Parashat Vayishlah Erev Shabbat 4 December 2020
Week of 29 November – 5 December 2020
Torah portion: Genesis 32:4 – 36:43   Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1-21
Theme: The Purification of Faith

Parashat Vayishlah recounts part of Jacob’s journey back to his father, Isaac, in Mamre (Kiriath-arba,  Horeb), following twenty years in exile in Paddan-aram (Haran). He travels from Mahanaim (32:3), through Peniel/Penuel and Succoth, crosses the Jordan to Shechem, then goes on to Bethel and Migdal-eder, arriving in Mamre as Isaac dies at 180 years of age. Jacob and Esau bury him (35:29).

Situated practically at the center of this parasha is the portion that the synagogue’s triennial cycle of Torah readings designates for 2020-21: Genesis 34:1-35:15. The rape of Dinah, which is a late insertion into the Shechem segment, is narrated (34:1-31); then the journey motif resumes with the commitments required of Jacob on route to Bethel (35:1-15). This portion of the parasha is framed by two significant acts of faith: 1) at Shechem, in 33:20, Jacob sets up an altar and calls it El-elohe-Israel (El, the God of Israel) using the new name given to God in 32:25-29; 2) at Bethel, in 35:14-15, Jacob erects a pillar and offers a libation on it, in veneration of El’s disclosure of his own identity as “El Shaddai” (God Almighty) the name that had first been revealed to Abram (Gen 17:1).                 

Between those two “acts of faith,” there is an interesting revelation of the personality of Jacob. Delivered from his fear of Esau, he arrives in Shechem intact/safe/whole (33:18). There, Jacob appears at first to be reluctant, even passive, in face of the rape of Dinah and the violent reaction of her brothers, Simeon and Levi; but then, he acts decisively to implement God’s directives as he proceeds to Bethel. The preoccupation of Simeon and Levi is reflected in the text’s three statements that Dinah had been defiled (34:13, 27, 31). The brothers return Dinah to her family and entrust her to Simeon; however, their massacre of the men of Shechem and the pillaging of their property render Jacob “odious to the inhabitants of the land … the Canaanites and Perizzites” (34:30).

Four commitments shape Jacob’s journey from Shechem to Bethel: 1) he demands that all those who are with him, surrender whatever alien gods they have, as well as their gold earrings that could be fashioned into objects of idolatry (35:2); 2) he buries all of those items under a terebinth near Shechem (35:4); 3) arriving at  Luz/Bethel, Jacob constructs an altar to El-bethel, as instructed (35:7); 4) reflecting on Jacob’s burial of Deborah (Rebecca’s nurse) under allon bacuth (the oak of weepings – a plural form), a midrashic tradition holds that, in this place, Jacob buried Rebecca (his mother) as well. Almost audible here is the grief that accompanies the purification of his faith as he relinquishes “idols” and even the decisive influence of Rebecca. Through this experience, Jacob has truly come to know this place as Beth-El, the very house of God (35:15).

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. If you could rename two places in which you have lived, to reflect your personal experience there, what would you rename them and why? 2. How have you experienced the purification of faith?

Bibliography: Plaut, W.G., Ed., The Torah, A Modern Commentary, UAHC(New York, 1981); Rofé, A., “Defilement of Virgins in Biblical Law and the Case of Dinah,” Biblica, Volume 86, No. 3 (2005), Hebrew U., Jerusalem, pp. 369-375.  Scherman, R. N., Ed., Tanach, The Stone Edition, Mesorah, (New York, 1998).

This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Diane Willey, nds, Canada, Bat Kol Alumna 2005, 2006

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