The Naming of Binyamin: Communication, Forgiveness and Shared Values in the Marital Relationship of Yaakov and Rachel

The most emotionally wrenching episode in parshat Vayishlach is the death of Rachel during the birth of Binyamin. Yaakov had left Shechem and moved to Beit El at Hashem’s direction. In Beit El, Yaakov built a matzeva (pillar), and then departed towards Efrat. On the way, Rachel went into childbirth, and the midwife indicated that it was a son. Rachel’s labor was extremely difficult, and ultimately proved fatal. Pasuk 35:18 records that in her last dying breath, Rachel named her son “Ben Oni,” but that “his father” (i.e., Yaakov) called him “Binyamin.”

The narrative is somewhat difficult. We know that Yaakov loved Rachel the most of any of his wives. It must have been terrible for him to watch her die. Yet, after Rachel selects a name for her son in her last dying moments, Yaakov changes the name to something else. What was Yaakov’s intent in changing the name? If we look back at the pesukim recording the naming of Yaakov’s eleven sons, we see that – with the sole exception of Levi - Rachel and Leah selected the names (and even with respect to Levi, it was Leah who supplied the explanation) (see: 29:32; 29:33; 29:34; 29:35; 30:6; 30:8; 30:11; 30:12; 30:18; 30:20; and 30:24).

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Hafoch Ba D'Kula Ba: Portfolio Diversification in the Torah

In a mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:6) (popularized by Shweky ; - ), Ben Bag Bag states "Hafoch ba hafoch ba, de'kula ba - Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." In other words, all of the wisdom of the world can be found in the Torah, albeit often expressed cryptically and with brevity - leaving it to Torah scholars to tease out the details through diligent study.

Over the years, I've found Ben Bag Bag's statement to be very true, and have been zocheh to find all sorts of wisdom and insights embedded within the gemara and other Torah sources ranging from mathematical concepts to principles of psychology.

This week's parsha - Vayislach - offers validation of Ben Bag Bag's principle. For starters, it's well known that sages throughout Jewish history have studied Yaakov's preparations for his confrontation with Esav prior to their own negotiations with foreign governments (indeed, as per an idea floated in an earlier post, there seems to be elements of game theory operating in the story of the confrontation between Yaakov and Esav that could be highly instructive in terms of how each dealt with the dilemmas they faced given the imperfect information they each possessed about the other's intentions and merits).

What's less well known is the nugget of sophisticated financial advice that the gemara extracts from the parsha.

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The Struggle Between Yaakov and the Angel of Esav: A Metaphor for Jewish History Still Unfolding

One of the major episodes in parshat Yayishlach is the confrontation between Yaakov and the "man" (32:25-30), whom Rashi identifies as the "sar" (administering angel) of Esav.

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch and others view the confrontation between Esav's angel and Yaakov as a metaphor for Jewish history. For example, in 32:25, it is said "And Jacob was left alone," portending how tragically, throughout their history in galus, the Jewish people will regularly find themselves in a helpless state, abandoned without the assistance of any allies, to face persecution at the hands of their enemies (chronicled, for example, with respect to the Holocaust, in David Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews). It is also noted that the pasuk says "Va'ya'avek ish imo" - indicating that the "man" was the aggressor, while Yaakov acted in self-defense. Yet, much as Yaakov survived the confrontation and moved forward with his life while the angel disappeared, so too despite constant persecution, the Jewish people have survived, even if injured and weary, while their enemies have disappeared from the pages of history.

To quote R' Hirsch concerning the message for later generations from the struggle between Esav's angel and Yaakov: "As long as night reigns on is with the spirit of Esau, duly equipped with the orb of empire, the sceptre and the sword...that Jacob will have to contend, until the Night wanes from the earth."

R' Hirsch wrote these words in the late 1800's - one wonders how he would have interpreted the seminal events of Jewish history in the 20th century - the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel - in light of the parable. Let's develop this thought - first, by further exploring relevant details of the confrontation between Yaakov and Esav's angel, and then identifying parallels in recent Jewish history.

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