Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shabbat Hanukkah/ Parashat Va-Yeshev 5767/ December 16, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



A Study in Midrash


Dr. Tamar Kadari


Department of Talmud


The previous week’s reading, Parashat Vayishlah, concluded with a description of Esau’s impressive genealogy, whereas this week’s reading is primarily concerned with Jacob’s hardships relating to Joseph.  What role does the opening verse of this week’s reading--“Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan” (Gen. 37:1)-- play?  Is it somehow connected to the previous genealogy? Second, close consideration of the verse itself shows that it contains a superfluous repetition.  One could have made do by saying, “Now Jacob was settled in the land of Canaan;” why did the Torah add “the land where his father had sojourned”?

Below we focus on three homilies of the Sages that appear one after the other in Genesis Rabbah that suggest answers to these questions.  After examining them, we shall consider the various positions they represent and discuss how they fit together to form a single unit.

The first Midrash:   Isaac converted proselytes

The first legend draws a comparison between the deeds of the three patriarchs:

“Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned.”  Abraham made proselytes:  “Abraham took his wife Sarai … and the persons that they had acquired in Haran” (Gen. 12:5) … these were the proselytes…  Jacob made proselytes:   “So Jacob said to his household [and to all who were with him, ‘Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midst’]” (Gen. 35:2)…  But of Isaac we do not hear this.  So whence do we know this regarding Isaac?  As Rabbi Hoshaia taught in the name of Rabbi Yode b. Rabbi Simon:   It says here, “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned [Heb. megurei aviv],” read meguyarei aviv, the proselytes whom his father converted. [1]

Rabbi Hoshaia interpreted the word megurei as coming from the same root as giyyur, conversion.   For Jacob, “the land where his father had sojourned” was the land of Isaac.   The function of the seemingly superfluous extra text is to teach us that Isaac, too, made proselytes, just like Abraham, Sarah and Jacob.  Jacob’s dwelling in the land where his father had sojourned means that Jacob carried on the ways of his father Isaac, according to the expression that “the actions of the parents are a sign to their children.” [2]

The second Midrash:  a pack of dogs

The second midrash is a parable ascribed to Rabbi Hunia:

What has “These are the kings…” (Gen. 36:31) to do with “Now Jacob was settled…”?  Rabbi Hunia said:  It may be compared to a person who was walking along his way and saw a pack of dogs which frightened him, so he settled down amongst them.  [Similarly, [3] when Jacob saw Esau and all his clans he became frightened by them, so he settled in their midst.] [4]

Rabbi Hunia’s parable concerns an aggressive, frightening pack of dogs and a lone wayfarer.  It presents the dogs as having an advantage over the wayfarer both because of their numbers and because they are local denizens.   The person is afraid of being hurt by them but responds in a surprising manner; instead of running for his life, he decides to settle down amidst them.  His action runs contrary to the natural response and requires much bravery, but great wisdom about life lies behind it.   The pack of dogs is a threat only to outsiders, not to the local residents to whom they have grown accustomed.   The moment the person settles down in the area and ceases to be a wayfarer, the danger passes.

In Rabbi Hunia’s eyes the pack of dogs represents the clans of Esau, whom Jacob fears because they are so numerous.   Nevertheless, he decides to dwell amidst them and thus to prevail over them.  The basic choice of parable elements, [5] a wayfarer and a pack of dogs, also expresses Rabbi Hunia’s position.   Jacob’s supremacy finds expression in the fact that he is presented as a human being who prevails over animals.

The parable also plays an interpretive role, [6] answering the two questions of interpretation which we raised.   First, the parable draws a connection between the two juxtaposed passages (parshiot semukhot), the description of Esau’s clans and the statement that Jacob lived in the land of Canaan, creating a causal relationship between them.   Jacob saw the clans of Esau and feared them, therefore he decided to settle among them.   The superfluous words, eretz megurei (the land where his father had sojourned), is treated in this parable as coming from the word magor = fear, trepidation.   The land of Canaan is a land of fear because of the pack of dogs surrounding it; yet despite his proximity to Esau’s clans and his fear of them, Jacob decides to settle in the land of Canaan.   Magor, or fear, is replaced by megurim, or dwelling and settling down, so that Jacob’s settling down is understood as a response and way of coping with the large list of clans. [7]

The third Midrash:  the blacksmith, the goldsmith and the thorns

A parable by Rabbi Levi sheds a different light on Jacob’s way of coping:

Rabbi Levi said:  this may be compared to a blacksmith whose shop opened onto a piazza, and the shop of his son, a goldsmith, opened onto the piazza across from him.  He saw bale after bale of thorns being brought into the country and said, “What a shame such things are being brought into the country.”  There was a supervisor there who said to him, “These you fear?   One spark from you and one spark from your son, and you’ll burn them all up!  Thus, when Jacob saw Esau and his clans, he became frightened.   The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Them you fear?  One spark from you and one spark from your son, and you’ll burn them up.   As it is written, ‘The House of Jacob shall be fire, and the House of Joseph flame, and the House of Esau shall be straw; they shall burn it [and devour it]’ (Obadiah 1:18).” [8]

