Parshat Vayishlach: Yaakov’s Conflict and His Limp

Yaakov’s Conflict and His Limp

And the sun was shining upon him when he left P’nuel and he was limping because of his thigh. (Beresheit 32:32)

Parshat VaYishlach includes a mysterious incident. Yaakov is alone prior to his meeting with Esav. He has an altercation with a man. Yaakov and the stranger struggle. Eventually, Yaakov overcomes the man and secures his blessing. However, Yaakov is injured in this battle. In the morning, he is limping from his injury. The Torah does not indicate the identity of Yaakov’s adversary or the reason for his conflict with Yaakov. Our Sages explain that this man was an angel representing Esav. Yaakov’s contest with this angel foreshadowed his struggle with and ultimate triumph over his brother.[1]

Maimonides explains that the encounter with the angel took place in a vision. The vision was a prophecy.[2] This prophecy revealed that Bnai Yisrael would contend with Esav’s descendants and eventually prevail.[3] Nachmanides disagrees with this interpretation of the event. He argues that Yaakov actually engaged in physical battle. The angel with whom he fought assumed the form of a human being. Yaakov struggled with this material being. Nachmanides offers a simple proof for this thesis. According to Maimonides, the entire encounter took place in a vision. This means that Yaakov was never actually struck by his adversary. Why, then, did Yaakov limp in the morning? The limp implies that physical contact took place. Therefore, the angel must have had physical form.[4]

Don Yitzchak Abravanel and others offer an important response to this question. They explain that a prophetic vision is very real to the prophet. The experience of the vision can best be compared to a dream. Often, our dreams are vivid. Sometimes movement and sensation accompanies our dreams. We may thrash in our dreams in response to the dream experience. Our dreams sometimes are so emotionally evocative that their influence remains with us even after waking. It may affect our mood. We may even be left with sensations. Abravanel argues that if this is true for dreams, these affects can also occur in response to a prophetic vision. The struggle Yaakov experienced in his prophecy was absolutely real to him. He felt the blows of his adversary. This pain remained with him after waking. Consequently he limped.[5]

The Use of Dots in the Torah

And Esav ran to greet him. And he hugged him. And he fell upon his neck and he kissed him. And they cried. (Beresheit 33:4)

Yaakov and Esav finally meet. Yaakov succeeds in appeasing Esav. Our pasuk describes Esav’s response to Yaakov; Esav hugs and kisses his brother. In the actual text a series of dots appear over the term “and he kissed him.” It is generally agreed that these points indicate a secondary meaning within the phrase. There is a controversy as to the secondary meaning of the above pasuk. Rashi offers two explanations. He comments that some Sages suggest that the notation indicates that the kiss was not completely sincere. Other Sages argue that Esav was genuine. However, the notation tells us that this behavior was exceptional and temporary. In general, Esav’s hatred of Yaakov remained undiminished.[6]

It seems that both opinions agree that the dots indicate a need to qualify the overt message of the passage. The two opinions differ only on the specific qualification intended. But how do these dots transmit the message that a qualification is needed? Gersonides provides a fascinating response to this question. He explains that dots were traditionally used by scribes to identify words to be erased. For example, if a scribe would find a mistake in a document, he would indicate the error with a series of dots. Later the scribe would erase the mistake. Now the message of the dots is clearer. The passage has two meanings. The overt meaning is communicated by reading the passage with the dotted phrase. However, the passage has a second message that is indicated by reading it without the dotted phrase.

The example of our pasuk serves to illustrate Gersonides’ interpretation. The term, “and he kissed him”, is accompanied by dots. This means that the Esav did not kiss Yaakov in the fullest sense. Something was lacking from Esav’s expression of love. It remains for the Sages only to determine the specific quality that was lacking.

The Rescue of Dinah and the Dispute between Yaakov and His Sons

And Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi: You have stained me through making me despicable to the people of the Land – the Canaanites and the Prezites. And my people are few in number. And they will gather against me and strike me and destroy me and my household. (Beresheit 34:30)

The prince Shechem kidnaps Dinah, the daughter of Yaakov. He loves Dinah and wishes to make her his wife. Yaakov’s sons devise a plan to rescue Dinah. They tell Shechem and his father, Chamor, that they cannot allow Dinah to marry an uncircumcised man. However if Shechem, Chamor, and their people will agree to circumcise, then they can join with the children of Yaakov as a single people. Shechem, Chamor, and their people accept this arrangement; they circumcise. While they are recovering from the procedure, Shimon and Levi enter the town, kill all of the men and rescue Dinah.

In our pasuk, Yaakov condemns the actions of his sons. His sons defend their behavior; they argue that they could not allow their sister to be treated as a prostitute. This dispute is difficult to understand. Yaakov was present when the brothers presented their proposal of circumcision. He certainly knew that circumcision would not change the moral character of Shechem, Chamor, and their people. He must have suspected that the brothers had some hidden plan and were not sincere in their suggestion that through circumcision. Bnai Yisrael would unit with the people of Shechem. Yet, when this plan was executed, Yaakov protested! In short, what caused Yaakov to change his position and what was his dispute between Yaakov and his sons?

Rabbeinu Ovadia Sforno explains that Yaakov and his sons never assumed that the Shechem and Chamor would agree to circumcision. They also assumed that even should they accept this condition, they would never convince their people to undergo circumcision. They hoped that Shechem and Chamor would recognize that they could not meet the condition. They would return Dinah.[7] However, Shechem, Chamor, and their people surprised Yaakov and his sons; they accepted circumcision. Now, Yaakov and his sons were confronted with a dilemma. They were faced with two options. They could allow Dinah to stay with Shechem. This was an outcome they had not anticipated. Alternatively, they could attempt to rescue Dinah.

We can now begin to understand Yaakov’s reaction to the behavior of Shimon and Levi. Yaakov and his sons felt that it would be tragic to give Dinah to Shechem. They had never expected this outcome. However, at this point, Yaakov and his sons were faced with the consequences of their bargain. Yaakov maintained that they must accept these unfortunate results and give Dinah to Shechem in marriage.

Shimon and Levi did not agree and chose the option of rescuing Dinah. Yaakov chastised them for their decision. According to Sforno, Yaakov made two points. He argued that Shimon and Levi had endangered all of Bnai Yisrael. They were a minority group in the Land of Canaan. The other people of the Land would identify with the Shechem, Chamor, and their people. They would seek to avenge this wrong committed by Bnai Yisrael. Yaakov and his children could not defend themselves from such an attack. However, this was not Yaakov’s whole argument. Yaakov raised a second issue. Yaakov and his sons had violated their bargain. This disturbed Yaakov. The people of Canaan would conclude that Yaakov and his sons were dishonest. This would reflect poorly on their morality and ultimately on Hashem.

What was the response of Shimon and Levi? According to Sforno, they disputed both of Yaakov’s arguments. They maintained that the people of Canaan were not so immoral as to condone the behavior of Shechem. They would recognize the right of Yaakov and his sons to rescue Dinah. Finally, they would understand the necessity of using subterfuge. Shechem, Chamor, and their people outnumbered Yaakov and his sons. They could not rescue their sister without first disabling her captors. Bnai Yisrael would not be condemned for acting unethically. Neither were they in danger of retribution.[8]


[1] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 32:25.

[2] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 2, chapter 42.

[3] Rav Aharon HaLevi, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 3.

[4] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 18:2.

[5] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, p. 344.

[6] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 33:4.

[7] Rabbeinu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 34:13.

[8] Rabbeinu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 34:30-31.