chosen by God.

During my research into the characterisation of Jacob and Esau, I could not help questioning the vilification of Esau in the Rabbinic Midrash where they associate Esau and Edom to the City of Rome and refer to Romans as Edomites. Midrash Tanchuma Bereshite 7 relates Edom with Emperor Hadrian and proposes that the battle of the world will be between Rome and Judah.

Rabbi Yohanan says in Bava Batra 16b:13-14: “That wicked Esau committed five transgressions on that day that Abraham died: He engaged in sexual intercourse with a betrothed maiden, he killed a person, he denied the principle of God’s existence, he denied the resurrection of the dead, and he despised the birthright”.

Today’s Haftarah the Prophet Obadiah wrote only 21 verses of prophecy, and all 21 verses are directed to Esau and Edom, dripping with hatred and hostility. The prophet Malachi writes: “Yet I have loved Jacob; But Esau I hated, And made his mountains a desolation, and gave his heritage to the jackals of the wilderness”. A pretty damming characterisation of a man who during his time would have been highly respected by his community and most certainly loved by his father.

How is Jacob Characterised in Torah?
In Genesis 25:27 Jacob is described as ‘a quiet man dwelling in tents’. This would not be my description of Jacob! From the very beginning Jacob is shown to be a highly skilled herdsman, proficient in animal husbandry and herding practices. In Genesis 29:1-7 Jacob was critical of the herdsmen of Haran for rounding up their flocks of sheep at the watering well during daylight hours when they would be more productive if left grazing until evening. Jacob saw this as a wasteful practice, restricting the flocks from valuable grazing time. He single handedly rolls away the stone from the well and allows Rachel’s flock to drink whereby indicating his physical strength.

Genesis 30:31-43 describes Jacob’s genius as a herdsman. Jacob had no knowledge of genetics while caring for Laban’s sheep but he would have known from his previous husbandry experience that the desired characteristics he sought i.e., sheep possessing black or black stripped wool would be greatly enhanced by having Laban’s ewes served only by rams with black wool. Each lambing season Jacob would castrate all the white male lambs and for food purposes he would only slaughter the old white rams. Segregation of the remaining white rams from the breeding ewes at the watering troughs was likely achieved by building holding pens made from the branches of poplar, almond and plane trees. It should be noted that a healthy ram can mate with 100 ewes in a 17 day breeding cycle. So even if only 3 or 4 black male lambs resulted from the first lambing season by the 6th year using these selective breeding practices, Laban’s flock would have resulted in sheep with predominantly black or black striped wool, thus transferring their ownership to Jacob. We have no idea of the total numbers of livestock in Jacobs possession but looking at the significant numbers of animals he is providing Esau as a gift we can deduce that Jacob was skilled in the animal husbandry of: goats sheep camels cattle (dairy and beef stock) and donkeys. As someone who grew up in a farming environment I can assure you its impossible to acquire these skills dwelling in tents, studying books and making lentil soup!

Our parashah describes Jacob being instructed by God to return home. When I first read this story of Jacob and Esau, I thought OK, we have Jacob running away from his brother Esau to stay with his uncle in Paddan Aram. It was only when I looked at an Atlas (1) to see exactly where Paddan Aram is situated, I realised the enormity of the task, Jacob, his family and livestock would have undertaken in order to return home. Paddan Aran lies between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Upper Mesopotamia, present day Turkey, a major 500 mile route, crossing the Euphrates River and the Syrian Desert to the Jabbok ford crossing in the lower Jordan River where todays parashah takes place. Immediately I questioned how Jacob could have possibly achieve such a formidable journey? The answer lies in verse 16 of todays reading “30 milch camels with their colts”. These “Ships of the Desert” as they are often referred to were as essential to the ancient desert nomads as today’s Heavy Goods Vehicles and in supplying our society with public transportation, food, fuel and other essential resources.

