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Parasha Vayishlach (And He Sent): Being Overcomers in the Face of Life’s Struggles

Vayishlach (And He Sent)
Genesis 32:4 (3)–36:43; Obadiah 1:1–21; Ephesians 4:1–32

“And Jacob sent [vayishlach וַיִּשְׁלַח] messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.”  (Genesis 32:4[3])

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Jacob left his unjust father-in-law, Laban, while he was off shearing his sheep.  Fearing that Laban would keep his daughters, Leah and Rachel, Jacob stole away with all he had: his sons, his two wives, and all of his livestock, heading for the mountains of Gilead.

After 22 years in Haran, it was likely very difficult for Jacob to free himself from Laban’s wicked manipulation and control, but he did succeed.  We can imagine that he was anticipating with great joy his return to his ancestral homeland of Canaan; however, in order to do so, he had to first pass through Edom, the territory of Esau, his estranged brother.

Torah Scroll reading synagogue

A Jewish man prepares to read from the open Torah scroll.

Jacob’s Family Becomes a Nation

“Then the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, ‘We came to your brother Esau, and he also is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”  So Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.”  (Genesis 32:6–7)

The time had come for Jacob to confront his past.  More than two decades had passed since Jacob had posed as his brother Esau and received the first-born blessing from their father.

The last time Jacob had seen Esau, he was filled with murderous rage, vowing to kill him; therefore, it is no wonder that Jacob felt anxiety at the prospect of seeing his brother again, especially upon learning that Esau was headed his way with 400 men!

Had Esau held a grudge against Jacob all these years?  Or had time eased the pain of betrayal and brought forgiveness?  Could the generous gifts of livestock sent ahead to Esau somehow appease his anger?  Jacob was about to find out.

Jacob was a man of strategy: he divided his family and the people with him, along with his flock, herds and camels, into two camps.  That way, if Esau attacked one camp, the other would survive.  (Genesis 32:8)

The Torah does not simply call these two camps Jacob’s family.  This is the first time that the Scriptures refers to those who are with Jacob as the nation (ha’am הָעָם).

“Jacob divided the people [ha’am, הָעָם] who were with him into two groups.”  (Genesis 32:7)

This is why the Jewish people, even today, are called the house of Jacob.

Jacob Sees Esau Coming to Meet Him, by James Tissot

Jacob Sees Esau Coming to Meet Him, by James Tissot

Jacob Becomes Israel

That night, after separating everyone and everything into two camps, Jacob stays behind.  While alone, he encounters an angel with whom he wrestles until daybreak, insisting, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”  (Genesis 32:26)

Jacob refuses to settle for anything less than a full inheritance, and his tenacity is commendable; even the angel takes note of it.

But his response at first is puzzling.  The angel asks Jacob, “‘What is your name?’  He said, ‘Jacob (Yaacov) יַעֲקֹב.’”   (Genesis 32:27)

Why did the angel ask about Jacob’s name?  In Hebrew, his name (Yaacov) can mean the heel of the foot (because he grasped Esau’s heel when coming out of the womb); but it can also carry a connotation of deceiver or supplanted.

The ”angel” knew that in order for Jacob to be embark on his divine destiny, he first needed to face the truth about himself.

Stating his name was essentially admitting his character.  The angel changed his name to Israel (Yisrael יִשְׂרָאֵל) because he had struggled (sarita שָׂרִיתָ) with God and with men, and had overcome.  (Genesis 32:28)

The name of Israel comes from two Hebrew words: strive (sar שר) and God (El אל). Israel can also mean Prince with God.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Eugène Delacroix

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Eugène Delacroix

There is a lesson in this for everyone.  To be the overcomers we are called to be and to experience full victory in our lives, there are times when we must be tenacious in our faith and times when we must prevail in prayer.

Torah identifies Jacob’s mysterious wrestling partner only as an ish (man); nevertheless, it becomes obvious that he was much more than just a man; He was divine.  Jacob recognized this and, therefore, called the place Peniel (פְּנִיאֵל), which means face of God, because He had seen God face to face (panim el panim).

The prophet Hosea in the Haftarah (prophetic reading) also saw that Jacob wrestled with Divinity:

“In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God.  He strove with the angel and prevailed.”  (Hosea 12:3–4)

This intense encounter left Jacob with a permanent limp from a dislocated hip.

