Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Vayishlach

Shimon and Levi on Trial

How do you evaluate Shimon and Levi's slaughter of the city of Shekhem?  Should their actions be justified as an appropriate avenging of their sister's honor or be condemned as overly harsh and cruel?

  • With which of the above do you agree?  See Sin and Slaughter of Shekhem and debate the various possibilities at your Shabbat table.
  • The story raises the question of the relative benefits of policies of restraint versus active deterrence, the morality of collective punishment versus targeted killings, and the appropriate response to the use of human shields. Discuss these issues with your family as they relate both to the actions of the brothers and to contemporary controversies.

Esav: Friend or Foe?

Parashat Vayishlach opens with Yaakov fearful that Esav is coming to attack with 400 men. When the two actually reunite, however, Esav greets him with a  hug and kiss.  Was the change of heart the result of Yaakov's efforts at appeasement, or is it possible that Yaakov's original evaluation of Esav's intent was erroneous and that Esav had already forgiven his brother?  What is it that enables people to forgive and forget?

  • Compare RadakBereshit 33:4About R. David Kimchi and RashbamBereshit 32:7-8About R. Shemuel b. Meir's approaches.  With whom do you agree?
  • Rashbam claims that not only was Yaakov's fear of his brother unwarranted, but that his attempts to flee were punished.  What textual support can you bring for such a position? See Wrestling With Angels and Men.
  • Rashbam is consistent throughout his commentary on Bereshit in viewing Esav as a neutral, rather than wicked, figure. Do you agree with such a portrait, or do you find the evil Esav of the Midrash to be a more accurate depiction?  How much of the Midrashic portrait is rooted in the text, and how much is the result of polemical considerations and the association between Edom, Rome and the Church? See A Portrait of Esav for elaboration.

Wrestling with Angels and Men

One of the highlights of Parashat Vayishlach is Yaakov's wrestling match with the enigmatic "איש".  Was Yaakov's assailant a person or an angel?  On one hand, he is called a "man" rather than a "מַלְאָךְ", suggesting that he was human.1  Yet, Yaakov refers to him using the term "אֱלֹהִים", implying that he was some sort of Divine being.2 

  • What other evidence can you bring to support either position?3
  • If the assailant was a celestial being, was he Divinely dispatched or acting on his own?  If the former, why would Hashem send a messenger to hurt Yaakov?  If the latter, and the angel was acting in Esav's, rather than Yaakov's, best interests,4 does this imply that angels have free will?
  • Explore various understandings of the episode in Wrestling With Angels and Men. What can you glean from each commentator regarding their personal beliefs about angels?

Did a "Plan B" Replace "Plan A"?

Often, when a character in Tanakh says that they will perform a certain action, we assume that they followed through on this original plan, not considering the possibility that intervening events might have impacted their decision, leading to a "Plan B".  Conversely, the "omniscient reader", knowing the end of the story, often assumes that the Biblical characters were aware of the nding as well and acted accordingly, when it is possible that they had a different scenario in mind altogether.  In both sets of cases, positing a change in plan might explain otherwise difficult aspects of the narrative.

  • A case in point might be Yaakov's Dividing of his Camp.  He originally speaks about doing so in Chapter 32, yet in Chapter 33 there is no evidence of two distinct camps. To resolve the apparent contradiction, R. Avraham b. HaRambamBereshit 33:1About R. Avraham Maimonides asserts that intervening events caused Yaakov to change his mind, while Rashbam suggests that shifting circumstances prevented him from acting as he had anticipated.
  • Challenge your family to think of other cases in Tanakh in which positing a change in plan could solve textual difficulties or shed new light on a story.5 

"All those who say Reuven sinned..."

In Bavli Shabbat, R. Yonatan points to several Biblical characters who, from a simple reading of Tanakh, appear to have sinned, and declares them innocent.6  Included in the list are Reuven, Eli's sons, Shemuel's sons, David, and Shelomo.

  • Are R. Yonatan's words simply an attempt to exonerate figures who are otherwise deemed righteous, an aggadic statement not meant to be taken literally but rather to teach a lesson, or do they simply reflect the true meaning of each story?
  • What textual basis can be brought to suggest that each of the above characters might not be as guilty as initially perceived?  If each is in fact innocent, why does the text not explicitly present them as such? 
  • There are many instances in which commentators defend seemingly problematic actions of our forefathers.  The above cases, though, are somewhat unique as most of the characters are explicitly chastised and even punished.  In such cases, too, need one feel obligated to do defend our ancestors?

See Reuven and Bilhah and David and Batsheva for further discussion.

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