The essence of Parshat Vayishlach is the transition from the story of Jacob to the story of Israel, from the narrative of an individual to the founding myth of a people, and it involves the demarcation of physical and socio-cultural borders between Israel and its neighbors.
There are two major stories in the parasha: Jacob's meeting with Esau, and the rape of Dinah and subsequent slaughter of the city of Shechem. Both of these stories are about creating boundaries—first a secure physical boundary between Israel and Edom, and second a moral-religious-cultural boundary between Israel and the surrounding peoples.
Nahum Sarna, in his commentary to Genesis, points out that Jacob's wrestling with the "angel" at the river Jabbok can be understood as part of the creation of Israel's boundary with the nation of Edom, in modern-day Jordan—the angel is understood by the midrash to be the guardian angel of Esau (father of Edom), and the river Jabbok ultimately did become the border between the nations. Thus, in their wrestling, Jacob and the angel symbolize the tussle that accompanies the creation of two nations, a tussle which had already begun in the womb. And of course it is at this moment that Jacob receives his new name, the name of the nation of which he is the progenitor, Israel.
In the story of Dinah (ch. 34), the boundary created, and violated, is less one of land than character and values. Notice the offer of Hamor and Shechem to the sons of Jacob: it is focused entirely on financial arrangements, and it makes no mention of the fact of Shechem's crime. Similarly, when Hamor and Shechem report back to their men and ask them to be circumcised, the offer is couched in the language of economics.
Jacob's sons, however, respond to their offer in moral terms: "We cannot give our sister over to an uncircumcised man," We cannot violate this religious-cultural boundary. And as readers we know that they view the whole incident in religious-moral terms, using the Hebrew root TMA ("tamei," or "ritual defilement") three times to describe what had occurred. Even if Shechem really does love Dinah, his words make clear his worldview—one based on taking in exchange for giving, which views relationships as commodities: note the number of times the Hebrew words "KCH," take, and "NTN," give, are used. Boundaries are permeable and insignificant; they are obstacles to be overcome.
The religious-cultural boundary between the sons of Israel and their neighbors is physically signified in circumcision—which Shechem willingly undertakes in order to erase it—but the religious-moral boundary is signified in the ringing rhetorical question that closes the story, "Will he make a whore out of our sister?"
And yet despite the clarity afforded by these boundaries, what pervades both stories is a tremendous sense of ambiguity. Did Esau really intend to kill Jacob? Was Shechem trying to do right by marrying Dinah? Were Shimon and Levi moral examples? Were the rest of the brothers? Who is right at the end of chapter 34: Jacob or his sons?
This final interchange in the Dinah story is particularly significant, because it pits the political reality against the moral imperative—Jacob is right, and his sons are also right. How does one decide—how does one erect boundaries of action—under those circumstances? In the case of Esau, Jacob cannot discern reality; in the case of Dinah, the facts are clear enough, but his value judgment is clouded. In both instances, inaction is an unacceptable response, but in both instances, the wrong action could lead to something even less desirable. The bounds of right action are hazy.
As perhaps they always are. Parshat Vayishlach provides one of the greatest comments of Rashi on the Torah, on the verse, "And Jacob was afraid, and it troubled him greatly" (32:8). Jacob has just learned that Esau is approaching with 400 men, and he fears the worst. Rashi, picking up on the redundancy in the verse (he was both afraid, and it troubled him greatly), makes one of the outstanding moral statements of Jewish tradition: "And he feared—that he would be killed; And it troubled him greatly—that he would kill others." This is Torah at its finest: we value the tzelem elohim, the image of God, so deeply that we can conscience neither losing our own life nor taking that of another.
To paraphrase the Mishnah Sanhedrin (4:5), the boundary separating one human being from another—twin brothers, in this instance—is non-existent, as we are all descendents of Adam, we are all created in God's image. And yet that boundary is also an unbridgeable span, because each image of God is unique, an entire world unto itself. Thus this statement of Rashi, this noblest of moral instincts, ultimately leads to paralysis: What should Jacob do? Does he assume that no boundary exists, that Esau is coming in peace? Or does he assume that the boundary is quite real, and that Esau is coming for war? He cannot know, and yet he must act. And so, the Ramban writes in his opening comment to the parasha, Jacob prepares himself with prayer (that God will protect him), diplomacy (in the offering he sends to Esau), and ultimately for war, as a last resort.
We live in a time and a world of tremendous complexity and ambiguity. If decision-making is based on an assessment of reality and a knowledge of our values, then the post-modern world is indeed paralyzed, as we can no longer trust reality (think corporate scandals, "weapons of mass destruction," even "reality TV"), and we no longer know our values. As boundaries between nations and individuals are erased and eroded, by the power of the internet or by the power of jets and tanks, the Jewish people is still engaged in its timeless quest for identity. Where do we draw our boundaries? Where do we erect our walls (and security barriers)? How much can we trust our neighbors (our twin brothers?)? And how do we retain our singularity of moral purpose in a culture of consumerism? These are the questions of Jacob, they are the questions of Israel.
Josh Feigelson, campus Rabbi and senior director for educational initiatives at Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Vayishlach at MyJewishLearning.com.