Thoughts on Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4 – 36:40)

(Dvar Torah given on Friday evening 11/30/12)


In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlakh, Jacob and Esau reconcile – but it’s ambiguous how sincere that reconciliation is.  In the end Esau separates from Jacob and moves to another land (as it says in Genesis 36:7) כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב, מִשֶּׁבֶת יַחְדָּו (ki hayah rechusham rav mishevet yachdav) --- “for their possessions were too many for them to dwell together…”  just as Lot had separated from his uncle Abraham two generations earlier (as it says in Genesis 13:6) כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.  (ki hayah rechusham rav vlo yachlu lashevet yachdav) --  for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together.”

Those separations were peaceful.   With respect to Esau (also known as Edom) his descendants are identified in the Torah with the Edomite people living in the region of Mount Se’ir.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, we are reminded not to provoke the descendants of Esau, as Moses says in Deuteronomy chapter 2:   

1 Then the Eternal said to me: 3 You have been skirting this hill country long enough; now turn north. 4 And charge the people as follows: You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful 5 not to provoke them. For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau.

And later in Deuteronomy, we further are told:  “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman.”  (Deut. 23:8)

This week, we have been witnessing another iteration of this age-old theme of two peoples trying to effectuate a peaceful separation:  Yesterday, on the 65th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s vote to divide the British Mandate of Palestine into two states --- one Jewish and one Arab --- the U.N. General Assembly voted to admit “Palestine” as an non-member observer state.”  Previously, Palestinian interests in the UN had been represented by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, having the lesser status of “non-member observer entity."   The new "non-member observer state" designation for Palestine now puts it in the same category vis-à-vis the United Nations as that of the Vatican.  

Israel (along with the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic and few small Pacific Ocean island states) opposed the measure.  However, it’s difficult to find rational explanations for this opposition.  Mahmoud Abbas is the best friend Israel has ever had among the Palestinian leadership.  He explicitly calls for a two-state solution with the State of Palestine to consist only of those territories captured by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza during the 1967 Six-Day War.  This is in itself a notable concession in that Israel’s territory just before the 1967 Six Day War was already significantly larger than the territory designated for the Jewish State in the 1947 United Nations partition vote 65 years ago yesterday. 

And rest assured that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority understand that ultimate borders would also involve adjusting those “just before the six day war” 1967 borders through mutually agreed land swaps.   

I strongly believe that the UN vote is a step in the right direction, and the Israeli government is just shooting itself in the foot by trying to undermine the Abbas government.  The more they undermine Abbas, the more they prop up the Gaza-based Hamas rejectionists who seek the destruction of Israel.

By contrast with Hamas, Abbas stated in his address to the General Assembly this week: 

"We did not come here seeking to delegitimize a State established years ago, and that is Israel; rather we came to affirm the legitimacy of the State that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine. We did not come here to add further complications to the peace process, which Israel's policies have thrown into the intensive care unit; rather we came to launch a final serious attempt to achieve peace."  

Abbas further said: 

"We will accept no less than the independence of the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967, to live in peace and security alongside the State of Israel, and a solution for the refugee issue on the basis of resolution 194 (III), as per the operative part of the Arab Peace Initiative." 


And in the concluding paragraphs of his speech he said: 

"Sixty-five years ago on this day, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 181 (II), which partitioned the land of historic Palestine into two States and became the birth certificate for Israel.

"Sixty-five years later and on the same day, which your esteemed body has designated as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, the General Assembly stands before a moral duty, which it must not hesitate to undertake, and stands before a historic duty, which cannot endure further delay, and before a practical duty to salvage the chances for peace, which is urgent and cannot be postponed.


"The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine."

Israel complains that the PA has bypassed the Camp David accords' mechanism of direct negotiations by going to the United Nations.  But those Camp David Accords also said there would be a Palestinian state within 5 years, and that's now almost 20 years ago.

