Parashat Vayishlah--Genesis 32:4-36:42
icon questions

Questions for Young Children

  • Are you ever scared?  What do you do when you feel scared?
  • Ya'akov is afraid of his brother, but  Dinah's brothers protect her and cooperate with each other. Are there times when you protect your brother or sister or your brother or sister protects you?  How does that feel?  What are some examples?
  • Ya'akov gets a new name in this parasha.  His new name is Yisrael.  Have you read any stories or comics where someone gets a new name?  Why do you think God gives Ya'akov his new name?  If you could pick a new name for yourself, what would you choose? 

Questions for Older Children

  • Ya'akov's older brother Eisav is a bully.  He has the power to kill Ya'akov and his whole family.  How does Ya'akov manage to avoid being bullied?
  • At the end of the parasha (35:29) Ya'akov and his brother both bury their father Yitzhak after he dies at age 180.  What do you think about his age?  Can you imagine what Ya'akov and Eisav said to each other while they were burying their 180 year-old father?
  • Ya'akov has a name change to Yisrael after he wrestles with a man or an angel.  Do you think this was a dream?  Real?

(For parents who think Genesis 34 is suitable for their older children...)

  • What do you think of Levi and Shim'on's actions on behalf of their sister Dinah?  

Questions for Teens and Adults

  • The parasha presents a complicated picture of sibling relationships in the stories of Eisav and Ya'akov and the story of Dina and her brothers Shim'on and Levi. The relationships between parent and child are also fraught as demonstrated by Ya'akov's reaction to Shim'on and Levi and the betrayal of Ya'akov by Re'uven when he sleeps with his father's concubine.  What's your reaction to the uncovering of all the family flaws? 
  • Ya'akov has an interesting relationship with God.  Reread the sections where he either builds an altar or prays to God. (32:10-13; 33:20; 35:1-7; 35:13-15)  How would you characterize Ya'akov's relationship to God? How do you think he understood God?
  • Three deaths are recorded in this parasha (in addition to the all the males in Shechem):  Deborah (35:8), Rahel (35:16-20); and Yitzhak (35:27-29).  What's notable about each of these?
  • Why is an entire chapter (36) devoted to the descendants of Eisav?



icon additional

For table decor this week try

  • A pile of presents.  Ya'akov presents Eisav with a lot of livestock (over 340 animals).  How big would your pile in the middle of the table have to be to simulate Ya'akov's generousity?
  • The number 12.  Like Sesame Street, your dinner can be sponsored by the number 12.  In Genesis 35:22b-26 all the twelve sons of Ya'akov are listed. 
  • A rock.  There are numerous points in this parasha where a place is memorialized with a name and/or a pillar or stones. It's still a custom to set a small stone next to a gravesite to mark a visit.
  • Leaves or a replica of a tree.  Two trees are mentioned in this parasha, elah (terebinth) in 35:4 and alon (oak)  in 35:8.  Both the elah and the alon often served as landmarks because they are long-lived and striking in appearance especially in a rocky landscape. These symbolize strength and endurance when invoked by the prophets.



icon parash

In Parashat Vayishlah we catch up with Ya’akov (Jacob) ready to enter Eretz Yisrael  at the ford of the Yabbok. But homecoming is complicated. This parasha demonstrates the complexities of Ya’akov’s family relations. His return is tempered by fear of his brother avenging the stolen birthright. Ya’akov makes a strategic decision to split his camp so if there is an attack, part of his large family will survive. He sends spies ahead, sends gifts to propitiate Eisav, and prays to God. By night he wrestles with a man or an angel and undergoes a name change becoming “Yisrael,” a God-wrestler. Finally, he is ready for Eisav and his 400 men.
Safety lasts only one verse before his daughter Dinah ventures out and is raped. Ya’akov’s sons Levi and Shim’on (Simeon) exact revenge and raise Ya’akov’s anxiety level once again. At the moment of his greatest fear, Ya’akov once again turns to God, ridding his household of idols and building an altar to God at Beth El, God’s House. God blesses Ya’akov and confirms his name change to Yisrael, but more trouble and sorrow ensue for Ya’akov at the end of the parasha when his eldest son lies with Ya'akov's concubine, Bilhah, and Ya’akov’s father, Yitzhak (Isaac) dies. Ya’akov and Eisav are reunited, this time at their father's grave. The parasha concludes by detailing Eisav’s descendants while Ya’akov’s twelve sons are simply listed before the death of Yitzhak is reported by B’reishit.

Find the Food Connection....

