Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz
  • In what way did Leah help Yaakov learn to become Israel?
  • What challenge did Yaakov pose to Lavan’s worldview?
  • What caused Yaakov to believe that he would find an appropriate husband for Dina in Shkhem?

Parshat Vayishlaḥ begins as Yaakov was returning home to his land to become Israel.

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When Yosef had been born, Yaakov understood that the power within him to finally confront his brother Esav was now materializing in the world.

But when Yaakov raised the subject of his departure with his uncle/father-in-law Lavan, he presented his desire to return home more as a request than as a demand, showing that he hadn’t yet incorporated enough of Esav’s attributes into himself.

Yaakov wanted to take his family home and proceed to build the Hebrew nation. But Lavan persuaded him to stay and work another six years with the promise of building his own wealth.

It’s important to understand Lavan’s motivation here. It wasn’t just that he understood his fourteen years of success to be due to the Divine blessing enjoyed by Yaakov. It was also that Yaakov’s desire to return to Eretz Canaan posed a threat to Lavan’s conception of the family mission.

The central disagreement between both of their grandfathers – Naḥor and Avraham – was whether or not the Hebrew mission should be achieved through influencing humanity from within or separating into their own national formation to create a unique civilization that would impact humanity from a distance.

The fact that Yaakov had come to live with Lavan’s family in Aram and married his daughters might have given the impression that Naḥor’s approach had won out.

But here, after fourteen years and eleven grandsons, Yaakov informed Lavan for the first time that his long-term plans included a return to the Land of the Hebrews and to the path of Avraham. Yaakov was essentially revealing to Lavan his belief that in order to properly influence the world, it would first be necessary to build a separate Hebrew nation that lives its own independent life. This likely created a crisis for Lavan that ultimately led to a drastic change in his attitude towards Yaakov.

But Lavan did convince Yaakov to stick around for another six years and, despite Lavan’s attempts to further exploit him, Yaakov became very wealthy. But this was a very dangerous time for Yaakov and we can see his experiences foreshadowing future patterns for the Jewish people in exile.

In most of the countries Jews have found refuge in during our many centuries of exile, there would very often come a moment when the native population would decide that the Jewish newcomers – who had initially just been immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution – had become disproportionately successful at the expense of the local residents. This is generally the moment when Jews should start preparing to leave. The Torah tells us that Lavan’s sons began grumbling about Yaakov. These sons of Lavan represented the “population” and Lavan himself represented the “regime.” What we see playing out through them – first the sons began to resent Yaakov and then Lavan’s policies towards him changed – has essentially repeated itself countless times in the history of our exile.

But like many Jews, Yaakov didn’t initially get the hint. So HaShem told him explicitly to depart back to the Land of the Hebrews. Yaakov consulted with his wives Raḥel and Leah, who were clearly still making the major family decisions at this time. But answered their husband in a single unified voice, implying that the family dynamics had harmonized in the years following Yosef’s birth.

Yaakov’s primary wife was Rahel but Israel’s primary wife would be Leah. When he was only Yaakov, he naturally loved Raḥel but loving Leah was challenging. Leah was originally meant to marry Esav and only by incorporating Esav’s qualities and becoming Israel could Yaakov succeed at building a relationship with her.

But Leah also helped Yaakov to become more Israeli. If we take a closer look at Leah’s influence on her husband, we could see that she taught him directness – the ability to candidly express his problems and demands. We see this aspect of her personalty most clearly in B’reishit 30, verse 16, when she went out to meet Yaakov in the field as he was returning from work and, without any hesitation or bashfulness, told him that she had “bought” him to have relations with her that night.

The ability to speak directly about his problems and demands was actually a major obstacle on Yaakov’s path to becoming Israel. We can see in his interactions with both Esav and Lavan that Yaakov had trouble standing up for himself. But in order to become Israel – a self-sufficient nation that could run its own affairs in its own land – he needed to learn to assert himself better. Leah, the wife originally meant for Esav, likely worked hard to help Yaakov become more like Esav.

In any case, once Yaakov obtained agreement from his wives, the family covertly escaped Lavan’s home and began making their way back to Yaakov’s native land.

Lavan did give chase with intentions to harm Yaakov but the Creator appeared to him in a dream, warning him against such a course. When Lavan finally did catch up to Yaakov’s camp, Yaakov was able to finally assert himself directly, demonstrating further development towards incorporating Esav’s attributes and becoming Yisrael. But upon crossing the Yabok river to enter Eretz Canaan, Yaakov was attacked by the malakh – the angel or spiritual back end – of Esav.

