Parashat Va-Yishlah 5769/ December 13, 2008
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Three Questions, Three Answers
Prof. Cyril Domb
Department of Physics
Three difficulties arise upon reading parashat Va-Yishlah, and they have been troubling me for several years. Below I shall attempt to provide some answers.
The first and most difficult of all, in my opinion, is how
to understand Jacob's behavior upon his return to the land of Canaan, after
having spent an extended time with Laban in Paddan-aram.
Twenty years had passed, during which he had
not seen his father and mother.
Nevertheless, he did not go directly to
The Importance of Esau
The second question concerns the seemingly over-exaggerated
detail in listing the progeny of Esau.
The first verse of chapter 36 reads:
“This is the line of Esau – that is,
Under the Terebinth
The third question is simpler than the others: Jacob commanded his household to remove the alien gods that were in their midst (Gen. 35:2), and in the next verse but one it says: “Jacob buried them under the terebinth that was near Shechem.” What need was there to specify the exact place where he buried them?
Let us begin with the last question, which is easiest of all. Idols and all that is associated with them come under the law governing pagan offerings and they are forbidden to be used for one's benefit to eternity. It would have been fitting to destroy them, but since it is impossible to destroy things made of metal, Jacob buried them in the ground. However, it is conceivable that at some later time an Israelite might dig somewhere and come upon silver and gold objects and think he had discovered a treasure. Therefore the Torah cautions us that if the digging was done “under the terebinth that was near Shechem,” then the treasure is a pagan offering, and one is forbidden to benefit from it.
Esau and Ishmael
As for the second question, one should bear in mind that the there is a significant difference between the progeny of Esau and the progeny of Ishmael. The progeny of Esau are ostensibly included in the declaration, “for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you” (Gen. 21:12), and therefore they are in line for fulfillment of the promise that the Holy One, blessed be He, made to Abraham in the Covenant of the Pieces. The Torah felt a need to check out whether they were indeed covered by this promise. The message the Holy One, blessed be He, gave Abraham began with the words, “Know well that your offspring shall be stranger in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed” (Gen. 15:13), so it seems to me that the primary function of chapter 36 is to tell us the history of Esau's progeny in order to show beyond any shadow of a doubt that the fulfillment of this prophecy did not apply to them.
From verses 1-8 of chapter 36 we learn that Esau's family
started out in the
The list of clan and kings descended of Esau, which is given in the remaining verses, shows us that the prediction, “they shall be enslaved and oppressed,” as well, does not apply to the descendants of Esau. This is all intended to convince us that only the descendants of Jacob can be considered recipients of the promise given in the Covenant of the Pieces. This is the basis for the Sages' comment on the verse, “for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you – through Isaac, but not all of Isaac's progeny” (Nedarim 31a).
Did Jacob first go home?
As for the first question, we should preface our remarks with something that Nehama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, constantly used to emphasize in her classes and her writings, namely that the Torah is not a book that deals with biography. We have, for example, almost no information on the first eighty years in the life of Moses, the central figure of the entire Torah. The key to what appears in the Torah is the saying of the Sages, “Prophecy that was needed for future generations was recorded, and that which was not needed was not recorded” ( Megilla 14a).
In my opinion, the first thing that Jacob must have done
upon returning to the land of Canaan was to visit his parents, but the Torah
did not see any need to record this fact since it is something that anybody
with the least bit of family feelings would do.
What concerned the Torah was Jacob's struggle to establish his residence
in the land. The difficulty that Jacob
contended with was the same problem that any immigrant to
If our surmised scenario is correct, then it is quite
possible that Rebekah was still alive when her son
Jacob returned to the