וְאֶת-בָּשְׂמַת בַּת-יִשְׁמָעֵאל, אֲחוֹת נְבָיוֹת

[Esau took his wives from among the Canaanite women...] and also Bas'mat daughter of Yishmael and sister of Nevayot.

--Genesis 36:3

Spices! Spicy Chicken in Three Parts.  (Bas'mat comes from the Hebrew word for spices, b'samim).

The Side Dish

There are weeks when I wonder what aspects of the parasha will speak to me, which verses will feel relevant.  Sadly, this week's parasha, Vayishlah, has a violent tale that is being replayed again and again in our news media--sexual violence.  In the Torah the threat of rape has been lurking below the surface since Avraham took Sarah to Egypt in Parashat Lekh L'kha. Yitzhak faces the same issue when he tells the Avimelekh, king of the Philistines, that Rivka is his sister in Parashat Toldot. Sexual impropriety threaded through B'reishit --think about Noah's nakedness, Sodom, and Lot's daughters lying with their father. In Lavan's household Ya'akov faced Lavan's deception and lying, but there's no account of sexual harassment of his wives or concubines.  Here he is in Eretz Yisrael settling near the city of Shechem (Nablus) when his daughter is raped when she visits the Canaanite women in the neighboring town.

Some commentators blame the victim--Dinah shouldn't have "gone out" and the daughters of the land weren't the right kind of companions for Dinah.  In the text Shechem the rapist doesn't seem to see anything wrong with his behavior.  He saw Dinah, took her, lay with her by force, fell in love with her, and asked his dad to "get me this girl as a wife." (34:2-4).  Ya'akov sees the situation differently and uses the term "timay" (defiled) for Shechem's actions. Dinah's brothers' outrage knows no bounds and they call Shechem's action n'valah (an outrage). Levi and Shim'on, Dinah's full brothers, wreak vengeance on the city.  I'll leave you to read the details in chapter 34.

New revelations of sexual harassment appear on the front page of the newspaper or in newsfeeds daily.  Why now? There was a time not long ago when women were harassed and coerced and kept silent.  After all, they had gone out into the world like Dinah and they were paying the consequences.  Few women complained, few women thought it was unusual.  Most women were ashamed and felt guilty.  Some of the men were like Shechem.  They acted on impulse and didn't see anything out of the ordinary in their behavior.  Even when some men are now in the crosshairs of the press, they can't admit there was anything wrong in their actions or it was so trivial in their minds that they can't remember.  Believe me, the women remember every detail no matter how hard they try to forget.  For each woman who now comes forward, there are legions more who now remember what they have tried to bury throughout the decades.

When I "went out" into the men's world of Yale College, I had no vocabulary for harassment or stalking.  And then I became a victim of stalking.  I was frightened and never thought about telling a dean or even the graduate student in our dorm.  I was too ashamed to talk to my roommates.  I'm grateful I had one Yale friend in whom I could confide.  Fortunately, he wasn't of the Levi and Shim'on persuasion. He tracked down the identity of the stalker using his wits and quietly told him that he was unmasked. The stalking ended.  I've forgotten the names of many of my college classmates.  After all, it's been almost fifty years since I left, but I do remember the stalker's name. For all women who were terrified or humiliated the stalker is always, like Shechem, ben Hamor. More importantly, I not only remember then name of the "upstander" who stood apart from the college wolfpack mentality, but I've maintained a friendship with him and his family and I have watched over the decades as he and his family have flourished.





icon dashe

A Dash of Israel

In Parashat Vayishlah we discover Ya’akov’s new name, Yisrael (Israel) means “you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed. “ (32:29)  It doesn’t take a leap of midrashic imagination to understand how this name fits Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel. You probably won’t be surprised to find out choosing the name for the new country was a committee decision, there was no consensus, and we’re not sure who first suggested the name.

Here were some other contenders for the name of the Jewish State:  Yehudah (Judah), Tziyon (Zion), Tzabar (Sabra).  Yisrael won by a vote of 7 to 3.  Who suggested the name?  Some say it was Ben Gurion, others claim it was Moshe Sharett.  The name Eretz Yisrael had already been in use on currency under the British Mandate and Sharett had used the term in a speech in 1946. Ben Gurion had been using the term Medinat haYehudim (The Jewish State) before May 1948.  The first use of the term Medinat Yisrael can be traced back to Isaac Pernhoff from Galicia (1896).

And what about the dilemma of translating Medinat Yisrael into Arabic?  The three possibilities were Filastin, Sayoun (Zion) or Eesra’il (Israel).  After prolonged discussion, the committee of three was unanimous in its choice of Eesra’il.