Israel says the PA should come back to the negotiating table without preconditions.  But it's hardly an unreasonable precondition for the PA to insist upon Israel freezing settlement expansion on the West Bank while negotiations proceed.

The future of the region should not be held hostage to the extremists on either side of the conflict.   

Abbas is no extremist and needs to be supported.

And what has the Israeli government done today, the day after the historic UN vote?  It has chosen today to approve additional settlement building in the area known as “E1” – an area of parkland that provides the last contiguous link between Ramallah and Bethlehem in any future Palestinian state on the West Bank.  I love Israel.  I want it to live and prosper in peace.  But, honestly, who is now provoking whom?  

Back in Parashat Vayishlakh, the separation of Jacob and Esau is followed by a set of genealogical tables of Esau’s descendants.  We find there the notice that Timna, a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz, was the mother of Amalek (Gen. 36:12).   Later in the chapter we also learn that Timna was Lotan’s sister, and that Lotan was a son of Seir, the original leader of the land before the arrival of Esau’s retinue when Esau separated from Jacob.  (Gen. 36: 20-22).

And later in the chapter, “Timna” is named as one of “shemot alufey Esav”/  “the names of the ‘alufs’ of Esau.” (Gen. 36:40).   What is an “aluf?”    Biblical scholars generally define “aluf” as “clan”, i.e., a subset of a tribe.  But there is also an old tradition that “aluf” is a title of nobility. 

And so we come to a striking passage from the Talmud that presents a midrash about this woman Timna:

אחות לוטן תמנע מאי היא תמנע בת מלכים הואי דכתיב אלוף לוטן אלוף תמנע וכל אלוף מלכותא בלא תאגא היא בעיא לאיגיורי באתה אצל אברהם יצחק ויעקב ולא קבלוה הלכה והיתה פילגש לאליפז בן עשו אמרה מוטב תהא שפחה לאומה זו ולא תהא גבירה לאומה אחרת נפק מינה עמלק דצערינהו לישראל מאי טעמא דלא איבעי להו לרחקה

“Lotan's sister was Timna”(Gen. 36:22)? — what [is the purpose of writing] this?  ---   Timna was a royal princess, as it is written, “aluf Lotan”  (Gen. 36:28), “aluf Timna;” (Gen. 36:40)  and by 'aluf' an uncrowned ruler is meant. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, “I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.” From her Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? — Because they should not have repulsed her."  (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, page 99b)

What can we learn from this that can inform our contemporary situation? 

Who knows if the writers of the Talmud were simply making up imaginative tales when they told this one about Timna having been pushed away by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Frankly, like much in the Talmud or in the Torah itself, it sounds apocryphal and not historically factual. But I think the Talmudic sages did have a sensible intuition:

That sensible intuition is that hatred doesn’t simply arise out of the blue, even the vicious kind associated with Amalek – who Jewish tradition sees as the ancestor of Haman.

There is enough hate and enough ill feelings and grudges going around to stymie any attempt at the peaceful settlement of differences, whether in the Middle East, or in other troubled regions of the world, or even, on a personal level, in many families.

But in Psalm 34 we are taught “bakesh shalom v’rodfeihu”/ “seek peace and pursue it.” (Ps. 34:15).  We should always strive to be “rodfei shalom”  --- “those who chase after opportunities for peace.”    The vote this week in the General Assembly provides such an opportunity.  Rather than spurn it, let us pray that Israel and its allies pursue it.

The Talmud says that Timna was spurned by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and gave birth to the viciousness of Amalek  ---  and that ---- לא איבעי להו לרחקה (lo iba’ey lehu lirchokah)  -- “They should not have repulsed her.” 

Similarly, the peaceful approach of Mahmoud Abbas and the not-yet-fully-birthed State of Palestine ought not to be repulsed by the State of Israel  -- the State that got its birth certificate 65 years ago this week – the State that sees its lineage as going back to the patriarchs and matriarchs. 

Nor should those who seek peace be spurned by we who count ourselves among the children of Israel.

Shabbat shalom.


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5773/2012


Posted on December 4, 2012 .