Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban to VaYishlah: The Jewish People, the World, and Angels

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

A Future of Tense Relations with Non-Jews

Comments of Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban I looked at in my previous samplings picked up on ways VaYishlah tells us of the expected struggle of the Jewish people to make their way among other nations. Ramban, 32;4, saw much historical foreshadowing in the parsha. Ya’akov’s preparations for his meeting with Esav tell us he and we should not rely on our righteousness, may not assume Gd will necessarily save us without our own efforts. Ya’akov also taught us the efforts to make, prayer, gifts, and war.

At the same time, Ramban (and the passage in Bereshit Rabbah he quoted) thought Ya’akov jumped the gun on contacting Esav, envisioned Gd as chiding Ya’akov for raising problems unnecessarily. The Jewish people would repeat this error in Roman times, Ramban says, Jewish kings the ones who initiated contact, to decades later have those Romans meddle in their politics and eventually destroy the second Temple.

The wrestling match with the angel, leaving Ya’akov wounded yet “whole,” (as the verse describes his arrival in Shekhem) give us insight into times of trouble in Jewish history, when the nation might suffer great pain, many Jews tortured, yet still leave the people whole, able to recover, grow, and succeed.

Rashi, too, saw lessons about the Jews’ role in the world, in his case the persistence of anti-Jewish hatred. When Esav kisses his brother, 33;4, Rashi quotes Sifri’s debate about Esav’s sincerity. The one who thought he was sincere, R. Shim’on b. Yohai, qualified “it is well known Esav hates Ya’akov,” I think usually taken as a general comment about anti-Semitism.

That hatred led enemies to band together, Rashi thinks, based on the war 36;35 tells us about, where an Edomite king defeated Midian in the fields of Moav. For Rashi, Moav and Midian had an ancient and lasting hatred, but put it aside to unite against the Jews in Parshat Balak.

Ramban thinks the nation’s sexual ethics might have been at odds with that of those around them. When Shekhem rapes Dinah, the verse (34;7) tells us Ya’akov’s sons were upset because ken lo ye’aseh, such is not done. Ramban is of two minds whether no one did that at the time, or in the family of Ya’akov, it was not done.

How Jews Do or Do Not Punish Non-Jews

For reaction, Ramban thinks Ya’akov and his sons agreed to trick the rulers of Shekhem, to lie about the possibility of an alliance. Either way, they would take Dinah; when they refused to circumcise, as Ya’akov and his sons expected, or when they were weak from the circumcision. Shim’on and Levi decided instead to exact revenge/punishment. Ramban thinks Ya’akov would have accepted the killing of Shekhem the rapist, objected to the wholesale slaughter Shim’on and Levi thought appropriate for those complicit with their leader.

Not that he (neither Ya’akov nor Ramban) doubted the people of Shekhem were liable for capital punishment, either for their failure to set up a proper judicial system, as Rambam says (to police and prevent abduction and rape, for example), or for their idolatry. Ya’akov objected because he had no sense Gd tasked them with enforcing the laws for non-Jews, where Shim’on and Levi thought intervention was called for because the entire city had supported Shekhem’s evildoing—and we all know supporting evil incurs much the same punishment as those who perpetrate it. It’s called aiding and abetting, and/or accessories before, to, and after the fact.

Onkelos indicated a symbolic element here, translating le-fi harev (34;26), by the mouth of the sword, as le-fitgam de-harev, the word of it. ArtScroll cited a commentary called Beis Aharon that the killing also sent a message to the world: mistreatment of Jews will hurt.

One last example of the parsha giving information about the Jewish people comes when Gd tells Ya’akov goy u-kehal goyim, a nation and a community of nations, will come from him, 35;11. Rashi thinks those words informed him of the coming birth of three tribes, Binyamin, Efrayim and Menasheh. Their status as “nations” tells us the Jewish people is one larger unit made up of smaller sub-nations, each of those with a character of its own.

Relationships Romantic and Filial

The parsha gives insights into relationships at a more personal level as well. Over the course of VaYetzei and VaYishlah, Onkelos translates the word shefahot as lehenata, concubines, where he had earlier translated amahot as lehenata, but before that as amta, maids. Considering VaYeshev speaks of them as neshei aviv, the wives of his (Yosef’s) father—and Onkelos echoes the word—we see a growth in Ya’akov’s closeness to these women, perhaps because their role changes as they contribute sons (and tribes) to the family and future Jewish people.

Shekhem does not develop relationships, Onkelos implies. When his soul cleaves to Dinah, Onkelos speaks only of his soul deeply longing for her, without any idea she reciprocated or even had anything other than a want or need to possess her. Had the longing ever been fulfilled, I read Onkelos as implying, his ardor would have cooled.

In another comment, Rashi opens a window on his view of sons and fathers. Bereshit 34;25 identifies Shim’on and Levi as two sons of Ya’akov. Rashi says the verse draws our attention to their failure (or conscious decision not) to consult with their father. For Rashi, sons consult with fathers before taking radical action.

Gd, Angels, or Not

The parsha speaks multiple times in terms related to Gd, or not, and to angels, or not. The first verse says Ya’akov sent malakhim to Esav, a word Rashi reads as angels, where Onkelos translates it as izgedin, emissaries. Later in the parsha, Onkelos interprets elohim/ Elokim three ways in the space of fourteen verses. When the man/angel tells Ya’akov ki sarita im Elokim, “you have contended with Gd,” Onkelos has it as “you are eminent before Gd.”

Ya’akov names the place Peni’el, 32;31, because ra’iti elohim/Elokim panim el panim, for Onkelos I saw angels of Gd face to face. Then, when Ya’akov urges Esav to accept his gift, he says seeing Esav was kir’ot pene elohim, as encountering eminent ones, Onkelos says (according to Rambam; ArtScroll tells us Akedat Yitzhak and other think Onkelos meant literal angels).

Rashi is clear: Ya’akov interacts with angels, sends them as messengers to Esav, wrestles with them. Onkelos certainly accepts their existence, but thinks malakhim can also mean human emissaries, as elohim can mean eminent people or angels rather than Gd.

In one sense, Onkelos is more protective of the metaphysical, for example forestalling our thinking Esav could have interacted with angels. On the other, he also thinks certain people or experiences within the human realm bear enough similarity to angels or Gd to qualify for using those words to describe them.

As a parsha, VaYishlah to me focused on Ya’akov’s dealing with those with complex reactions to him, Esav, Shekhem. To a lesser extent, it also taught us about family relationships and where the metaphysical is experienced or reflected within the human.

About Gidon Rothstein

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