Rabbi Jan Uhrbach on Parashat Vayishlah

The famous account of Yaakov wrestling with a mysterious being culminates with him acquiring a new name. “No longer will your name be said to be Yaakov,” the angel says, “but Yisrael” (Gen. 32:29).

The difficulty, of course, is that this doesn’t seem to be true. With the exception of the brief reference in verse 33 to “B’nei Yisrael” (referring to future generations), the text reverts immediately to the name Yaakov. The new name, Yisrael, does not really “take” until later in the parashah, when God changes Yaakov’s name again: “Your name is Yaakov. Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov, but Yisrael shall be your name. And [God] called his name Yisrael” (Gen. 35:10). Thereafter, both names are used.

However, there is one — and only one — instance where the name Yisrael appears between the announcement of the name change in Genesis 32, and it’s taking effect in Genesis 35. After Yaakov’s reunion with his brother Esav, he arrives whole (shalem) in the city of Shechem, buys a small parcel of land, and builds on it an altar: “He set up an altar there and called it El Elohei Yisrael” (Gen. 33:20).

This name presents an interpretive problem. Could Yaakov actually have named the altar El, “god”? This would seem idolatrous! Naturally, the midrash therefore suggests different ways of reading the verse. Rashi, in his commentary, brings two such interpretations. But then his commentary continues: “the words of Torah are as a hammer that shatters a rock, dividing into many meanings”  (Rashi on Gen. 33:20).

Obviously, there are innumerable verses in the Torah which bear multiple meanings, and innumerable instances in which Rashi himself brings more than one reading of a verse. Why, then, does he raise the methodological issue (that words of Torah can be interpreted in many ways) specifically here?

Perhaps the question of reading and interpreting on many levels is at the essence of what it means to function as Yisrael. There is a reason why the study of Torah, delving deeply into the multiple meanings of every single word, is such a central activity for Jews. Close textual analysis is essential not only for the meanings it yields, but for the process and skills it teaches. By becoming sensitive, deep readers of text, we train ourselves to become sensitive deep readers of life, of the events in the world, of each other.

Indeed the moment Yaakov truly becomes Yisrael, he is challenged by two painful incidents in his family, each of which demands of him sensitive reading and listening, i.e., they demand that he use this newfound capacity to read reality as a hammer shattering a rock, dividing into many meanings.

The first occurance is the death of his beloved wife, Rachel. Rachel dies in childbirth, naming her son Ben-Oni, “but his father called him Binyamin” (Genesis 35:18). Ramban comments:

[H]is mother called him Ben Oni, and she meant to say, “the son of my mourning” . . . And his father made from “oni” “my strength,” . . . . And therefore he called him Binyamin, “the son of power” or “the son of strength.” . . . He wanted to call him by the name his mother had called him, for all his children were called by the names their mothers had called them, and he thus translated it to good and to strength.

Imagine the burden of a child growing up with the name Ben-Oni — born of one’s mother’s suffering, one’s father’s grief? But his father, Yaakov who is now also Yisrael, has learned to “read” a single word in different ways, and that capacity enables him to reinterpret his newborn son’s name to evoke healing and blessing (Bin-yamin, meaning the son of my strength, or of my right hand, the side of lovingkindness) rather than pain.

This perhaps explains the brief comment in Bereshit Rabbah, that “The child’s father named him Ben-yamin, in the Holy Tongue.” Lashon hakodesh, the holy tongue, is the standard idiom for the Hebrew language. But here, as Avivah Zornberg notes, the issue is not merely Hebrew:

The word oni in Hebrew means both pain and strength. It is the very nature of holiness to translate pain into strength — even to intuit the strength within the pain, the coherence within chaos. (Zornberg, Genesis — the Beginning of Desire, pp. 214-15).

The Hebrew language is holy, then, precisely because it is particular susceptible of nuanced, multi-layered interpretation — because its meaning can be “translated” within itself.

The second incident occurs almost immediately thereafter:

Then Yisrael journeyed . . . And it was when Yisrael was dwelling in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Yisrael heard. And the sons of Yaakov were twelve (Gen. 35:21-22).

Here, just as the text begins to truly refer to Yaakov as Yisrael, the most shocking incident occurs. Is it possible that Reuven, founder of one of the twelve tribes, commits incest with his father’s concubine? Almost universally, the verse is interpreted to mean not that he actually had sex with Bilhah, but that he disheveled or overturned either her bed, or his father’s. Here, for example, is Rashi (quoting a midrash in the Talmud):

“He lay.” Because he disheveled his bed, Scripture accounts it to him as if he lay with her. And why did he dishevel and profane his bed? Because once Rachel died, Yaakov took his bed, which had regularly been placed in Rachel’s tent and not the other tents, and placed it in the tent of Bilhah. Reuven came and demanded satisfaction for the insult to his mother, saying, “If my mother’s sister was a rival to my mother, should the maidservant of my mother’s sister be a rival to my mother?” Therefore he disheveled the bed.

But if so, why would the Torah text relate the story as it does? Why say of Reuven that his behavior was worse than it actually was?

