Jacob returns to his homeland
Many years after marrying Leah and Rachel, Jacob was told by God to return home. He sent
messengers to meet his brother Esau and to say to him, “I seek favour in your eyes.”
The messengers told Jacob that Esau was advancing with 400 men. Jacob was terrified of Esau
because of the deception over the birthright. So Jacob made provision for his family by dividing his camp
saying, “If Esau strikes down one camp, the other will escape.”
Jacob prayed to God for protection from Esau. He
then selected gifts for Esau from his herds and property and instructed his servants to present Esau with
Jacob was left alone in camp and during the night someone wrestled with him until the break of
day. When the wrestler saw that it was impossible to win, he touched the upper joint of Jacob’s thigh and it
was dislocated. Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
“Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel,” said the wrestler, blessing him. Jacob named
the place Peniel: “For I have seen the Divine face to face and my character has remained intact.”
Then Jacob saw Esau coming with 400 men. Jacob went and bowed to the ground. Esau ran to meet
him and embraced him, and they wept.
Esau said to Jacob, “I received your gifts, but I have plenty. Keep them.”
Jacob begged Esau to take the gifts, saying. “I have
looked up to your face as judge, and you have accepted me with kindness. Please take my blessing, which was
brought to you because God has favoured me with it and then I will have everything.” Esau took Jacob’s
blessing and the brothers parted on good terms.
Jacob journeyed to Sukkoth and built booths for his property. He then went to a nearby city and
bought some land from the sons of Hamor, built an altar, and proclaimed, “God is the God of
Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, went to explore the area. Shekhem, the son of Hamor,
prince of that land, took Dinah and raped her. But afterwards his soul clung to Dinah and he loved her and he
asked his father to get her for him as a wife. Jacob and all his family heard of the rape and their hearts
were filled with sorrow and anger.
The father of Shekhem approached Jacob and asked for permission for his son to marry Dinah. He
offered Jacob a large dowry. The sons of Jacob replied for their father, “We cannot do this thing, to give
our sister to a man who has foreskin, for that is a disgrace to us. However, if you want to circumcise your
men, then we will become one people.”
Then, the son and the father and the rest of the men became circumcised. On the third day when
the males were in pain from the circumcision, the two brothers of Dinah, Simeon and Levi, came and killed all
the males of that city, including the man who raped their sister, helped themselves to property, and took the
women and children captive.
But Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought me trouble. You discredit me among the
people in Canaan. They will strike against us.”
Later, God said to Jacob, “Go to Beth-el and live there and make an altar to
Jacob and his people went to Beth-el, where he
wrestled again with someone that whole night. God appeared to Jacob and God blessed him. “Your name shall no
more be Jacob, but Israel. I am God, the All-sufficing. Be fruitful and multiply, and kings shall come from
your loins. And the land I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give to you.”
Rachel, the wife of Jacob, became pregnant. She died as a result of giving birth to Benjamin.
Jacob journeyed to his father Isaac in Canaan. Isaac then died at 180, with Esau and Jacob burying him. Esau
took his families and his properties to another land, away from his brother Jacob, for their wealth was too
great for them to dwell together.
Commentary on the eighth parsha (portion of the Torah)
The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: Methuselah, there’s a lot of riveting stuff in this story: violence, rape, revenge,
forgiveness, as well as the usual favouritism and triumphalism. Let’s start with your man, Jacob, deciding to
placate his brother.
MS: Well, don’t you think that’s a good message? Hope for peace, but make sure you have back-up
plans. Jacob was a canny fellow. He didn’t trust Esau, but he didn’t want war either.
SAS: In any event, he was in the wrong, in cheating Esau out of his birthright.
MS: Yes, but he was making good afterwards.
SAS: I don’t really get the moral point here – is it OK to take what you can get, and then pay it
MS: No, but we all make mistakes, and the next best thing is to atone for them.
