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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Vayishlach

Parashat Vayishlach

Kislev 16, 5980 – December 14, 2019

Torah Reading: Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1-21

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Vayishlach, which means “and he sent.” This is the eighth section of the Book of Genesis, and it chronicles Jacob’s return to the Land of Israel following his twenty-year stay in Haran. The parashah begins as Jacob ‘sends’ angel-emissaries to Esau to seek a reconciliation for having received the Patriarchal blessing in his brother’s stead. But Esau’s rage and desire for vengeance failed to diminish at all with time, and we immediately hear that Esau is steaming towards Jacob with 400 armed men to confront him. Jacob, then, prepares for the encounter and ferries his family across the Jabbok River. After noticing that he had forgotten a few “small, earthenware pitchers,”[1] Jacob crosses back over the river to retrieve them and remains alone to wrestle all night with the ministering angel of Esau.[2] Jacob does prevail, although his hip is injured in the process – an event that is commemorated with a mitzvah that prohibits the consumption of the sciatic nerve of an animal.[3] The angel with whom Jacob wrestles then asks for his name to initiate a blessing, and reveals that G-d will later give to Jacob the additional name of “Israel.”[4] Jacob and his brother Esau eventually meet in person – a meeting which is quite subdued, as they both realize that the true meeting occurred the night before. They both embrace, kiss, weep and leave each other again. The remainder of the parashah details Jacob’s arrival in Canaan, his purchase of a plot of land near the city of Shechem, and the abduction and rape of his daughter Dinah by the prince of the region (whom is also named Shechem). This leads to a plot whereby Simeon and Levi (Dinah’s brothers) decimate the male population of the city after they are deceived into a compulsory circumcision, which distresses Jacob.[5] Rachel then dies giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, and is buried on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. Reuben then sleeps with Bilhah (Isaac’s concubine)[6], Isaac dies, and the parashah concludes with a detailed chronology of Esau and his descendants.

One of the most notable aspects of Jacob’s character is that after he secures the bechorah (the birthright of the firstborn), which includes the heritage of the material wealth of the family – Jacob leaves. He leaves his home, he leaves the security of a life under the auspices of his father, and he flees with nothing. In fact, Jacob is the first person we read about in the Torah who works for a living! He spends twenty years in Haran in a situation where he is often “at the heel” (so to speak), laboring through the lowliest aspects of his environment and his own character. Jacob worked for, and earned honestly, everything that he owned in life – which is what prompts him to return over the Jabbok river to fetch a few vessels. This may seem a bit absurd to us, for why would Jacob – when facing an imminent clash with his brother Esau – re-cross the river to retrieve seemingly trivial items? Well, the Sages teach us that “Jacob went back for trivial objects because honestly earned wealth has spiritual value…and should not be treated indifferently. As noted in connection with his sojourn as Laban’s shepherd, Jacob’s mission was to bring holiness into the most mundane pursuits. Consequentially, by investing even small pitchers with his zeal for honesty, he turned them into bearers of holiness, and as such, they were as precious as jewels.”[7] It is this action of Jacob’s that contains our first environmental message of the parashah, which is about valuing every material item that we own. In this modern world, we live in a ‘throw-away culture,’ where we have been conditioned to not value material items. We eat take-out food, and then toss away the containers. We buy cheap, plastic items – which break easily – and then get thrown out. The consumerist system is designed for us to continue buying things, which get used either once or (at best) for a short while, which is something that needs to change. In a sense, the story of Jacob’s retrieval of a few, simple vessels is a timeless story about valuing material items that are earned honestly. It is a story about resisting a consumerist culture, and treating our possessions with respect. It is begging us to consider where are products are sourced from, how they are made, who profits from their production, and how we treat those items once we buy them. It is also urging us to not have superfluous items in our possession; everything that we own should have a practical purpose, and this is a practice that has spiritual significance.

