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Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

“Jacob was left alone.  And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” (Genesis 32:25)

Some people read the Torah as the word of God. Nahum Sarna (1923–2005; a modern Biblical scholar), among others, reads it as literature, and examines the influence of the surrounding literary cultures.  Parashat Vayishlach, which describes Jacob’s night-time struggle with a mysterious being that leads to his receiving the name Israel, is an example of a Biblical story based on folk-tale elements that get scrubbed out of the story to make it conform to the needs of Jewish monotheism.

The first folk motif is the fight with river spirits to cross over.  In Vayishlach, however, Jacob crosses a river many times to bring his clan to safety with no parley with any spirit.  Nor is he attacked until he is safely on the other side.  The second folk motif is a demon whose power is restricted to the night, and who must disappear by dawn.  In Vayishlach, Jacob is injured in the fight, not the demon, which is typical in folk tales.  And, since Jacob demands a blessing, it is also unlikely his adversary was a demon.

Sarna explains the mysterious adversary is not a random enemy, but actually is Esau’s celestial patron, an angel from God’s heavenly host (Genesis Rabbah 77:2). The blessing represent Esau’s acknowledgement of Jacob’s right to the “stolen” blessing from 20 years ago, and cedes the right to the land to Jacob. This explains the importance of the river motif: the Jabbok River (Genesis 32:23) is always described in the Bible as a boundary of the land of Israel. So Jacob becomes Israel at the land’s border, and as the land’s rightful heir, enters it to meet his brother.  A story based on common folk-motifs becomes part of a nation’s foundation myth.

Good Shabbos/ Shabbat Shalom,


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