SAS: What’s the wrestling angel all about? Are you trying to tell us that Jacob could not be defeated
or tempted to lose his resoluteness and faith? Or just that he had demons of his own to deal
MS: Sigmund, you lack a spiritual imagination. This is a great mythical tale, showing the fortitude
and endurance of one of our forebears. He was a strong and great man. He kept his faith at all times and
understood that it was God’s blessing he had to earn. That was his true birthright, not the one he had
tricked his father into giving him.
SAS: You’re clever, Methuselah, that I’ll grant you. But all of this is simply good literature, with
large, symbolic themes. But sometimes you really go too far. God and wrestling angels! Give me a
MS: Let me tell you something – the image of a man wrestling with his God, and his conscience, will
survive the centuries.
SAS: Hmmm, alright, you have me there. Here’s something
else, though. Let’s hear you on this one. Dinah. Suddenly you mention that among all these children of Jacob,
there’s actually a girl. I won’t even begin to ask about all the other women you’ve left out of our so-called
history. This shows our tradition’s lack of recognition of women.
MS: I won’t even dignify that with a reply. You know how highly Judaism values women. I can give you
countless examples in my stories: Deborah, Ruth, Miriam, Esther…
SAS: Keep going… I bet you can’t.
MS: What’s your point? Jewish men respect, love and
admire their women; they’re proud of them and will do anything for them.
SAS: So I see. Even to the point of tricking and then killing the men of an entire city, many of them
innocent of this rape. Also, what of the genuine desire of Shekhem to repent of his terrible deed? I put it
to you that the behaviour of Jacob’s sons here was entirely about avenging the violation of their property,
which is how they saw their sister.
MS: What they did was bad, I’ll grant you. But Jacob did not condone it.
SAS: Yes, you cleverly shield him from blame, making it clear that somehow the all-controlling
patriarch didn’t know about the planned slaughter. Most unlikely, of course, but I can see why you wrote it
MS: I beg your pardon! That’s how it
SAS: Now how about Dinah? Did anyone care about her?
MS: Of course they did. Jacob and his family were devastated about what had happened to Dinah. In
fact, there is a story that Jacob had already hidden her in a box before his family came to meet Esau, he was
so worried about her safety.
SAS: This doesn’t improve your case much, Methuselah. In your tradition, women are objects,
property, not equal human beings.
MS: Really, the story is about how Jacob tried to keep his family safe and together, while revering
the Lord. It has nothing to do with these side issues you raise. It is the story of how Jacob became the
patriarch of a great nation, because of his fortitude, strength and intelligence.
SAS: It is your story, my friend, and I think it speaks for itself.
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know
more about the real history of our extended Jewish family, read on.
The Jews in Spain: 882CE –
The fortunes of Jews in Spain improved after the Muslim invasion of 711, with Jews
prospering in medical, financial, commercial and agricultural fields. Under the Caliphate of Cordoba
(882-942) prosperity levels increased and the Golden Age began. Interest in Hebrew studies grew and Cordoba
became the leading centre of Jewish thought. Literature and linguistics flowered most
Some Jewish scholars wrote in Arabic, and some translated Arabic texts into Hebrew and
sent these to Europe where other Jewish scholars translated them into Latin, and circulated them. It was a
time of fruitful reciprocity. Many Jews were feted for their skills as doctors, scientists, traders and
scholars, and some served as viziers in new principalities created at the beginning of the 11th
The Golden Age came to an end during the 11th century when radical Islamic
groups became powerful as the threat of Christian re-conquest increased. The Almoravides, Berbers from North
Africa, deplored the tolerant society of Andalusia, and started forcing Jews to convert to Islam. When the
Almohads took control in 1172, a wave of fundamentalism swept Spain from the south. Jews started relocating,
either heading for more tolerant Muslim lands or moving into Northern Spain where Christians were gaining
The latter strategy proved beneficial for a while, as Christians were eager to use the
professional skills of the Jews as well as harness their knowledge of Islamic culture. Jewish scholarship
advanced once again under Christian patronage. Conditions deteriorated, however, at the start of the
13th century. Crusaders robbed and killed Jews in Toledo in 1212. Shortly thereafter, Spanish Jews
had to wear a yellow badge on their clothes. Then a papal bull of 1250 forbade new synagogues and prevented
Jews from associating with Christians.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment
by the Father, Chaya and Ben.