This night-long fight with Esav’s angel was the pivotal moment in Yaakov becoming Israel. One thing we see is that, unlike his father Yitzḥak, Yaakov wasn’t simply born into the covenant of Avraham but had to earn it through struggle.

There are numerous understanding of this fight between Yaakov and Esav’s angel. Some believe it was an actual physical battle between a human being and a malakh, which is supported by the fact that Yaakov’s hip suffered a permanent injury in the fight. Others, however, maintain that Yaakov was fighting his own deep-seated fear of Esav and that his injured hip was a psychosomatic result of the struggle. But, whether physical or not, the fight was very real and transformative for Yaakov.

In a sense we can say that Yaakov’s defeat of Esav’s angelic back end was actually the victory of Israel over the Edomite civilization that would come to dominate the world for thousands of years, from the Roman Empire until today. But because it was Esav’s corresponding spiritual minister that Yaakov defeated, the actual defeat of Edom in our world would actually take thousands of years to play out and materialize. But Israel’s victory already took place in the higher realm so we should be confident of our eventual triumph in this world.

After fighting all night long and overcoming his opponent, Yaakov demanded that the angel bless him. It’s interesting that Yaakov wanted a brakha from his enemy.

But ultimately a brakha is an act of clarification. Part of the Jewish destiny is to fight all night. But when dawn breaks, even our enemies will see that we are in fact Israel – the nation tasked with bringing light and blessing to all Creation. And that’s exactly what the angel said to Yaakov in B’reishit 32, verse 29: “No longer will it be said that your name is Yaakov, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome.”

And the fact that it was the angel of Esav that acknowledged that Yaakov was in fact Israel also alleviated some of Yaakov’s guilt and self-doubts over taking Esav’s blessing.

This transformation from Yaakov to Israel didn’t fully occur at this point. It will actually only take place later in the parsha. But in response to Yaakov’s demand for a brakha, the angel informed him here that the change would take place.

It’s also important to point out that unlike the name changes of Avraham and Sarah, which completely supplanted their former names, the name Yaakov will still continue to be used even after his full transformation to Yisrael. Both Yaakov and Yisrael would continue to exist within the Hebrew identity and it’s worth briefly exploring the differences between them.

Yaakov is essentially the Jew in exile from his natural soil. Such a Jew is forced to be very cunning, both due to difficult external circumstances and also due to certain complexes regarding his relationship with the gentile world. Yaakov himself had this complex with his brother Esav and felt that he didn’t truly deserve their father’s blessing that had been intended for Esav.

Diaspora Jews throughout history have developed a certain attribute of resourcefulness in order to survive in foreign lands. But to gentiles, this stereotypically Jewish trait can be seen as dishonest and tends to arouse hostility.

Israel is completely different. Living in his own land and having a strong sense of his inalienable connection to it, Israel tends to be more direct and assertive and can often be perceived as belligerent or even crude. But from a gentile perspective, Israel appears more natural than Yaakov and can elicit more more respect.

But at the same time, Israel has a different problem. Western civilization, the civilization of Esav, is used to a reality in which Esav can be an aggressor but the Jews are expected to be meek. So when Yaakov becomes Israel and dons the hands of Esav, the West experiences shock.

Western civilization can endure Yaakov in his state of debasement and vulnerability, but when the Jews become Israel and break free from the hierarchy imposed on us by Edom in all its historic manifestations – whether the Roman Empire, the Christian Church or the modern liberal West, this actually threatens Esav’s entire civilization and world order.

Yet at the same time, humanity at large isn’t able to fully benefit from Yaakov in the way it can from Yisrael. We can say that Diaspora Jews are able to make some contributions to human development. If we look at Spinoza or Marx or Freud or Einstein, these appear to be Jews living within the realm of Esav, making major contributions to human progress. But once Israel fully rises to rebirth and takes our place on the world stage – once we begin to really share what we have to give to the world – it will become clear that even those seemingly major contributions of Diaspora Jews were really minor in comparison to the blessing Israel is capable of bestowing on humanity.

Before actually meeting Esav, Yaakov prepared for war, asked for Divine help and sent gifts to appease his brother. And when they finally met, Yaakov and his family bowed repeatedly to Esav. In fact, one of the reasons that the Holy of Holies would later exist in the tribal portion of Binyamin was that Binyamin hadn’t been born yet at this point and was therefore the only son of Yaakov who had not bowed to Esav.

When Esav, with his 400 soldiers, finally did see Yaakov, he didn’t attack him but embraced him. In B’reishit 33, verse 4, the Torah states that “Esav ran toward him, embraced him, fell upon his neck, and kissed him; then they wept.”