Rav Kook says as follows:

[T]he Torah describes events in a particular way so that they will make a certain desired impression. Every detail in the Torah is carefully measured, so that the narrative will suitably affect us.
Sometimes a story, when written in a straightforward fashion, cannot be properly appreciated by those reading it, especially if they are greatly removed from the incident in time and place. From afar, we may not be properly sensitive to the moral outrage that took place. In such instances, divine wisdom dictates the precise fashion with which to clothe the story, in order that it should make the appropriate impression on the reader.
Together, the two Torahs, the Oral and the Written, paint a complete picture of what occurred. The Written Torah gives a simpler account, providing the emotional impact to which we are accustomed from our youth. The Oral Torah adds to the written account a more insightful understanding that is acquired through careful examination. . . .
For us, the true extent of Reuben’s offense – upsetting the delicate balance in his father’s household and eroding Jacob’s authority in his own home – is as if Reuben had actually committed incest with Bilhah. The literal account of the written Torah corresponds to our natural feelings of hurt and indignation.
But if we wish to accurately evaluate this offense in terms of Reuben’s moral level, we must return to the Talrnudic version of this event. Here the Midrashic insight reveals the event as it actually occurred: Reuben disturbed the sleeping arrangements in his father’s house, in order to protect his mother’s honor.

In other words, the Torah speaks of an emotional and moral reality that is different from the literal facts. Only by interpreting the actual behavior — deriving and holding more than one understanding of it — does the truest picture emerge.

Which brings us to the point, and the most powerful moment of this brief story:  Reuven went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Yisrael heard (Gen. 35:22).

“Israel heard.” Full stop. We have here a euxp gmntc texp, a break in the middle of a verse, i.e., white space in the sefer Torah following these words, even though the verse is not yet at an end. This rare orthographic feature of the Torah text is highly significant. Not only does it require us to pause and note this moment of hearing, but it suggests something of what was heard. What is it that Yisrael (not Yaakov) hears? He hears the white space, the silence, all of the unspoken meanings and implications of Reuven’s behavior. As a good reader of text and life, he hears not only the surface facts, but the deeper resonances. He hears the depth of the affront to himself as patriarch — the challenge to his authority, the intrusion on his dignity, as though Reuven had indeed actually committed incest! And he also hears the depth of Reuven’s pain, and Reuven’s sensitivity to Leah’s pain. Was it not enough that Reuven, the first-born, grew up watching his father pass over his mother out of love for Rachel, his mother’s sister? Is
he now to stand by while even a handmaid is favored over his own mother, his father’s first wife?

Indeed, the midrash imagines Yaakov hearing more than Reuven’s pain. Vayishma Yisrael:

When Yaakov heard, he began to tremble, and said, woe is me that there be such an unfit one among my children. Until he was informed by God that Reuven had done teshuvah, as it says, “the sons of Yaakov were twelve” (Sifre Devarim 31a).

The capacity to hear as Yisrael — to hear beneath the surface and open himself to the textured, layered nature of Reuven’s actions — enable Yaakov also to hear the Divine voice, and to hear the potential for change within his son.

Perhaps it is for this reason that the Talmud enjoins that this incident regarding Reuven “is read but not translated” (Megillah 25b). Were the story to be translated into Aramaic — outside the Holy Tongue — it would become overdetermined, less susceptible of being truly “heard” by us in the way that Jacob was able to hear it here.

Vayishma Yisrael. In hearing Binyanim when Rachel says Ben-Oni, in deeply hearing beneath the surface of Reuven’s behavior, in hearing both the present reality and the potential for change and healing, Yisrael/Yaakov manages to keep his family together: “and the sons of Yaakov were twelve”  (Gen. 35:21-22). Reuven’s behavior is not to be condoned, but it can be understood — heard, read, and interpreted — in such a way as to enable him to continue to be part of the family.1

Vayishma Yisrael. Yisrael heard. Shma Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. This, then, explains why Rashi emphasizes the way Torah is to be read specifically in the moment when Yaakov, for the first time, refers to himself as Yisrael. Because to be Yisrael is to hear in this way. To be Yisrael is to read Torah, text, life, another human being, like a hammer shattering a rock, splitting into many many meanings.

Indeed, Rashi uses the same metaphor once more in his commentary on the Torah. In Exodus 6, when the Israelites are still in Mitzrayim, God appears to Moshe and promises to redeem them, using the four terms for redemption which will ultimately provide the structure for the Pesah Haggadah: “I will take you out,” “I will save you,” “I will redeem you,” “I will take you” (Exod. 6:6-7). But when Moshe then tries to convey God’s promise to the people, they are unable to hear (lo sham’u) (Exod. 6:9). Just there, in concluding his commentary on the verse, Rashi writes again:

Thus are the words [of Torah] like fire, says Adonai, and like a hammer striking a rock, splitting it into many sparks.

This ability to read on multiple levels, to translate pain into strength, to hear the potential for reconciliation and teshuvah, to hear the possibility of another narrative is at the essence of Israel’s calling. And it is, ultimately, the prerequisite for redemption.