Three celebrants can read the parts of Ben, Chaya and their
CHAYA: Isn’t it interesting how well the Jews got along with the
Muslims during the early days in Spain?
FATHER: I guess that’s why we call it the Golden Age. And when things
deteriorated, Jews found the Christians to be accommodating for a while too. During these periods, the Jews
were probably as free, productive and creative as they have ever been.
It didn’t last though.
From the history I know, it seems as though the delicate balance was destroyed by the
Christian Crusaders. The Muslim groups in Spain became radicalized because of the threat of Christian
But why did Muslims set about converting the Jews to Islam in such a big
You can see how it happened. Muslims from other places besides Andalusia, particularly
those from Africa, took a rather dim view of the tolerance the local Muslims showed to Jews. They were much
more hostile and probably more threatened.
Well, many of the Jews of Andalusia, despite their previous lives of comfort and stability,
saw what was coming, and got out. That seems to be a theme among our people, throughout our
Yes, and to continue the theme, some stayed, and either got converted or
But there were plenty Jews left in Spain, weren’t there?
Yes, but they moved North, where the Christians had gained a lot of
Then, as you know, the
Crusaders decided that the Jews too were a threat to their cause, and began to perpetrate acts of random
violence against them, followed by more organized acts of repression and destruction.
You have to wonder why it is that the Jews posed such a threat to both the Muslims and the
Christians, during these years.
In times of inter-religious war, the desire for ideological purity increases. Let’s continue
this discussion next week when we look at why the Jews left Spain.
Every Shabbat we read five
short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and humour, insightful reflections on this life of
Here are tonight’s
- No one is so poor as he who is ignorant. (Talmud)
- What men want, they do not have; what they have, they do not
- You can tell an ass by his long ears, a fool by his long
- Saloons can’t corrupt good men, and synagogues can’t reform bad
- When life isn’t the way you like, like it the way it is.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Laura Jarblum Margolis (circa 1904-1997)
An unsung hero of World War II, Laura Margolis coordinated the relief effort of Jewish refugees in
Shanghai. The Istanbul-born Margolis came to America as a child and went on to work for Jewish Social Services
before joining the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). She helped fleeing Jewish-European refugees
in Cuba before being sent to Shanghai. There she found a chaotic situation, with refugees close to starvation. She
managed to fund the relief effort, promising local Jewish leaders that the large sums she borrowed from them would
be repaid by the JDC. Forced to register as an enemy alien by the Japanese occupying force, she worked within
strict limitations but managed to win Japanese respect. By the time she was repatriated in September, 1943, she had
put structures in place that guaranteed the survival of 4000 Jewish refugees.
Elie Wiesel (1928 - )
Eliezer Wiesel is a holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate, philosopher, novelist, activist and famous
humanitarian. Wiesel was born in Rumania, but his hometown was annexed
to Hungary. He was sent to Auschwitz by the Hungarian authorities. He survived the camps, unlike his father, mother
and youngest sister. Wiesel’s account of his wartime experiences is recorded in the book, “Night”. Wiesel studied
philosophy at the Sorbonne after the war and then became a journalist. He moved to the USA in 1955 and has written
over 40 books there, winning many literary prizes and making the world aware of the nightmares of the Holocaust. In
1986 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for exposing violence, racism and repression. He and his wife Marion set
up the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Today he is the Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Boston
University. In 2006 Wiesel returned to Auschwitz with Oprah Winfrey, a visit shown on Winfrey’s TV show. On 30
November 2006, he received an honorary knighthood for promoting Holocaust education in the
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.