The story of Jacob can show us that our humanity and our spirituality can be earned through the lowliest – and most physical – of situations, and our integrity can be found amidst the confusion of life. Sometimes this can involve getting down and dirty with activities that unsettle us, and whether you’re picking up garbage in your neighborhood or cleaning up an oil spill in the Gulf, Jacob’s life can teach us how to manage the distressing aspects of our humanity through our engagement with them. But ultimately, Jacob’s relationship to the material world is about moral development, which is why Jacob wrestles with the angel of Esau the night before the physical confrontation. The contest is one of moral character, not of physical greatness; the physical world merely serves as the medium through which our moral trials are made real. The Zohar, which is the textual basis of much Kabbalistic thought, explains that Jacob’s battle with the angel is symbolic of our own internal struggle with our darker side.[8] Jacob’s “Evil Inclination”[9] manifested itself, quite literally, in his hip socket, which is why he could be wounded there. But, symbolically, the whole encounter is about overcoming our very own evil inclination, and impulses that prevent us from carrying out our mission on earth. If we consider Jacob’s retrieval of the vessels in relation to his grappling with the angel, then this moment in the parashah could be interpreted as a fight against the side of ourselves that is the consumer. In the end, we all must wrestle with the other part of ourselves, which are buying into the consumerist culture. This is the tohu (the chaos) of our own existence, and the cosmic twin to which we are forever bound. The point here is that we can never eradicate the tendency to buy unneeded stuff, or the existence of outlets for similar desires – only the sense of powerlessness to them. Conflict (such as with our own wrestling), when approached in the right way, can be a process that enhances human life, which can help us to balance our own internal polarities and to overcome destructive behavior.

The second ecological message of this parashah is contained within how Jacob deals with the physical confrontation he has with his brother. In short, he meets antagonism with servitude, which has practical applications for how we address varrying forms of conflict. In the process of readying himself for the confrontation with Esau, the Torah teaches us that Jacob took three precautions: (1) First, he arranged himself for battle by making logistical preparations and splitting his camp into two parties; (2) second, he prayed; and (3) third, he sent a series of tributes (gifts) to Esau in the hope of placating his anger. In the Stone Edition Chumash, there is some fascinating commentary that I’d like to read you as it pertains to this course of action. And I quote, “It [that being the three-pronged approach of Jacob] shows that Jacob did not rely on his own righteousness, but strove mightily to ensure his safety through practical measures. Indeed our sages saw in this chapter the textbook of Jewish behavior in exile and accordingly we should follow his example by making a threefold preparation in our struggles with Esau’s descendants…Indeed, the Midrash records that in Talmudic times the rabbis who had to intervene with the Romans to counteract oppressive decrees would study this chapter before they went.”[10] The reason I found this commentary so intriguing is because, it is my belief, that we are in a form of spiritual exile in our relation to the natural world. We are, quite literally and metaphorically, fighting against an industrial consciousness that is ruining our planet. But in our journey to institute collective change, we must take a combination of approaches that are nuanced for every situation. In this passage, G-d is not saving Jacob – Jacob is relying on his own efforts and his own vision to approach this situation pragmatically and uniquely. Jacob is appeasing Esau in terms that Esau – in his greed – can understand, while refraining from trying to convince Esau that he is in the right. In the same vein, we must consider how to approach people, and practices, that are perpetuating the environmental crisis. As an example, how can we get people who are obsessed with accumulation (I’ll get to this), like Esau was, to change? Jacob shows us that you should engage in multiple approaches that are relatable to them. See where they are coming from and how best to reach them – or reach out to them. Jacob prepares for war because it is part of Esau’s mentality, and he must present himself in a way that Esau can comprehend. Without such optics, there would be no point in Jacob getting up the next morning to meet his brother, because it would end up in a war that has no end.

