Archive for Vayishlach

Vayishlach: The Logic of Violence

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Vayishlach 

Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” But they answered, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Genesis/ Bereshit 34:30-31)

Good morning! 
This week’s Torah reading has several well known narratives: the first is the putative reconciliation between Yaakov and his estranged brother Esav; the second is the story of Dinah, Yaakov’s daughter, and the vengeance of her brothers upon her oppressors; and the third is Yaakov’s return to Beth-El and reaffirmation of his covenant with the God of his fathers. 
It’s the second of these that seems appropriate for mention today. In short, Yaakov and his camp dwell near the clan of a man named Shechem and his father Hamor. Shechem sexually assaults Dinah, bringing shame and dishonor to her family, so her brothers Shimon and Levi trick the men of her clan into circumcising themselves and then massacre them during recovery. The verses quoted above are the end of the story: Yaakov confronts his sons with the terrible implication of their deed, and they answer back with their understandable- but not really justifying- motivation. 
Note that Yaakov doesn’t exactly tell Shimon and Levi was morally wrong to trick and kill the men of Shechem’s camp. Rather, he points out that it was very, very unwise, since now his family will have a bad reputation and may be at the mercy of stronger forces. On the other hand, we have a strong hint that he really did think Shimon and Levi did a terrible thing: at the end of his life, on his deathbed, Yaakov refers to Shimon and Levi as mean of wanton violence and he curses them for their anger and wrath. (Cf. Bereshit 49:5-7
My sense is that Yaakov knew that Shimon and Levi, still hot with emotion, could not be persuaded of their guilt in perpetrating a crime upon innocents. Yes, Shechem raped or seduced Dinah, but even if one argued that Shechem deserved to die for what he did, that hardly justifies killing the men of his clan, unless one reasoned that they would strike back in retaliation, which in turn merely proves Yaakov’s point about the cycle of violence. So rather than denounce his sons as criminals, he tells them what he thinks they might be able to hear: that they were unwise and party to unforeseen consequences. 
Shimon and Levi answer their father: “should our sister be treated like a whore?” as if one crime naturally justified another in a world that respects only brute force. It’s the impeccable logic of violence, but I think Yaakov is trying to make the point that there is rarely perfect justice in this world, and sometimes we have to settle for the justice we can in order to avoid greater crimes and more bloodshed. 
There is no perfect justice in this world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the justice we can achieve; it means that everybody, on all sides of a conflict, may have to take some share of the responsibility in avoiding further cycles of violence and retaliation. It means that in an America where all too often, minority communities experience the police as using unjustified force, resulting in needless deaths, wisdom dictates humility and contrition on the part of those who wield force. There is no perfect justice in systems created by fallible human beings, but the logic of retaliation and rage only ensures further injustice upon innocents. Human beings are experts at finding justification for their baser actions, but breaking cycles of violence means backing down, even at the cost of honor. 
We can always find reasons to hate. The hard part is pushing hate aside to measure our response to tragedy, so that the pursuit of justice is not merely a cover for the logic of vengeance. The difference between justice and vengeance is the most important thing in the world at times like these, and the responsibility of everyone who cares about a decent world for our children. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Vayishlach: Balancing Solitude and Relationship

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

That same night he arose and. . . he crossed the ford of the Yavok.  Yaakov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.  .  . (Bereshit/ Genesis 32: 23-24)

Good afternoon!

My colleague Rabbi Baruch Halevi had an excellent Torah insight that I’d never really considered: as in the verse above, our ancestor Yaakov seems to have his most intense spiritual experiences at night. (See also Bereshit 28 and 46.) You should check out Rabbi Halevi’s interpretation (here) about facing the inner darkness but what intrigued me was how the Torah stresses that Yaakov was alone that night by the river. This is also explicit the first time he had visions of the night on his flight from Beer-sheva.  (see the link to chapter 28, above.)  Sometimes we gain great insight in solitude, in quiet hours and withdrawal from noise and business; the image of Yaakov alone at night certainly suggests a moment of crisis but also simply those times when looking inward is the only possible way forward.

On the other hand, contrast those two experiences of  Yaakov with the famous scene of his father praying together with his mother:

And Yitzhak prayed to the Lord opposite his wife because she was barren, and the Holy One accepted his prayer, and Rivka his wife conceived. (Bereshit 25:21)

Rashi says that Yitzhak and Rivka prayed in opposite corners of the same room; other commentators suggest that Yitzhak knew that their problem was not only hers but was fully shared by both spouses, thus requiring shared prayer and introspection. There are times for the quiet of solitude, and also times to reveal our struggle and journey with others.

