This vital (and, in parts, shocking) chapter is the last chapter in which Jacob is the star, the protagonist. He will cede the stage to his children (our ancestors) in the next chapter. We will not say farewell to him yet but we will, soon.
1. The chapter begins as Jacob learns that his estranged brother, Esau, is coming to “greet” him with a large army. Jacob is frightened, very frightened. He divides his assets into two (he opens a new bank account and splits his assets between the two accounts).
Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps,Thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.” (GEN 32:8-9)
2. In Jacob’s efforts to thwart Esau’s (imagined) attack, Jacob separates himself from his family, crosses the mythical river “Jabbok” and encounters a “man” with whom he wrestles.
That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip. (GEN 32: 23-32)
This major passage tells us about Jacob and, more importantly, about ourselves:
First, Jacob’s struggle with “a man” is, as our rabbis and many have commented, a struggle with himself and his conscience. Jacob is a deeply guilty man. He deceived his own father, stole his brother’s birthright and, although we can understand his motivation, deceived his uncle. And despite his wealth and his large family he is deeply ashamed. Listen to Esther Spitzer:
Suffering in itself does not heal. Only suffering that has meaning and is accepted willingly has the power to heal and to transform an individual into a whole person…. Jung named this process of growth from one stage of awareness to another individuation. Transformation, or real change of character, can take place in a person only when, through suffering, he engages in an active struggle with the Shadow, the dark side of himself. (Esther Spitzer, “A Jungian Midrash on Jacob’s Dream,” The Reconstructionist, October 1976, pp. 22-23)
Jacob asks for a blessing from this “man”. And in this case, now, he asks for a blessing in his own right, after stating his real name, Jacob. In this single act, Jacob is no longer a deceiver. He becomes a new person emotionally and psychologically. And in this transformation he becomes a new person with a new name. No longer a single individual, Jacob becomes Israel, a nation.
Jacob’s encounter with “a man” is his encounter with himself and this is clearly depicted by Jean Larrive in this bas-relief.
Second, anytime we struggle with a difficult decision, anytime we are faced with an existential question (“who am I?”, “why am I alive?”, “what is my purpose in life?”), anytime we remember feeling real shame or a time when we humiliated someone else or feel that we took something we did not deserve or acted arrogantly, at all of these times, as Jacob did, we “wrestle with Gd” – we try to repair ourselves. And when we succeed to repair the damage we have done (partially or in full), we often limp, as Jacob did. We are no longer the same person we were before our struggle. We are in some way, changed.
3. The rape of Dinah.
The entire sub-chapter 34 is the story, terrible story, of the rape of Dinah by Shechem, son of Hamor. It is too long to reprint here so I will append it in the notes. It is a must-read! The story is this in short: Dinah leaves the family compound and goes out to see “the daughters of the land” (aka she wants to party a bit). She meets Shechem, a young man from a very good family, and he rapes her. Shechem’s father, Hamor, approaches Jacob and tells him that his son wants to marry Dinah and he hopes Jacob will agree and that the two families, peoples, will “intermarry”, become one and live together. Jacob remains silent. His sons however learn of the rape and are very angry. They tell the men of Shechem (also the name of the place) that if they will circumcise themselves they will agree to “intermarry” and if they do not, they will take Dinah and leave. The men of Shechem are pleased with this arrangement and all are circumcised. On the third day after their operations, they are in pain and immobile. On that day, Jacob’s sons, led by Simeon and Levi, murder all the men in the town and plunder the town taking all the the livestock, the wealth, the children and the women. All! Jacob’s response is disquieting. He is concerned more about his own reputation (and that he and his family will be attacked in retribution) than with the odious, horrific, unacceptable behavior of his sons which can, frankly, be considered war crimes. Think My Lai massacre (see below). Jacob’s sons justify themselves asking rhetorically “Should our sister be treated like a whore?“.
Several comments are worth noting:
First: Rabbi Gunther Plaut: “The retribution visited on Jacob underscores the Torah’s condemnation of the hypocritical concern for religion with which Jacob’s sons induced Shechem and his people to submit to circumcision. The story of Dinah exposes this pretense in all of its ugliness….. For Jacob, it becomes painfully clear that “Israel” was merely a name, not a reward; a potential, not a fulfillment. Literally and figuratively Jacob will limp through the remainder of his life”. (Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of Hebrew Congregations, p 229).
Second: Dr. Alison L. Joseph asks the question “Who is the Victim in the Dinah Story?” in her excellent exegesis. Please read here:
Third, The marvelous novel and “midrash” by Anita Diamant, “The Red Tent” looks at the events from Dinah’s point of view. A page-turner!
Fourth: The My Lai massacre (very tough read!)
4. Rachel’s death.
But as she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath—now Bethlehem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day. Israel journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond Migdal-eder. (GEN 35:18-21)
Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin and is buried alone by the side of the road, not in the family plot (the cave of Machpelah) with only a pillar marking her grave. It is a sad end to a woman we knew as a young, beautiful girl and the mother of Jacob’s two favorite sons. Again, Jacob’s silence is deeply troubling. All we know is that “he journeyed on”.
5. Isaac’s death.
Isaac was a hundred and eighty years old Isaac was a hundred and eighty years old. When he breathed his last and died. He was gathered to his kin in ripe old age; and he was buried by his sons Esau and Jacob. (GEN 36: 28-29)
As Ishmael and Isaac were reconciled when their father Abraham died, Esau and Jacob find reconciliation too. Esau, as we noted in the last chapter, is widely considered the archetype and father of the enemies of the Jewish people. In fact, as we also saw last week, he is a resourceful and successful man. And unlike Jacob, Esau was a man happy in his life. He did not “wrestle with Gd”, he did not struggle in life. As Rabbi Plaut points out: Esau was attentive to his father. One midrash concedes that because of his respect for his father he is mentioned first, before Jacob, at the burial. Certainly, his behavior at the reconciliation with Jacob was exemplary – he was generous and forgiving” (Gunther Plaut,The Torah: A Modern Commentary, page 238).**
Jacob is tested time and again throughout his life. But he develops clear self-awareness through his trials. And because he does wrestle with life’s hard questions he grows up! And he gives birth to a nation.
1. The full text of sub-chapter 34 (Rape of Dinah).
2. ** Nahum Sarna points out when Esau and Jacob meet for the first time in the chapter, Jacob offers Esau “presents” or “gifts”. However, in Hebrew the word used is “blessings” (בִּרְכָתִי֙). In short, Jacob offers to return the blessing he stole now that he understands he can stand on his own. Here is the full text:
קַח־נָ֤א אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֻבָ֣את לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי־חַנַּ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים וְכִ֣י יֶשׁ־לִי־כֹ֑ל וַיִּפְצַר־בּ֖וֹ וַיִּקָּֽח׃
Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” And when he urged him, he accepted. (GEN 33:11)
Author’s note: all images are free of copyright restrictions and are in the public domain.