But the word vayishakehu – and kissed him – in the Torah has mysterious dots over each letter of the word, indicating that we should pay special attention to it. Our Sages have an interesting disagreement over what this means. Some argue that we should be understood the word as vayinshaḥehu – and bit him – claiming that Esav actually tried to harm Yaakov. The Sfat Emet teaches that Esav did in fact kiss Yaakov but that Esav’s kiss is actually a bite for the Jewish people. When Esav – the West – is acting friendly to Israel, we must be very careful not to lower our guard.

Rashi on this verse quotes Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai, who states explicitly that although it is an immutable law that Esav hates Yaakov, at that particular moment, Esav’s compassion for his brother was aroused and he kissed him wholeheartedly. Esav felt sorry for Yaakov, who he saw limping back into the promised land with an injured hip – just as Esav’s descendants, the Western world, would later see the Jewish people limping home to Palestine after the Holocaust.

At that moment, the West felt genuine compassion for the Jews and even “allowed” for the establishment of a tiny bomb shelter Jewish state.  So long as the State of Israel is weak and dependent on the West for survival, Esav is happy with the relationship. He’s even willing to arm and protect us.

But a strong and independent Israel that knows its true identity and is sovereign over the Biblical heartland directly threatens Esav because it signals a meaningful Hebrew return to the stage of history and the fulfillment of ancient prophecies that foretell the end of Esav’s dominance.

This might explain why Western civilization as a collective has been so pathologically determined for over 50 years to force Israel to surrender the lands won as a result of the Six Day War. That war was essentially a Biblical-style miracle in the heart of the 20th century that very much affirmed the Hebrew understanding of history and threatened the very foundations of Western civilization. But if Israel could be forced to relinquish the fruits of that war – the territories that essentially comprise the cradle of Hebrew civilization – then that war could be stripped of its historic significance and Esav could once again feel secure.

Although obviously relived that their reunion was peaceful, Yaakov was careful to make sure it remained short. And he also resisted Esav’s attempts to leave some of his soldiers with Yaakov’s camp. So long as Esav is responsible for Yaakov’s security, he would have control over his brother and their relationship would be unhealthy. In order for Israel to have the proper relationship with other nations, we cannot be dependent on any of them.

Following his reunion with Esav, Yaakov did not head south to his parents in Hebron as would be expected but instead headed over to the city of Shkhem. It’s also important to note that when he arrived in Shkhem, B’reishit chapter 33, verse 18, calls him Yaakov and not Yisrael. Although he was told by the malakh he had fought of the name change, that change hadn’t yet taken effect, as could clearly be seen by Yaakov’s behavior towards Esav. He bowed to Esav seven times after a staggeringly generous tribute. And then he indirectly found a way out of remaining together too long without offending his brother. This was all clearly not Israeli behavior, but Yaakov behavior. But the events that were about to take place at Shkhem would actually be a defining moment in transforming Yaakov’s family into Israel.

The first question we need to address is why Yaakov would have traveled to Shkhem instead of to his parents in Hebron. What was there that he was interested in?

We have an ancient teaching that the city of Shkhem had been established by the Babylonian disciples of Yaakov’s grandfather Avraham when he had first entered the Land of Canaan in Parshat Lekh Lekha. Avraham had left these students at Elon Moreh, what B’reishit chapter 12, verse 6 calls “makom Shkhem” – “the  site of Shkhem” – but not Shkhem itself. Meaning that the city hadn’t been built yet. Avraham had left his disciples behind and continued south from there with only his family. His students established the city as a community loyal to Avraham’s teachings and were perhaps later joined by ethnic Ḥivites.

At Shkhem, Yaakov purchased a plot of land outside the city from Ḥamor, the local king, and erected an alter called El-Elokei Yisrael, demonstrating his desire to be acknowledged as Yisrael. He was clearly hoping for a productive relationship with the people of Shkhem and bought a plot of land for his family at full price to legitimize his status.

Our Sages also teach that Yaakov worked with the city authorities to establish a marketplace, local currency and communal baths. Being that the city’s population had a connection to Hebrew teachings, he likely saw fostering their advancement as a worthwhile endeavor.

But the most likely reason Yaakov had come to Shkhem and began to work so hard for the city’s benefit was that he was seeking an appropriate husband for his daughter Dina.

While the Hebrew tribes were meant to descend from Yaakov’s sons and influence humanity as the nation of Israel, the birth of a daughter might have been understood to mean that Israel should include an additional thirteenth tribe serving a similar purpose as the others but in reverse – as a means for the peoples of the world to influence Israel. In our mystical teachings, the male attribute is generally understood as actively effecting change while the female attribute is understood as being a passive receiver.

