Finding Focus

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat VaYishlach

Before There Was a Jewish King

When the Torah introduces the list of kings of Edom, descendants of Esav, 36;31, it says they all came before there was a king for the Jewish people. HaKtav VeHaKabbalah knew of those who questioned how the Torah could write this, since the Jews did not have a king until Shaul, so how could Moshe write it?

[Although we might simply say Moshe was a prophet, I think the question assumes the Torah does not detail history before it happens; Hashem might have told Moshe the names of kings before they ruled, but would not have had him record it in the Torah.]

R. Mecklenburg says the question ignoresI Divrei Hayamim1;51, where the verse dates alufei Edom, the generals/leaders of Edom (named in the Torah, too) after the last of the Edomite kings. The list is of kings who ruled before these alufim, all of whom ruled before… Moshe, who has the status of a king for many purposes. Our verses lists kings who ruled before Moshe’s time, by when the system had changed to alufim, non-monarchical leaders.

Edom’s Shifting Form of Government

Problem is, there are ten such alufim, who seem to have finished their rule by the time of Moshe, because by the time the Jews come close to Israel, Moshe writes to the king of Edom for permission to pass through (which they deny; R. Mecklenburg attributes the insight about the alufim to Shadal, R. Shmuel David Luzzatto, a younger contemporary). R. Mecklenburg suggests many alufim ruled at once, one aluf per region of the country.

To support the idea, he notes the Song of the Sea, az nivhalu alufei Edom, the alufim of Edom, plural, were dismayed. [The translation that popped up on Sefaria had “the clans of Edom,” as if alufim didn’t refer to the leaders.] R. Mecklenburg is saying the country went from a centralized monarchy to regional leaders, ten of whom ruled during Moshe’s time, but had gone back to a monarchy by the end of the forty years in the desert.

Other sources depict Edom as a nation beset with difficulties of identity; R. Mecklenburg is reading our verse to say they were challenged in finding a form of government, too, cycling from monarchy to oligarchy and back.

Picking a Place to Live

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch sees a triple criticism of Ya’akov in Hashem’s command at the beginning of chapter 35. Coming right after the rape of Dinah and pillaging of Shechem, Hashem tells Ya’akov to go to Beit El, reside there, and build an altar to the God Who appeared to him there.

R. Hirsch sees a reaction to Ya’akov’s misguided choices in the previous chapter. In words that feel like they had contemporary resonance, he says Ya’akov was wrong to live so close to the locals, without any roots or steadying influences from his own background

He should have gone to where he had laid the cornerstone for his future on his way out of Israel, with his vow of how he would set up his life.  Barring that, he should have moved to where his father and grandfather were, where they had found their personal development, because the memory of those greats would also ease Ya’akov’s path, the locals would have welcomed them, protected them, and left them alone.

Hashem is now telling Ya’akov to do it better, to go to Beit El, reside there to reabsorb the spirit of the place and his experience there (the dream and his vow after), and fulfill the vow, by turning what was a matzevah (I think he thinks of that as a personal place of worship) into a mizbeach, a full altar, a way of bringing others to appreciation of God.

Then to Kiryat Arba, where Yitzchak is, although R. Hirsch does not take that up here.

Misdirecting Shechem

When Chamor represents his son to ask for Dinah’s hand, 34;13 tells us the sons of Ya’akov answered be-mirmah, with guile, deceit, or cunning. I think we usually assume the trickery consisted of their pretending they could contemplate an alliance/union when there was no way. Malbim sees another level.

Dinah’s family objected to what had happened on two planes, Shechem having grabbed her, against her will (Malbim counts them as two, I think because there is the kidnapping and then the rape, both against her will; kidnapping is gezel, a prohibition, and rape is rape), as well as his not being circumcised, not a member of their people. The Canaanites understood the first two were wrong, and expected to hear complaints about that.

Ya’akov’s sons wanted them off guard, so they could take what Malbim deems appropriate revenge. He takes the position of Rambam in Hilchot Melachim 9;14 (without mentioning it), the people of Shechem were liable for death for what they had done. The trick was finding a way to enact that punishment safely.

The solution lay in surprising them. Talk of circumcision relaxed the people of Shechem, who assumed Dinah’s family didn’t care about her abduction and rape. The misdirection worked, the men circumcised, were then easily defeated by Shimon and Levi.

Sometimes, misdirection is a crucial part of an effort to find justice, Malbim is saying.

Divisions Within Divisions

Ya’akov defeated Esav’s angel in the night, yet when he meets up with Esav himself the next day, he still splits the camp. R. David Zvi Hoffmann first points out his taking natural measures to try to protect as much of the family as he could, despite the previous night’s indication that he would emerge victorious.

More, he splits the camp further. Earlier in the parsha, he had divided them into two, where now he places various wives with their children before others within the same camp. R. Hoffmann thinks Ya’akov knew Esav would go for his camp first, so within that group, he wanted to save the maximum. Should Esav’s bloodlust end after wiping out the first people he encountered, putting favored ones in the back gave them the best chance of survival.

[R. Hoffmann does not address the effect on family dynamics of knowing that your husband/father wanted you to die more than another wife/child. I think he was focused on the issue of Ya’akov functioning practically despite having some metaphysical reason to believe he was safe. Those other concerns he left for another time.]

parsha about focus, on political power held by one or many, on where we live and how it shapes us, focusing enemies away from the main issues to ease their defeat, and on our practical needs regardless of what we might think we have heard from Heaven.

About Gidon Rothstein

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