Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Vayeitzei #2 (Also good for Vayishlach): Rachel the Wrestler, Yaakov the Wrestler

This too is from last year, before parshablog. It is still good stuff.

In parshat Vayeitzei, Rachel gives Bilhah (according to some midrashim, her sister) to Yaakov as a concubine. Children born to the concubine are to be reckoned as belonging to the Rachel. Thus, when Bilhah gives birth to a second son, Rachel rejoices, saying (Bereishit 30:8),

וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל, נַפְתּוּלֵי אֱלֹהִים נִפְתַּלְתִּי עִם-אֲחֹתִי--גַּם-יָכֹלְתִּי; וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, נַפְתָּלִי.

There are two ways of reading this pasuk:

1) elohim is chol - profane - and just means mighty. This is the King James rendering of the pasuk: And Rachel said: 'With mighty wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed.' And she called his name Naphtali.

Another example of elohim working as an adjective (wrestling is a noun, so elohim here is an adjective, not an adverb) is, according to some, to be found in the second pasuk of the Torah, Bereishit 1:2
וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם
can mean "and a mighty wind hovered above the waters."

2) Elokim is kodesh - holy - and refers to Hashem.

Wrestlings with Hashem have I wrestled,
With my sister, and I prevailed. (יָכֹלְתִּי)

implying that Rachel wrestled (by prayer, striving to change her fate) with Hashem, as well as with her sister, and she succeeded.

If so, she is a good match for Yaakov who, in the next parasha, Vayishlach, wrestles with an angel, and in the past wrestled literally with Esav in the womb and figuratively with Esav and Lavan. The angel tells Yaakov (Bereishit 32:29):

וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ--כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל.

King James translates this as "And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed."

This is a fairly bad translation, I think, with multiple translations of the verb sharita – SAR = prince and SHORER (like in the megilla – “lihyot kol ish shorer beveito”) denoting mastery and thus power. You could translate instead:

He said,
"Your name will no longer be said to be Yaakov but rather Yisrael,
For you have wrestled with Elokim (Hashem or angels)
and with men,
And prevailed" (וַתּוּכָל)

This has the same pattern as above, and ends with prevailing as above.

Compare this with Hoshea 12:4-5a, which is slightly before this week’s Haftara (Ashkenazik haftara starts on Hoshea 12:13). The Haftara begins with Yaakov fleeing to Aram, but beforehand we get earlier and later details of Yaakov’s life:

בַּבֶּטֶן, עָקַב אֶת-אָחִיו; וּבְאוֹנוֹ, שָׂרָה אֶת-אֱלֹהִים.
וַיָּשַׂר אֶל-מַלְאָךְ וַיֻּכָל…

In the womb, he struggled/he grabbed the heel of his brother,
And in his strength he struggled (sar) with Hashem/an angel
So he struggled (sar) with an angel
And he prevailed (וַיֻּכָל)...

Comparing Hoshea with Vayishlach suggests that the Anashim which whom Yaakov struggled when the pasuk states
וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ--כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל.
refers to Esav in the womb, so Yaakov struggles with Hashem and with his brother, and Rachel struggles with Hashem and with her sister, and so they are a perfect match.

How do the Targumim and commentators take this pasuk about נַפְתּוּלֵי אֱלֹהִים נִפְתַּלְתִּי?
Targum Yonatan and Targum Onkelos both understand that Elokim refers to Hashem, and נַפְתּוּלֵי comes from the same root as tefilah, and means to pray, and that she is not striving with her sister, but praying to be with her sister in having children, so im achoti means to be with my sister, and I prevailed when Hashem granted my request.

Rashi, referring to “Dor Ikesh UFisaltol”, that נַפְתּוּלֵי refers to struggle, so she struggles in prayer with Hashem to have children, and prevailed by having children, just like her sister.

The trend seems to be to suggest that she did not struggle with her sister, and that Elokim means God, to whom she prayed / struggles by praying. Then, it is not a parallel to Yaakov’s struggle with anashim and elohim, since she struggled not with her sister. Further, it does not mean mighty wrestlings.

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