21st Century P’shat: 1-2 minute divrai Torah for each aliyah


  1. Why would Yaacov send out a message to Esav saying how rich he is and how he wants to be favored in his eyes? It seems like a suicide note. Yaacov is playing with ancient and powerful ideas of fate. His blessing was success and for brothers who would bow to him. This message seems to be trying to play on the impact of the blessing; look, I’m successful (so beware) but I’m also not asking for you to bow (so don’t be angry).
  2. What earns him the name Yisrael? That he fights man and G-d and overcomes. As I see it, he fights fate and defies it. The cast path – whether it be from a prophecy in the womb, or birth order or the love of a father or from Lavan – doesn’t constrain him. Yaacov pays a dear price every time he fights fate; but he eventually wins. He sees G-d face-to-face – which MUST mean death – and he survives.
  3. Why does Yaacov separate his bands in the first reading? Surely Esav could kill one and track down the other. He’s been waiting years, I wouldn’t think he’d get distracted. We see why later. Yaacov finally approaches Esav with his entire family. The other band must be everybody else – bystanders who Esav will not track down and kill. Yaacov is protecting his charges. They don’t need to fight his fate.
  4. Why does Yaacov want to pay Esav? Because Yaacov becomes a vassal with the gift. When you read Esav’s blessing, he has a chance to break free of the ‘blessing.’ Yaacov is saying – “you’re free, I am granting you superiority.” Esav, bit by bit, realizes Yaacov is terminating his dominance. Like a great man, Esav must make a show of turning down the gift – but it cements the reality he desires. Yaacov isn’t left empty handed though. If Esav takes the gift, he can’t just kill Yaacov. After all, he’s accepted his tribute.
  5. Yaacov is named Yisrael again. What happens before? He fulfills his vow to Hashem and recognizes where his ability to defy fate comes from. And then he buries Devorah under THE elyon. It is a prominent burial for a servant. Where Eliezer is fated to be buried in obscurity, Yisrael ignores fates and honors Devorah.
    1. If it is a tree, the elyon seems to be the same species of  tree where the idols of Yaacov’s camp are buried. But there is a difference. The sentence of the buried idols can be translated as “he buried the strange gods by the god of Shechem.” He destroys Shechem’s god and condemns the other gods with it. But Devorah is honored – and another word is used so as to ensure no confusion.
    2. This reading has the first use of the word ‘tumah.’ What happens? We see a pattern of lost potential in Tumah – human and higher animal bodies are tumah. When Dinah is literally ‘oppressed’ she has potential lost. It is a waste of tremendous human potential. One might imagine Dinah being the 13th tribe. Interestingly, the same word is not used later in rape law.
    3. It is not Shechem’s neshama which desires Dinah, it is his nefesh. Animals have Nephesh. It is not his soul, it is his animal spirit.
    4. And again, we see love. But it is a double-edged sword – it does not yield joy.
  6. Rachel’s naming of Benoni is one of the saddest statements in Torah.  The word anah is a diminutive of ani (I). She’s dying and even as she is giving birth to a son (which the midwife sees as wonderful) she casts herself as a lesser person – not because of her suffering and death, but because of her life. Unlike Leah, Rachel was beautiful and loved. Her eyes were not weak. She seemed to have a great fate. But that did not yield her long life, many sons or great joys. She says ‘she is dead’ earlier and it seems that it is about to be reality when Hashem rescues her with the birth of Yosef. She seems to be both a blessed and a fundamentally depressed person. She is totally aware of her own lost potential.
  7. There is enormous ink spent on Esav’s children. It reinforces the invalidation of Yitzchak’s blessing. But why is that so important? Perhaps because Yaacov is right, fate can be overturned. Esav’s many progeny and kings demonstrate that is true. Aside from the promises of Hashem, we must recognize that blessings or curses, good fates or bad, strengths or weaknesses – everything that is cast in stone can be broken to bits. We are a people who connect like Avraham, link across generations like Yitzchak and defy the boundaries of our lives like Yaacov. And with these strengths, we have the power to roll back the expulsion from the Garden and even exceed its limitations.