OzTorah: Torah reading – Vayyishlach



A television station once brought me from Sydney to Melbourne to take part in a programme about boxing. I told them of course that though there were famous Jewish boxers, the morality of boxing was highly suspect. They didn’t ask me about wrestling, but I would have made no distinction between the two types of combat and I could have made a good case against wrestling being a morally acceptable activity.


Naturally I think of this issue every year when we come to Parashat Vayyishlach and read about Jacob wrestling all night with an unknown assailant. If the night’s wrestling was real and literal it is no wonder that Jacob came away with a hip injury. Physical wrestling not only hurts you but is morally questionable.

On the other hand, if the encounter between Jacob and the assailant was metaphorical one can well understand how a person could spend hours wrestling with what today would be called his demons.

When the sages say that the assailant was “saro shel Esav” – the “champion” of Esau – we get the impression of a long struggle between two opposing world-views, the one quiet, studious and spiritual, the other coarse, macho and pagan.

If it was a metaphorical struggle, how are we to explain Jacob’s injury? One approach is to say that if you toss and turn, your body gets contorted and you come away in real pain. Another view is that a bitter struggle leaves its mark on your personality and you know you will never be the same again.



In his Guide (2:42), Maimonides says the contest between the patriarch and the assailant was a dream. It can also be seen (as some scholars say) as a prophecy. Our Father Jacob was smitten on the thigh. The Hebrew for “thigh” is “yarech”, which Jewish usage has turned into a symbol for one’s issue. Not only was Jacob attacked, but so were and are his children in every generation.

Being Jewish was never easy, and it doesn’t become any easier. Like every one of us I always say, “It’s hard to be a Jew”, quoting a well-known Yiddish saying, but I add, “And it’s good!”

Who makes life difficult for us? Those who blame us for all the ills of the world. In the Middle Ages, the slogan was that the Jews had poisoned the wells, and that’s why there was so much disease and sickness in the environment. It’s possible that the poisoning-the-wells allegation arose out of early Christian accusations that the Jews had desecrated the “host”, i.e. the communion bread. Antisemites, however, never need an excuse for attacking Jews – especially when they see that Jewish ideas and inventions have enriched the world, and outsiders often feel jealous.

Our children – Jacob’s descendants – are never going to be free of being traduced, and the best thing they and all of us can do is to take to heart the words of Chief Rabbi JH Hertz, who said that the answer to more antisemitism is more Semitism.



When Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, she was buried under an oak that was called “allon bachut”, “the oak of weeping” (Gen. 35:8).

We know that Rebekah had been accompanied by Deborah when she went to marry Isaac (Gen. 24:59). Rashi says that it was the nurse whom Rebekah sent to bring Jacob home after Esau’s anger died down (Gen. 27:45), but she died en route. If it is the same Deborah throughout the story, she must have been very old when she died.

Why her burial place was “allon bachut” is explained by Nachmanides on the basis that Rebekah herself had died and the weeping associated with the oak tree was for Rebekah. But why is Rebekah’s death and funeral not reported more fully?

Perhaps because it was unlikely that the family would have attended her burial. Isaac was old and unable to see; Jacob was away from home; and Esau was impatient with religion (the sages say that his quarrel with Jacob began on the day of Abraham’s funeral, when Esau resented giving up his hunting for the sake of a funeral). So Rebekah’s funeral must have been very modest.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.  Blog: http://www.oztorah.com

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