“And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh.”  (Genesis 32:31) 

Reading Torah Yad

A reader follows along in the Torah scroll using a yad (Torah pointer) in order to keep his place and not obscure the view of those standing at his side.

Jacob Makes Peace With Esau

On his way to meet Esau, Jacob prepared for the worst to happen.
Positioning his family behind him, Jacob “went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.”

“But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.”  (Genesis 33:3–4)

While there is obvious merit in being prepared for anything, the Bible teaches us that worrying about the future is pointless, since much of what we waste time worrying about never comes to pass.

We can put all of our cares and concerns into God’s hands, trusting Him to take care of us in any and all situations, even those that could cause us to be fearful or distressed.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”  (Philippians 4:6) 

Women pray Western Wailing Wall Jerusalem

Women pray at the Western (Wailing) Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Like Jacob, some of us have relationships that have been strained—perhaps family members are angry over some past offense.

We may even have committed a great wrong toward someone close to us. In time and with the Lord’s leading, even these estranged relationships can be reconciled through love and forgiveness.

Each of us have been given the ministry of reconciliation and should do whatever we can to bring healing and restoration to our relationships with one another, especially our brothers and sisters in the Body of Messiah.

“Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Yeshua the Messiah, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”  (2 Corinthians 5:18)

Although Esau eventually reconciled with his brother, his descendants—the Edomites—continued to harbor hatred against Jacob’s descendants.  It is an ancient hatred, the spirit of which continues to this very day. 

Bimah Synagogue reading torah

A Jewish man stands at the bimah in a Jerusalem synagogue.

Recently, in a particularly barbaric attack in a Jerusalem synagogue, Arab terrorists stormed in with knives and axes, hacking several unarmed Jewish worshipers to death.

Their innocent blood spilled over their prayer books (siddurim) and soaked the prayer shawls (tallitot) that they were still wearing at the time of the attack.

In the Haftarah (prophetic portion) for this week, in the book of Obadiah, God warns that because of their violence against the children of Jacob (Israel), there will be no survivors of the house of Esau, and they will be cut off forever.

“Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever . . . and there shall be no survivor for the house of Esau, for the LORD has spoken.”  (Obadiah 1:10, 18)

Zidan Nahad Seif Aryeh Kupinsky Avraham Shmuel Goldberg Kalman Zeev Levine Moshe Twersky killed terrorist attack Jerusalem synagogue

Zidan Nahad Seif, Aryeh Kupinsky, Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, Kalman Zeev Levine, and Moshe Twersky were killed during a terrorist attack on a Jerusalem synagogue.

Jacob’s Daughter Is Defiled

This week’s Scripture portion continues with the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter.  When Dinah goes out to see the women in the town of Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite (also named Shechem) takes her by force and lays with her; afterward, he wishes to marry her.

Interestingly, the Hebrew meaning of the name Hamor is donkey, a herd animal renowned for its strength, intelligence, keen sense of curiosity, and stubbornness, which arises from an instinct for self-preservation.  Shechem turns to his father Hamor for help in securing Dinah’s hand in a marriage covenant.

The Hebrew in this passage of Scripture may hint that Dinah is responsible for her actions, though not her misfortune.  In Hebrew, a male youth is called a na’ar נער and a female youth is a na’arah נערה.

In describing Dinah’s adventure to see the daughters of the land, the Torah calls her a na’ar and not a na’arah.  True, it is only the difference of one letter, but this letter is the letter hey (ה), which can be used as an abbreviation for the name of God, and it is the suffix that generally makes words feminine in Hebrew, which is a gender-based language.

“His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman [han-na-‘ă-rā, הַֽנַּעֲרָ֔] and spoke tenderly to her.”  (Genesis 34:3)

If someone is not aware of how precise and exacting Torah scribes are, one might think this a simple typo—a technical error.  But knowing of the preciseness with which Torah scholars transcribe each Torah scroll, one would know that the removal of the letter hey was not a mistake, but rather a deliberate act.

It perhaps suggests that Dinah’s solo jaunt into the city was made without awareness of her vulnerability.

The Abduction of Dinah, by James Tissot

The Abduction of Dinah, by James Tissot

Dinah was going only to visit the women of the land, not the men.  As the sister of 12 brothers, the longing for female company her own age could be considered quite natural.  She may have felt safe there, as well, since her family lived in the area in peace, having bought the land they dwelled on from the sons of Hamor.

