A Few Thoughts from Vayishlach

As I began preparing this week’s Thoughts on Vayishlach (and he sent), Genesis 32:4-36:43,1 I was immediately stuck on how important proper perspectives are, whether talking about life situations or engaging in scripture study. As an example, consider these passages from last week’s parashah, Vayetzei (and he left), Genesis 28:10-32:3. In explaining to Rachel and Leah the reason for needing to leave Laban’s household and return to Isaac’s Jacob stated

He said to them, “I can see by your father’s face that his expression isn’t the same as it was just a day or two ago. But the God of my father has been with me. Now, you yourselves know that I’ve served your father with all my strength. Yet your father has fooled around with me and has changed my salary ten times—but God hasn’t allowed him to harm me. If he would say, ‘the spotted ones will be your salary,’ then the flocks would give birth to spotted ones. Or if he would say, ‘the striped ones will be your salary,’ then all the flocks would give birth to striped ones. So, God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me. (Gen. 31:5-9)

Plainly, Jacob does not consider himself a thief having profited from the way he built his herds, with the assistance of HaShem. It is even more interesting that when Laban caught up with Jacob, he charged Jacob with stealthily fleeing his presence without even a by-your-leave but Laban did not accuse Jacob of theft of herds or flocks, only of his household gods (Gen. 31:30). 

Interestingly, one of the commentaries I read suggested a different perspective, that Jacob had tricked Laban and stolen his livestock, thus agreeing with the accusations of Laban’s sons in Genesis 31:1. Had the commentator stopped with his assertion that Jacob had committed theft from Laban, it may not have caught my attention. But with this perspective in mind, he sought to give a reason for Jacob’s theft. 

“Now we learn the goal of Jacob’s deception: to amass enough wealth to offer Esau a substantial payoff as compensation for the theft of his blessing and birthright years ago. (Hence, Jacob is trying to repair the damage caused by the first deception by committing another deception.)”2

In other words, Rabbi Garfinkel linked Jacob’s dealing with Esau in stealing his birthright and patriarchal blessing twenty-plus years earlier, with his acquisition of wealth and property from Laban. But remember, though Laban may have thought this, no accusation was made. The perspective of Jacob’s deceptive actions has followed Jacob, as well as the Jewish people as a whole, throughout history – often becoming the seedbed from which anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism have taken root and blossomed. There is no doubt that Jacob was tenacious, he saw the goal set before him and did all that he could to achieve that goal. Even though at times he did not make the best decisions on how to achieve said goals, HaShem seemed to have blessed him, watched over him, and cared for him, throughout his life journey.

Now for this week’s parashah, Jacob had yet another divine encounter (Gen. 32:25), this time resulting in a name change – from Jacob, the one who grasps the heel, the supplanter to Israel, the one who has “struggled with God and with men, and you have overcome” (Gen. 32:29). According to Rashi, Hashem was not validating Jacob’s past actions, rather he was affirming that in his struggles with both God and man, he (Jacob) had overcome.

It shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through supplanting and subtlety but through noble conduct and in an open manner.3

It does not take long to realize that Jacob now Israel’s name change was unique. In Genesis 32:29, HaShem changes his name from Jacob to Israel. However, often in the continuing narrative, we see the names interchanged, possibly reflecting the two different perspectives of his personality or character. When he prepared to go to Egypt to see for himself that Joseph was alive, it is written

So, Israel set out, along with everything that belonged to him. When he came to Beersheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. In visions of the night, God said to Israel, “Jacob, Jacob.” “Hineni (here I am),” he said. (Gen 46:1-2)

Later as he was preparing to die, he called his sons together to bless them and speak prophetically concerning their future.   

Be assembled and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel your father. (Gen 49:2)

After his name change, life was not “a bed of roses” for Jacob/Israel. There were seasons of both good times and bad, times when his nobility (as Rashi suggested) came through and times when his tenacity or deviousness came to the forefront. 

So, what should be the takeaway this week on this week’s Thoughts? When I was a young man, I often heard, “before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes.” The idea behind this was that before judging someone, we should try to understand or at least consider the other person’s perspectives and experiences. Maybe this idea of considering the other person’s perspective might have prompted Sha’ul to write 

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live in shalom with all people. (Rom. 12:18)

Often, we concentrate on the phrase, “live in shalom with all people,” but maybe it would behoove us to concentrate on “so far as it depends on you,” and part of so far as it depends on us includes considering the perspective of the other person, and how it is that they came to be in the condition/situation that they currently find themselves in. Wouldn’t we want the same consideration extended to each of us?

Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!

1 Scripture readings are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

2 Eli L. Garfinkel, The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary, University of Nebraska Press/JPS, © 2021 (Apple Books)

3 https://www.sefaria.org.il/Rashi_on_Genesis.32.29.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

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