We might say that in the aloneness of the night, Yaakov is confronted with the most basic questions a human can ask: who am I and where am I going? Yitzhak, at his moment of seeking, asks an equally fundamental question: how are we going to move forward together? Perhaps the difference is this: the question is  not only who am I? but how can I be me except in relationship to others?

This is, of course, no conundrum at all. The full spiritual life is a balance of solitude and connection, introspection and dialogue, learning one’s inner truth and also a deep vulnerability to others. Sometimes we need to be Yaakov, alone in the night, and sometimes we need to be Yitzhak, seeking God together with his partner.  Both ways are holy!

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayishlach: No Soul Left Behind

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

Yaakov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Yaakov’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. . . . . (Bereshit 32:25-26)

Good afternoon!

Boy it’s been one of those days. . . but not as eventful as the night before our ancestor Yaakov re-encountered his brother Esav, whom he had run away from 20 years earlier after stealing the blessing of the first born. In the famous prelude to their meeting, Yaakov sends gifts ahead to his brother, who is travelling with a small army, and remains alone by a river after dividing his household into two camps for protection. Yaakov meets a mysterious man- perhaps an angel? a dream? a representation of his conscience?- and they wrestle till dawn, eventually leaving Yaakov with a limp in his hip.

The story concludes with one of the few mitzvot, or commandments, of the book of Genesis:

That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle . . .(ibid, v 33.)

The part of an animal that is not eaten is called gid hanasheh, and is generally understood to be the sciatic nerve and the area around it, which can be removed when an animal is slaughtered according to the Jewish dietary laws.

OK, I can hear you asking, so not eating a certain part of an animal’s leg is connected to Yaakov’s injury during his wrestling. That’s fine, but what, exactly, are we being asked to remember, and why is this connected to a dietary practice?

Well, it turns out that many Torah commentators ask the same questions, and don’t, of course, all agree on the answers. Some say that it is a reminder to keep “wrestling” even if we feel injured or imperfect, and some say that is is a sign that despite the ways in which we might be limping along, there is a promise of Divine aid at the end of our struggles. One particularly poignant interpretation of this mitzvah comes from the medieval commentator Hizzekuni, who asks an obvious question: why did Yaakov’s family and servants leave him alone by the river that night? Surely they should have insisted that he come along with the rest of the camp lest he be found alone by his brother’s men!

Hizzekuni turns his question into his answer: we refrain from eating the gid hanesheh precisely to remind us that Yaakov should not have been left alone and potentially in danger. Granted, perhaps he needed to be alone to wrestle with the angel (or whatever that was) but Hizzekuni is interested in a teaching for the rest of us: do not leave another to feel abandoned, alone or afraid. Perhaps it was Yaakov’s destiny was solitude that night, but that hardly excuses the rest of us from walking away when others may need us most. Seen this way, an obscure mitzvah, that hardly fits with its narrative origins, becomes a powerful reminder of the most basic Jewish principle: you are, indeed, your brother’s (and father’s and sister’s and neighbor’s) keeper.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Vayishlach: Two Names

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

“Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.’ “ (Bereshit/ Genesis 32:29)

“God said to him,’You whose name is Yaakov, You shall be called Yaakov no more,but Yisrael shall be your name.’ “

Good afternoon!

This week our ancestor Yaakov goes back home with many wives, children, servants and animals- a whole camp, which is divided in two before they meet up with Yaakov’s brother Esav, whom they fear has aggressive intent. Yaakov himself spends the night alone before this fateful meeting, and wrestles with the angel who changes his name from Yaakov– the deceiver- to Yisrael, the God-wrestler. (As Arthur Waskow puts it.) This name change is then confirmed in a theophany (revelation of the Presence) a few chapters later, as above.

The symbolism is clear: Yaakov, who deceived his brother and ran away, is finally mature enough to humble himself and confront the legacy of his actions; this inner change is marked by the outer change of his name. Yet the Torah continues to use both names – in fact, just a few verses later (35:14) the text says that it was “Yaakov” who set up the pillar to mark the spot where God changed his name!

So what’s the deal here? Is he Yaakov, or Yisrael? From a historical perspective, we might hypothesize that texts which use the different names reflect older traditions woven together- that’s called source criticism, related to the documentary hypothesis. On other hand, some traditional commentaries saw no contradiction, merely noting that “Yisrael” would be considered the primary name and “Yaakov” the secondary name from now on. (Cf. Torah Temimah on 35:10)

If the change of names is indeed symbolic of his growth and spiritual evolution, then we might even posit that it makes sense to carry both names as Yisrael/ Yaakov goes forward on his journey- because spiritual growth is not a linear process of sudden and permanent change. It’s two steps forward, one step back, and a life-long commitment to taking one’s personal inventory of strengths and weaknesses, passions and values, shortcomings and inner challenges. Yaakov can indeed become Yisrael- the God-wrestler- but he carries that part of him which is Yaakov, just as we all grow but carry our earlier selves along the way.