A Large Dash of Anxiety 

If Ya’akov had googled “coping with anxiety,” he’d have found 153,000,000 results. He couldn't google so he developed a three-pronged plan to cope with his very real fear of Eisav that included offensive and defensive measures as well as diplomatic overtures.  Even with his well-developed strategy, Ya'akov was frightened and it was a nighttime visit by a wrestling messenger of God that finally eased his anxiety and gave him the self-confidence to succeed with his diplomatic strategy.

Let’s break down his strategy.

1.  Offensive measures:  Bring 400 men to match the 400 that Eisav is bringing.

2.  Defensive measures:  Send a messeger ahead with gifts to try and curry favor and gauge Eisav's strength and state of mind.  Split the camp in two in order to save at least half.

3.  Diplomatic Overture:  Send a messenger to set the tone with gifts and flattery.  Go in peace and appear as the supplicant and try to ease out of proximity with Eisav by expressing concern for his welfare.

The three pronged strategy relied on Ya'akov presenting himself as sincere and self-confident.  He knew he needed God's help as well and prayed to alleviate his anxiety that would deliver him from Eisav's hand.  His prayer gently reminds God that unless Ya'akov and his family are preserved, the brit cannot continue.  It took a nighttime visit from God to get himself psychologically ready.  Ya'akov isolated himself the night before the meeting with Eisav.  The dream proved to him he knew how to struggle and even when wounded, he could rebound.  The name change signifies Ya'akov is no longer the heel grasper, but one who can wrestle with God and prevail.  Ya'akov acknowledges his new power as he, too, names the place Peniel, "I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my liofe has been preserved." (32:31).

A Dash of Visual Midrash

Search the Tali virtual midrash site and you'll find 19 examples of paintings of Ya'akov wrestling with the angel. ( Before you take a look, how do you picture the event?  My favorite image is by Bencjon Rabinowicz because it feels dreamlike with its sketchy image.  Here's the comment on the Tali website about this artwork: 

"Jacob wrestles with a large, winged angel. The angel’s lack of facial features indicates his existence on the border between the abstract-heavenly dimension and the earthly-tangible one. Jacob seizes the angel’s shoulders whereas the angel grasps Jacob’s hips. During the fight the two almost unite into one." 888 233x326

For an extended discussion on Ya'akov's wrestling match, see the essay by Jo Milgrom and Joel Duman that accompanies the images. (
icon recipe

Spicy Chicken in Three Parts 
Serves 6-8

Eisav had three wives and this chicken has 3 components: herb grilled chicken, harissa (hot sauce), and hummus. For those who prefer a milder version, serve accompanied by a slice of lemon without the harissa. 



  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 Tblsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 2 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
  • 2 tsp. fresh oregano, chopped
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 3 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken cut into large chunks

Directions for chicken

  • Mix olive oil and herbs in a gallon plastic bag and add chicken chunks. Toss well.
  • Marinate 4 hrs. to overnight, turning at least once.
  • To grill or broil, thread the chicken on skewers or place on the oiled grate or pan. Salt.
  • Grill over moderately high heat until cooked through-about 14-15 min.
  • Chicken can be served on skewers or removed.

(You can also purchase prepared harissa or schug and skip the following section)rsz harissa spices copy


  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp. coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp. caraway seeds
  • 2 roasted red peppers from a jar, drained.
  • 1 red Thai chili with seeds, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 3 Tblsp. olive oil
  • 1 Tblsp. fresh lemon juice

Directions for Harissa

  1. Toast the seeds in a small skillet on moderately high heat for about 2 min. They should smell fragrant.
  2. When cool, grind to a powder.
  3. Combine all the ingredients in a blender or food processor until very smooth.
  4. Season with salt and transfer to a bowl.


I suggest purchasing the hummus but you can make your own with canned or raw chickpeas. Here's a version with canned chickpeas.


  • 5-1/4 cups of drained, canned chickpeas
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 2 heaping Tblsp. tahini
  • 2 Tblsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 2-1/2 Tblsp. olive oil
  • 3/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • freshly ground pepper  

Directions for Hummus

  1. Drain the canned chickpeas and rinse until the water runs clear.
  2. Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth.


Arrange the chicken on a platter and present with harissa and hummus on the side. Serve with couscous or rice.

This Week's Tasting Torah Portion

This Week's Parasha-Related Recipe

Get Tasting Torah's Free Newsletter

Contact Tasting Torah

Don't have an account yet? Register Now!

Sign in to your account