Louise Sweet describes in her book “Camel Raiding of North Arabian Bedouins” (2) indicating just how crucial camels would have been in enabling Jacob and his family to accomplish the five hundred mile desert journey. “As a resource of food, wool, leather and other products, and as a means of freight and personnel transport, the camel, in one species, provides all these for the Bedouin on a scale that no other domestic animal or combination of animals in this area can rival. As highly specialised a desert animal as the camel is, it is a multipurpose and generalised beast in Bedouin economy. It is the primary source of nutrients for the Bedouin, both directly and indirectly. As a direct source, camel milk is the staff of Bedouin life and is available eleven or more months of the year. No other milk animal in Arabia can compare to this since sheep, goats, and cows lactate only during the season of moist and abundant forage and ample water amounting to five months in all. As an indirect source, the camel enables the movement of the whole social unit together, carrying, as well as men, the women and the children, the sick, infant animals, the dwelling tent and its furnishings, and in great leather bags of camel hides, water from distant wells. The forage requirements of a large ruminant like the camel and its capacity to go without water longer than humans, or to drink unpotable brackish water and convert it to a nutritious liquid for man, permit penetration of desert pastures far beyond the range of sheep and goats”.

Although archaeologists refute the existence of camels in the land of Israel until centuries after the age of the Patriarchs, Sumerian cuneiform tablets have been discovered describing domesticated Bactrian (two hump) camels existing in Mesopotamia during the Middle Bronze Age. One such cuneiform tablet describes a Sumerian love song in which Inanna, a Sumerian Goddess addresses her lover Dumuzi requesting the sweet yellow milk of the camel.

Returning to our parashah, we find Jacob wrestling all night with a mysterious angel representing God. I’m sure all of us at some time in our lives will have struggled/wrestled with God, when that little voice in our conscience is asking “Why would a loving God allow something like this to happen?” e.g. The Holocaust; the death of a young child; the many disasters such as draughts and tsunamis that result in the loss of millions of innocent lives. It is a very natural reaction for Jews to have questions concerning God.

Jacob is questioning why God wants him to return home knowing he would encounter his twin brother Esau who had threatened to kill him. For Jacob to flee his family and his home for 20 years, he must have been severely traumatised at the thought of what Esau might do to him when they meet, so was it the victorious wrestle with the angel that gave Jacob the courage to meet with Esau? Was the fight with the angel simply a dream? Much commentary has been offered on the identity of the mysterious “man.” Tradition generally holds that this was a Divine Messenger; however, could Jacob in fact have been wrestling with his own Shadow?

I decided to see what the experts on dreams had to say about someone who dreams of winning a fight against someone else. This is what I found on a website “Dreams about being beaten or being attacked often relate to issues of control in your life, and your own vulnerability. Being attacked in a dream is not usually about wanting to hurt yourself or others, but can be about your own unresolved internal conflict. …”. I think this is a very fair assessment of where we find Jacob battling with himself in todays parashah. Jacob is struggling to become a better, more honest, and just human being.

Modern writer Elie Wiesel expands this in his book “The Messengers of God” (3) where he writes the following: “at Peniel … two Jacobs came together.” There was the Jacob who had doubts about himself, fears about his future, and regrets about how he has stolen the blessing from his brother. This side of him said: “I deserve nothing, I am less than nothing, I am unworthy of celestial blessing, unworthy of my ancestors as much as of my descendants, unworthy to transmit God’s message.” And there was the other Jacob who was the “heroic dreamer,” the brave experience, and the future looking Jacob. That voice reminded him of how he had worked to create his family and his fortune and how he had stood up to Laban and his sons when they had plotted against him. That voice reminded him that he was the son of Isaac and that through him the Jewish people were to survive.

That night, the two sides of Jacob fought with each other. He wrestled with the most serious questions of his life. Who was he? What was really important to him? What were his responsibilities to himself and to those he loved? As dawn broke, he knew that he would never be the same. He was a changed person. He would limp away from his night battle with himself, but he would have a new name. He would no longer be Ya’akov, “the one who holds onto his brother’s heel” or “the one who steals his brothers blessing.” Now he would be Yisrael, “The one who had wrestled with himself and was now ready to wrestle with the world”.

(1) A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People From the Times of the Patriarchs to the Present. Eli Barnavi (Pages 3, 25)
(2) Sweet, Louise E. “Camel Raiding of North Arabian Bedouin: A Mechanism of Ecological Adaptation.” American Anthropologist, vol. 67, no. 5, [American Anthropological Association, Wiley], 1965, pp. 1132–50,
(3) Elie Wiesel. (Messengers of God, pp.122-129)