Perhaps the text is even hinting that Yisrael knows that part of himself is still Yaakov- and that this self-awareness is an outcome of his wrestling with conscience and memory. To me, this is a tremendously realistic and yet hopeful view of human nature: spiritual growth consists of knowing and accepting one’s flaws and yet refusing to be bound by them. Yaakov becomes Yisrael and is still Yaakov- not a paradox, but a reflection of the upward spiral of the journeying heart.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayishlach: The Blessing of Enough

Shalom and salutations to one and all. I hope everybody reading this has a measure of serenity as North America goes into the month-long frenzy known as December- as for me, it’s a month will little commercial radio but other than that life goes on in the world of weekly Torah commentaries.

A few weeks ago , we explored the connection between Avraham’s blessing and birkat hamazon, or the blessing after a meal. The key phrase for the portion Chayei Sarah was bakol, that just as Avraham was blessed “in everything,” so should we be blessed. Fast forward in the Torah to this week’s portion, Vayishlach, and once again, we find that our patriarch, in this case Yaakov, is blessed with kol:

“But Yaakov said, ‘No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.  Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.’ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 33:10-11)

What JPS translates as “plenty” is our word kol, literally “all things” or “everything.” The context of the passage above is the reconciliation between Yaakov and his brother Esav; Yaakov, guilty of stealing his brother’s blessing from their father many years earlier, urges his brother to accept gifts of animals as a token of Yaakov’s humility and contrition. Esav is initially reluctant:

“Esav said, ‘I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.’ ” (Ibid, verse 9)

Notice that Esav says he has “enough.” The actual word is rav, which means “a lot” or “plenty,” and in fact, our friend Rashi understands it this way, unlike the JPS translation above. Following Rashi, Esav’s demurral of Yaakov’s gifts is because he has “plenty,” which may be a boastful way of saying “I don’t need what you have to offer,” whereupon Yaakov urges him to accept, saying (again according to Rashi) “I have everything [that I need].” Yaakov, in this reading, knows he has “everything,” in the sense of the necessities, and therefore has enough to share in order to make amends to his brother.

Let’s return to our passage in birkat hamazon, the blessing after the meal:

“Just as God blessed our ancestors Avraham Yitzhak and Yaakov, ‘in all things,’ ‘by all things,’ with ‘all things,’ so may we all be blessed together with a complete blessing.”

Now we see that one way to understand Yaakov’s blessing of kol, or “all things,” is not so much about quantity but attitude. In Rashi’s reading, Esav may have had more wealth than Yaakov, but Yaakov felt that he had “everything” that he needed, and was thus able to part with riches in the service of his moral and spiritual goals. So in asking to be blessed like Yaakov, “with all things,” we’re not asking for more stuff, we’re asking for the capacity to know we have enough. We’re not asking for a material blessing, but for perspective on our material blessings- and that in itself is both priceless and sacred.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- see the links in the previous drasha on this topic for comparison, and go to Hebcal for the text of the Torah portion and haftarah.

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Vayishlach: Outrage at Injustice

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

This week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach, concerning the reconciliation
but eventual parting of the brothers Ya’akov and Esav. The haftarah,
however, is a bit harder to pin down, because there are, as last week,
different traditions as to which text is read, and in fact, one of the
traditions is that Ashkenazim read this week what Sephardim read last
week, from Hosea.

However, we’re going to follow the Etz Hayim Torah commentary, which
follows the practice of reading the book of Ovadiah, in its entirety
(only 21 verses), as the haftarah for Vayishlach.

OK, now that we’re all together on what we’re learning, what’s in the

The book of Ovadiah (probably a pseudonym, since Ovadiah means
“servant of God.”) is mostly a prophecy against the nation of Edom,
one of Israel’s neighbors that apparently took advantage of Israel
being in conflict with another nation and either plundered Israel or
at the very least didn’t help. (Cf. verses 1`2-14.) The connection to
the Torah portion is that Edom is understood to be descended from
Esav, brother of our ancestor Ya’akov (AKA Yisrael) – thus linking the
conflict between the brothers to later conflict between Israel and its

The ancient rabbis saw this conflict continue, and identified Edom
with the Roman empire- and thus the book of Ovadiah, who prophesied
Edom’s downfall, was seen not as the past, but as the future, a future
in which the hated Roman domination would be ended and the military
empire overthrown. The cruelty of Edom/ Rome is brought out in a
poignant verse:

“If thieves were to come to you,
marauders by night,
They would steal no more than they needed.
If grape-gatherers came to you,
they would surely leave some gleanings.” (Ovadiah, verse 5)

The basic idea is that even thieves have some honor- they would not
take everything out of a home, but only what they could sell or use,
and even those who raided a vineyard would surely leave <something>
behind, not out of compassion, but because a thief has at least some
rational self-interest, and doesn’t wantonly destroy. Yet I also hear
in these verses a rage against arrogance- because Edom/ Rome has not
been humbled, never experienced a sense of communal violation or
shame, they have no compassion, no understanding of justice and fairness.