This parable involves a blacksmith and goldsmith, who are father and son, workmen who deal in precious materials that bring benefit to the country.  They see bales of thorns, which bring no benefit, pass before them.   The entrance of the bales of thorns is frightening, because they take up a lot of space, and that makes the blacksmith nervous.   The Hebrew word for bales, havilot, also alludes to what the blacksmith says:  a shame (haval) such things are being brought into the country.  But the wise man discerns between outer looks and inner essence.  According to what he says, the blacksmith has nothing to fear, since one little spark from the blacksmith’s fire, or from the goldsmith’s, can consume the numerous bales of thorns in a second.  The blacksmith discovers that the solution to the problem is actually in his very hands and is a direct consequence of what he does.

Rabbi Levi’s parable portrays Jacob and Joseph as bringing benefit to the world because of their faith in G-d, in contrast to the clans of Esau, who may be numerous and impressive, but are altogether of no benefit.  Jacob fears their large number, but the Holy One, blessed be He, reassures him that even the slightest action on his part and that of Joseph will suffice to bring about the demise of all the clans of Esau.  Continuing staunchly in their way and in their blessed work will lead a spark to fly of its own accord, without their knowing when.   Thus Redemption will come by worshipping the Lord, but will take place at an unknown time.   Rabbi Levi apparently based his parable on the metaphor in Obadiah 1:18. [9]   Concluding the parable with this verse further strengthens the homily, for the single spark that is described in the parable becomes a fire and great flame in the verse.

This parable, like the one before it, also provides an interpretation answering the questions we posed.   The word megurei is interpreted as related to the word for fear.  This parable, as well, rests on an interpretation that juxtaposes the passage about the clans of Esau and the passage about the history of Jacob, although it suggests a different way of coping with the issue of fear.   The solution lies in the second verse of this week’s reading:  “This, then, is the line of Jacob:  Joseph…”   Jacob’s descendants, who continue in his way, the way of faith in the Lord, are the fire that is destined to consume the clans of Esau.  The future dynasty descending from Jacob is destined to prevail over the existing dynasty of Esau.

Taking all three together: Israel among the gentiles

These three passages, which appear sequentially in Genesis Rabbah, offer three different ways of reading the word megurei:   giyyur, conversion; megurim, residence; and magor, fear.  They represent three ways of coping for a minority which is trying to find its place in a foreign environment.  The first solution is conversion, increasing the numbers of the minority group by making the foreign surroundings similar to it; the second is prolonged dwelling together, since by continuing to dwell together the minority’s fear of the foreign, hostile environment is removed; the third solution gives a sense of security by explaining that the true face of reality is not as it appears.   The physical might of the other nations and their great numbers are but seeming advantages.   The true potency of Israel stems from their spiritual strength and it is destined to prevail easily over the other nations.  Persistence in doing right and in worshipping the Lord will lead to the victory of spirit over matter.

Thus each passage illumines a unique angle of a common subject.  The first deals with the religious impact of Israel on its gentile surroundings; the second focuses on Israel’s foothold in the land while enemies live around them; and the third concludes with hope for the future, for times when spiritual values and not numbers or might will reign in the world.

We conclude with a note on the skillful way in which these three passages are woven together.  The first combines this week’s reading with the stories of the patriarchs that precede it in Genesis; the second connects the two juxtaposed passages, the beginning of this week’s reading and the end of last week’s; and the third connects the juxtaposed passages with those that follow, the stories of Joseph that come later and that portray Joseph as continuing Jacob’s way.  The editor of Genesis Rabbah who arranged these three passages one after the other was indeed very skillful in his work.


[1] Genesis Rabbah 84, par. 4, Theodore-Albeck edition, p. 1004.

[2] On identical things happening to fathers and their children, see Isaac Heineman, Darkhei ha-Aggadah, pp. 32-34.

[3] Completions by Albeck, based on manuscripts.

[4] Genesis Rabbah, loc. sit., par. 8, pp. 1004-1005.

[5] On the importance of choosing basic parable elements, see J. Frankel, Darkhei ha-Aggadah ve-ha-Midrash, 1991, pp. 330-332.

[6] On the role of parables as a tool of interpretation, see D. Stern, Parables in Midrash, Cambridge, 1991.

[7] Midrash ha-Gadol, Va-Yeshev, Margaliyot edition, pp. 620-621, has an extended version of this parable, describing Jacob’s various troubles as encounters with a biting dog that represents Laban, the angel, and Esau.   This version weakens the impression that Jacob is primarily afraid of the clans of Esau, and ascribes this to their being so numerous.

[8] Genesis Rabbah, loc. sit., p. 1005.  Rashi cites this parable in his commentary on verse 1.

[9] This chapter is the haftarah of Parashat Va-yishlah. Y. Ofer, “Sidrei Nevi’im u-Ketuvim,” Tarbiz 58 (1989), p. 176, raises the hypothesis that it was the regular practice to repeat one verse of the haftarah in the next weekly reading (p. 163, note 23), and perhaps the parable reflects such a practice.