Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yishlah 5769/ December 13, 2008

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,


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.

Jacob's Behavior

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 Hebron, where they were living, but rather encamped at Succoth and continued on to Shechem.   The Torah does not say when the matriarch Rebekah died, but according to the legend cited in Rashi, when Rebekah's nurse Deborah died, as recounted in this week's reading (Gen. 35:8), Jacob received tidings of another loss – the death of his mother.   Only after the unpleasant affair with Dinah and the men of Shechem does Scripture tell us:   “And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, at Kiryat-arba, now Hebron” (Gen. 35:27).  Since Rebekah's name is not mentioned here, we presume that she had already died.   (Rashi's commentary on Gen. 35:1 notes sharp criticism of Jacob on the part of the Holy One, blessed be He, for his having tarried along the way.)

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, Edom.”   Verse nine recapitulates:   “This, then, is the line of Esau, the ancestor of the Edomites, in the hill country of Seir,” and verse 15 introduces a new list:   “These are the clans of the children of Esau.”  For example, the sons of Esau's wife OholibamahJeush, Jalam and Korah – are mentioned three times.  Why did they have to be mentioned twice more, having already been presented once?

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 land of Canaan, where several of his sons were born.  But Esau decided to leave his brother Jacob in the land of Canaan and move to the hill country of Seir, “for their possessions were too many for them to dwell together” (Gen. 36:7).  Further on, in verses 9-14, we are given a list of Esau's offspring and their new place of residence, and we also learn of additional sons born there (and, incidentally, it becomes clear that all the sons who had been born in the land of Canaan moved to the hill country of Seir).  Finally, from verses 20 to 30, we are told about the “sons of Seir the Horite, who were settled in the land,” who were not descendants of Esau.  In Deuteronomy 2:21-22, however, it says:  “The Lord wiped them out, so that [the Ammonites] dispossessed them and settled in their place, as He did for the descendants of Esau who live in Seir, when He wiped out the Horites before them, so that they dispossessed them and settled in their place.”

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 Israel in our day must contend with – where to establish and settle down, in view of concerns of livelihood, education, convenience, etc.

Jacob left Canaan as a single individual with no means.  He returned as the head of a large family, established and possessing a fortune, primarily in flocks.  Presumably he considered the possibility of living with his father in Hebron, but the area there was not favorable for shepherds.  Therefore he began by journeying to Succoth, where he "made stalls [Heb. sukkot] for his cattle” [Gen. 33:17]), and then he moved on to Shechem, where he purchased land.  (It is interesting to note that in parashat Va-Yeshev, when Jacob's sons were put in charge of tending their father's flocks, they chose to graze in Shechem.)   It appears that Jacob's behavior was not pleasing to the Holy One, blessed be He, (according to Rashi's commentary, cited above) perhaps because he did not take into account the important influence his father Isaac would have on his family if they were to live near him.  The Holy One, blessed be He, called on Jacob to go to Beth El, where the Lord had appeared to him when he was fleeing from his brother Esau, and perhaps Jacob understood this as the first step directing him back to the city of his ancestors, Hebron.

If our surmised scenario is correct, then it is quite possible that Rebekah was still alive when her son Jacob returned to the land of Canaan, and that he indeed managed to see her again before her death.