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Parsing the Meeting of Jacob and Esau (Parashat Vayishlah)


Jacob is leaving Haran after 20 years. He left originally out of fear that Esau might kill him in revenge for Jacob having tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing. He is on his way back to Canaan when he becomes aware that Esau is approaching him in a large group:

The messengers returned to Jacob and said, "We came to your brother Esau. He is also approaching you. He has 400 people with him." Jacob feared greatly and was distressed. (Genesis 32:6-7)


Rashi: He was afraid that he might be killed and distressed that he might kill Esau.


It might not be obvious to students what question or problem Rashi finds in the text. The "problem" here is the seeming redundancy of "greatly feared" and "distressed." I put the word "problem" in quotation marks because there need not be a problem at all. The writers of the Torah may have simply used synonyms as a way of emphasizing how strongly Jacob felt. But in the methodology of Jewish interpretation, one is allowed and encouraged to find special meaning in the use of synonyms. This approach says that every word of Torah must teach us something new. It allows new generations to read more into the text and to expand the text in ways it was never used previously.

  1. What is Rashi trying to teach?
  2. Do you think that Rashi is suggesting that Jacob is distressed at the thought of killing Esau only if Esau had not planed to kill Jacob? Or is he distressed even at the thought of killing Esau out of self-defense?
  3. Do you think Rashi's comment is precisely what the Torah’s author meant or has nothing to do with what the Torah's author meant?

    After the students respond to this question. You might ask them whether it matters whether the original writers of the Torah meant what Rashi suggests. You might introduce the idea the idea of "written" and "oral" Torah. The written Torah is the five books of Moses. The oral Torah is everything that comes later. It says in the Talmud that both the written and oral Torah's were communicated by God to Moses at Mt. Sinai. A Reconstructionist understanding of that passage in the Talmud is that the oral Torah is very important. We shouldn't just study Torah alone; the commentaries, including our own, are critical. In this case, it would suggest that even if the writers of the Torah did not write both "afraid" and "distressed" to refer to two different feelings, nonetheless Rashi's comment is valid.
  4. There is an Israeli group called, "Ometz L'sarev" which means "Courage to Refuse." They are a group of Israeli soldiers and reservists who are refusing to serve in the occupied territories. On their web site, they have a page which quotes this Rashi in support of their right to refuse Israeli military service in the territories. Check it out at:
Type: Text Study

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