We do not know the exact circumstances. Yet, it seems that Dinah went out with the confidence of a young man, not conscious of the dangers of entering the city alone as a young woman.

Even today women need to recognize their vulnerabilities and walk in wisdom, not putting themselves in situations where purity or sanctity of mind, soul, and/or body could be endangered.  Of course, parents, both spiritual and legal, have a responsibility to teach, warn, and advise their children about these realities.

Whatever her reasoning was, Dinah bears some responsibility for venturing out alone, while Shechem carries the full responsibility for his criminal and violent act toward a defenseless woman.

Orthodox women mother daughter Jerusalem

An Orthodox Jewish mother and daughter walk together in Jerusalem.

Jacob’s Sons Plot Revenge

Jacob’s sons, Dinah’s brothers, were outraged at the defilement and dishonoring of their sister.  But Hamor spoke with Jacob, asking that through a marriage of their son and daughter, their two people groups could come into covenantal relationship.

The sons of Jacob dealt treacherously to Hamor, telling him that they would agree to his proposal on the condition that all the males be circumcised, since this was the sign of the covenant.

Hamor and Shechem, in good faith, agreed, and all the males were circumcised. On the third day, when they were immobilized with pain, Simeon and Levi killed every man because Shechem had defiled their sister.  They even took all the spoil—their flocks, riches, wives, and little ones.

Simeon and Levi took revenge for a terrible crime committed against their sister, even though the entire city tried to make amends.

Rage can cause people to do terrible things.  And sometimes when we act in rage, we might do the right thing for the wrong reason.  A bad temper is a character weakness that needs to be overcome if we are ever to be the people of God He desires us to be.  The word of God tells us that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God, and that anger rests in the bosom of fools.

It is natural to feel anger at times, but we must not allow anger to control us.  The enemy wants to use our anger against us to cause much destruction.

In the way of Yeshua (Jesus), we are not to return evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good.  Yes, we may become angry over injustice and the wrongs that people do against us or others, especially our loved ones, but this does not justify our sinning by committing ugly acts of vengeance.  “Be angry and sin not.”  (Ephesians 4:26)

Torah, Ark, Mantle, Sash

Before the mantle is placed over the Torah scroll, a sash secures the tightly rolled scroll which protects it when it is being held or standing in the Torah ark.  This sash is symbolic of the sash worn by the High Priest during the time when the Temple stood in Jerusalem.

Rage Is Cursed

Did Simeon and Levi act righteously?  Not in their father’s eyes.  Although Jacob did not deny that his daughter should have been avenged in some way, he did not forgive them for acting in rage to his dying day.  Rather than blessing them on his deathbed, he cursed their anger and cruelty.

“Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are in their dwelling place.  Let not my soul enter their council . . . cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel!  I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.”  (Genesis 49:5-7)

The tribe of Levi is the only tribe of the twelve who did not receive an inheritance of land; yet, through their obedience to God and by His grace, they did receive the privilege and responsibility of the priestly duties in Israel, to this day.

And by the time they entered the Promised Land, the tribe of Simeon was the smallest and weakest (see the second census of Moses Numbers 26:14), and they were left out of Moses’ final blessing before he died (Deuteronomy 33). In addition, their small inheritance lie within the larger inheritance of the tribe of Judah—so they were somewhat scattered among Judah (Joshua 19:1–9).

The word of God has so much to say about anger. God Himself is called gracious and slow to anger (Psalm 103:8), and He asks us to imitate him in this.

“He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.”  (Proverbs 16:32)

Map Twelve Tribes of Israel

Map Twelve Tribes of Israel

Each of Us Struggle

This Parasha concludes on a sad note, as Rachel dies giving birth to her second son, whose name is changed by his father from Ben–oni (son of my sorrow) to Ben-yamin (son at my right hand).

Jacob returns to his father, Isaac, who lives to an old age of 180, but Jacob never sees his mother again, since she died while he was away in Haran.

Jacob’s life shows us that we may go through many trials and difficulties, but through tenacity and prayer, we can overcome.

Yeshua told us that in this life we will have many troubles, but we can be of good cheer for He has overcome the world (John 16:33).

To this very day, the descendants of Jacob (Israel) still struggle with this Divine Man who is Yeshua HaMashiach (the Messiah).  Please pray that they will come to know the Messiah and to a knowledge of the truth, encountering Him in a personal way, and receiving their full inheritance of eternal life through faith by grace.

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