In chapter 33, we read about the beautiful reconciliation between Jacob and Esau, but – when greeting each other – the brothers use differing language which reveals something very interesting about their respective characters. From the very first moment that they meet, and begin conversing, there is a subtle (yet distinctive) difference in form and style. When Esau inquires about Jacob’s intent regarding the large tribute that was sent, Jacob responds by recognizing Esau’s superiority – “To gain favor in my lord’s eyes”[11] Jacob says (33:8). To which Esau replies quite boastfully, “(יֶשׁ־לִי רָב אָחִי)” “I have plenty, my brother.” Esau’s sentences are short, to the point, and the Midrash teaches us that he had no intention of refusing the tribute – his protestations were simply a charade.[12] Knowing this, Jacob continues to insist, repeating the particle “na” (נָא), which gets lost in translation from Hebrew to English, but is a sign of more formalized speech.[13] In addition, Jacob mentions G-d in almost every sentence, and concludes by saying “I have everything” (יֶשׁ־לִי־כֹל ) (33:10). The main point here is that, in their exchange, Esau speaks of accumulation and wealth, while Jacob speaks of sufficiency, wholeness, and contentment. Jacob, the one who left his home with nothing, worked his way up (amidst a life of servitude and exile) to find everything that he needs – even emphasizing that he has more than he could ever want. Although Jacob works hard, his struggles and difficulties don’t lead to a mentality of lack. His identity, and his relationship to the world, is one of service and gratitude which are qualities that ultimately helped him to transcend the ideologies of those who attempted to ensnare him. Esau’s greeting to his brother represented a mode of thought, and a way of thinking about the world, that is very much about distinguishing oneself through the amassment of wealth. Jacob, on the other hand, is concerned with a particular state of being that harmonizes his life with his surroundings, which is the epitome of the type of anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist thinking that we need to embrace as we move towards a more sustainable future.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and catch you next week.

Topics Include: Valuing material items, anti-consumerism (wealth vs wholeness), multivalence as a foundation for appeasement, and conflict as a catalyst for change


Carasik, Michael. The Commentators' Bible: Genesis: The Rubin JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot. Jewish Publication Society, 2018.

Kaminker, Rabbi Mendy. “Jacob Wrestles With the Angel” (Accessed December 9, 2019)

Miller, Chaim. “Torah in Ten: Vayeitzei” (Accessed December 7, 2019)

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Additional Readings:

Tauber, Yanki. “The Cosmic Twins.”

Tauber, Yanki. “Double Identity.”

[1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.175 (Rashi)

[2] In Talmudic and Midrashic literature, every nation “has its own angelic ‘minister’ who represents its interests before G-d.” Kaminker, “Jacob Wrestles With the Angel”

[3] And other surrounding nerves of the leg, as this corresponds – anatomically – to where Jacob was injured. This is referred to as “the prohibition of eating the sinew of an animal’s thigh.” (Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.177)

[4] The name Israel comes from the Hebrew word for prevailing; superiority. (Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.176) “No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome.” (32:29)

[5] Rashi comments that Simeon and Levi placed Jacob in a potentially vulnerable position by igniting such violence, “should the Canaanite cities chose to attack him.” Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.185

[6] The Kabbalists note that while Reuben was conceived, Isaac was unaware that he was sleeping with Bilhah (Rachel’s handmaid), and instead thought that he was with Zilpah – Leah’s handmaid. Because you are not meant to be thinking of another woman whilst you are being intimate, this left a blemish on Reuben, which laid the energetic imprint for this betrayal. This is also why Reuben later loses his right as the firstborn to Joseph. (Miller, “Torah in Ten: Vayeitzei”)

[7] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.175 (Rashi)

[8] Kaminker, “Jacob Wrestles With the Angel” (Zohar 1:170b)

[9] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.175 (see Chofetz Chaim, the magnum opus of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan)

[10] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.170

[11] It is noted that Jacob says “my lord” eight times throughout this parashah, corresponding to the eight Edomite kings (Carasik, p.289 in Additional Comments)

[12] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.179

[13] Israel Institute of Biblical Studies. “Two Brothers, two voices: Discovering the Hebrew Bible.”

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