Nelly Shulman

The Magic Dust

It might be the most lonely utterance ever voiced by God or man. וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ And Jacob was left alone. After the frantic planning, sending the gifts ahead, and taking care of the family, Jacob is finally left alone. One cannot help noticing the discrepancy between the expected event and the encounter that preceded it during the night. While Jacob is clearly perturbed by the future meeting with his twin brother, nothing could have prepared him for the wrestling match he has to endure.

The rabbis busied themselves here with the explanations about the small jars Jacob has forgotten on the other side of the stream. Imagine forgetting an umbrella and popping back home for it only to be met by a heavenly messenger! The jars do not matter, and the rabbis’ attempt to interpret the world “dust” here by saying that when two people fight, they create a cloud of dust also does not matter.

The dust in this passage is not about frantic fighting but rather about careful calculation. Jacob, ever the manager, is not letting the stranger leave without receiving a blessing from him. He gets the name change and the acknowledgment of his spiritual strength, and what do we get?

We get an abacus, a calculating instrument called so by Greeks after the Hebrew word for dust, since the latter was used for erasing mathematical equations. Thus a quiet and modest Jacob prevails both physically and mentally over the loud and proud Esau.

About the Author
Nelly Shulman is a journalist and writer currently based in Berlin. She is an author of four popular historical novels in the Russian language. She is working on the fifth novel in this series and on her first English-language novel, a historical thriller set during the Siege of Leningrad. She a Hawthornden Fellow and an alumna of the Nachum Goldmann Fellowship.
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