In order to enable effective communication with the nations of the world, the influence must go in both directions, because without the receiving aspect, the giver’s potential can’t be fully realized.

According to Yaakov’s thinking, Dina was meant to be the progenitor of Israel’s female tribe, which would receive the very best of what the outside world has to offer and compensate for the attributes lacking in Israel’s national identity. Yaakov’s search for the specific gentile group that represented the most positive qualities of humanity and could offer a suitable husband for Dina brought him to the city build on the foundation of Hebrew teachings by his grandfather’s students.

Yaakov enthusiastically threw himself into local affairs. And he may not have tempered his efforts to establish a positive relationship between his family and the city with the necessary caution or appropriate distance.

It’s possible that Dina was influenced by her father’s behavior when she carelessly went out to socialize with the young women of Shkhem. This tragically led to her being raped by the prince of the city – Shkhem son of Ḥamor. After raping Dina, Prince Shkhem became obsessed with her. He kept her prisoner in the royal residence and became determined to marry her, perhaps as a means of giving his crime some kind of legitimacy.

Dina was still a prisoner of the royal family when Ḥamor and his son Shkhem visited her family. Yaakov was silent. This was a major crisis for him. And when his sons came home, they took the lead. This was actually a critical moment for the family. It was when leadership was passed from Yaakov to his sons. Ḥamor was interested in speaking to Yaakov but he was given no choice but to negotiate with the sons.

A few things seem clear from the Torah account of this scene. B’reishit 34, verse 7, states that Yaakov’s sons were angry because Prince Shkhem had committed an “outrage in Israel.” This is actually the second time the Torah uses the name Israel – a name that refers to the Hebrews living a self-sufficient national life on their own land. Ḥamor and his son were trying to sweep the rape under the rug and only focus on the fact that the prince loved Dina and wanted to make her his bride. Yaakov’s sons realized that they couldn’t allow the Ḥivites to play down the crime because that would not only further dishonor their family but also send a message that it’s safe to attack them. Regardless of what Yaakov might have been thinking at this point – and it’s possible that he simply didn’t know the appropriate response – at least some of the sons understood that they would have to send a strong message.

What’s also clear from the dialogue here is that the Hebrews heard no remorse or apology or even acknowledgement from Ḥamor or Shkhem that a crime had taken place. And if they weren’t ready to acknowledge their crime or attempt restitution, they likely believed they could get away with violating the Hebrew family. Yaakov’s sons clearly recognized themselves as Israel and understood the rape as an act of war. They answered Ḥamor with guile and said that the only way to allow for a marriage between Dina and the prince would be if all the men of the city would undergo circumcision. Such an act, they said, would allow their family to integrate into the society and give their sister to the prince as a bride.

Using economic arguments about the benefits of integrating the wealthy Hebrews into their society, Ḥamor and Shkhem actually convinced the population of the city to circumcise themselves. And three days after every male in Shkhem underwent the procedure, Yaakov’s sons Shimon and Levi – who were at that time 14 and 13 years old – launched a rescue mission and killed every male on their way to royal residence. Once there, they killed Shkhem and his father Ḥamor and then freed their sister Dina. Then their brothers arrived to take all the city’s wealth, women and children.

Yaakov berated Shimon and Levi for their attack on the city, not on moral ground but for practical reasons, arguing that their actions would make other nations want to attack them. But the boys responded with a moral question – “should our sister be treated like a whore?”

This dialogue expresses a very clear difference between the mentality of Yaakov and that of Israel. Yaakov’s position expressed a mentality that might have been necessary for Jewish survival in exile. But Shimon and Levi responded like Israel – like an independent Hebrew nation dealing with international relations. They understood the value of demonstrating raw power and sending a message that it’s not safe to pick a fight with their family.

According to the Midrash, a war ensued after the destruction of Shkhem – actually a six day war in which the Hebrew family defeated several Canaanite city-states. A fear of Yaakov’s family fell over the lands inhabitants and Targum Yonatan even teaches on B’reishit 36, verse 6, that Esav later left the country specifically because he feared the military prowess displayed by Israel at Shkhem.

Following the war, the Creator instructed Yaakov to take his family back to Beit El, where so many years earlier he had had the dream of the malakhim going up and down the ladder. And it was on that mountain – on the very mountain where I’m recording this now – that the Creator officially renamed Yaakov Israel and renewed the patriarchal covenant with him.

[Published on Vision Magazine]

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Rav Yehuda HaKohen is an organizer and educator living in northern Judea. As a leader in the Vision movement, he works to empower students and young professionals to become active participants in the current chapter of Jewish history.