There is a real anger in the book of Ovadiah, a sense of outrage at
the perceived lack of basic humanity: “how could you gaze with glee on
your brother that day, on his day of calamity?” (Verse 12) The prophet
is no dispassionate philosopher, but one who is offended at injustice;
not a magician or seer, but a deeply engaged voice of moral clarity.
Seen this way, the prophecy against Edom is not so much about a
particular nation at a particular time, but a symbol of a recurring
theme of history: those who that believe might makes right, and who
crush others because they can, will not stand forever. To believe this
requires both faith and courage- faith to keep struggling for justice
in a world which is often cruel, and the courage to ask hard
questions. That’s a prophetic faith, one which sustained our people
through periods of darkness, and which is no less needed today.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayishlach: Vengeance and Justice

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

This week’s portion, Vayishlach, begins with the story of Yaakov
wrestling with a mysterious being the night before he meets up with
his estranged brother Esav; after he and Esav appear to reconcile,
they go their separate ways and Yaakov camps near Shechem.
Unfortunately, he must leave that area after his sons, led by Shimon
and Levi, take a terrible and bloody vengeance on the men of the town
in retribution for an apparent sexual assault upon their sister,
Dinah. In the view of the brothers, the prince of the town had treated
Dinah like a prostitute; in revenge, they deceived all the men of the
town, setting them up for death and despoilment. (Cf. Bereshit/Genesis 34)

The story of the “rape of Dinah” (as it is usually known) raises
complex issues of gender, justice and morality; for today, we will
note only that Shimon and Levi’s actions seem to violate a later Torah
prohibition against “taking revenge,” as expressed in
Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a
grudge against your countrymen.”

A clear explanation of this mitzvah is found in Abraham Chill’s book
on the mitzvot (which I recommend), where he brings the classic
rabbinic explanation of the difference between “revenge” and “grudges:”

1) Revenge, or “nekamah,” is when John comes to Hillary and asks to
borrow a tool, and Hillary refuses. The next day, Hillary comes to
John and asks to borrow a different tool, and John says: “you didn’t
lend to me, I’m not going to lend to you.”

2) Bearing a grudge is remembering past slights, as when Rudy comes to
Mitt to borrow a tool, and Mitt says: “OK, I’m lending you the hammer,
even though yesterday you refused to lend me a wrench.”

Please note: the mitzvah of not taking revenge does not mean we should
permit injustice or not hold people accountable for genuine misdeeds.
It means that the accountability should be proportionate to the wrong,
and limited to the actual problem. To put it another way, I might
explain this mitzvah as the spiritual discipline of attempting to stay
emotionally “centered” even when one feels hurt, insulted or harmed in
some way, and to respond from a place of thoughtfulness, not lashing
out. The mitzvah does not preclude protecting ourselves, or speaking
out when we feel hurt- it means that even if we were hurt, the Torah
challenges us to carefully distinguish between justice and vengeance.

There’s nothing easy about this mitzvah- in fact, it might be one of
the hardest in the Torah. Furthermore, it’s easy to say that Shimon
and Levi’s response to Shechem was totally disproportionate to the
offense, but it’s harder to say just how they might have acted in a
way which held the prince accountable and deterred further violence
against their family. While Yaakov himself condemns what the brothers
did, he does so on practical grounds- that they will be considered
outlaws in the region.

Finally, one should note that the verse from Vayikra specifies that we
are not to take revenge against “bnai amecha,” literally, the
“children of your people.” Thus, some commentators have limited this
prohibition to a behavioral norm only within the Jewish community (see
Chill’s quotation from Kli Yakar, for example), but I reject that
view. The rest of the verse tells us to love “our fellow” [re’eacha]
as ourselves- and our fellow humans are all peoples.

The word “vengeance” evokes images of bloody blades like Shimon and
Levi’s, but the examples given above are much closer to ordinary life.
Who among us has never made a cutting and unnecessary remark, or taken
some small action for the purpose of confounding another? The mitzvah
of refraining from revenge is about cultivating an ethical
consciousness even during rage or pain- that is, precisely when it’s
hardest and most necessary. Not bearing a grudge is really about not
letting other people’s actions determine your own- it is the path of
becoming our best selves.

Shabbat Shalom,


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