Parashat Vayishlach: “And He Encamped Before the City”

  • Dr. Tziporah Lifshitz
In this shiur, we will try to understand the words of Chazal in Bereishit Rabba on the following verse:
And Ya’akov came in peace [or: whole] to the city of Shekhem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan Aram; and he encamped (vayichan) before the city. (Bereishit 33:18)
We will start by examining this verse in its context — between the end of the story of Ya’akov's encounter with Eisav and the story of the rape of Dina:
And Ya’akov journeyed to Sukkot, and built him a house, and made booths for his cattle; therefore the name of the place is called Sukkot. 
And Ya’akov came in peace to the city of Shekhem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-Aram; and he encamped before the city. And he bought the parcel of ground, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Chamor, Shekhem's father, for a hundred pieces of silver. And he erected there an altar, and he called it El Elohei Yisrael.
And Dina, the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Ya’akov, went out… (Bereishit 33:17-34:1)
After the great drama of the encounter between Ya’akov and Eisav, the Torah focuses on Ya’akov's first steps in the land of his forefathers. Following Ya’akov's extended stay in the house of Lavan, the Torah seems to be breathing a sigh of relief, as it were. Ya’akov is free to plant a stake in the land of Israel in a manner that is right and appropriate for him, in the peace and quiet after the storm. For the first time since the theft of the blessings, no one is telling him what to do. Even God has not as yet revealed Himself to him. What will his first actions in Eretz Israel be? Building a house, erecting a shelter for his animals, purchasing land — these are all acts involving organization and creating the foundations for a stable life in a new country, a new chapter of life. The same is true of building an altar, by way of which Ya’akov establishes the course of his life not only on the physical and familial plane, but also on the plane of his service of God.[1]
Ya’akov’s First Actions in Eretz Israel
According to the plain meaning of the verses, the beginning of Ya’akov's life in Eretz Israel demonstrates clear similarities to and differences from the beginning of Avraham's life there. Let us present the main points in the following table:
Avraham (Bereishit 12:5-8)
Ya’akov (Bereishit 33:17-20)
The beginning of his life in Eretz Israel: Shekhem and Beit El
The beginning of his life in Eretz Israel: Sukkot, Shekhem and Beit El
Booth, house and tent
[Avraham purchases a grave in which to bury Sara, at the end of his life, ibid. 23:1-20]
Ya’akov purchases a parcel of land in Shekhem immediately
He calls upon the name of God; an altar.
An altar (in Shekhem, naming the altar; in Beit El, he names the place twice) and a pillar
Like Avraham, Ya’akov arrives first in Shekhem and then he goes to Beit El. Also, they both erect altars. However, in the case of Ya’akov, the Torah emphasizes that Ya’akov builds a house and not merely a tent, and that he buys a parcel of land immediately. In addition, instead of calling upon the name of the Lord, he gives names to his altars.
The Ramban, in his commentary on the Torah, explains the significance of Ya’akov's purchase:
"And he encamped before the city" — he did not want to be a guest in the city, but rather he wanted his first stay in the land to be on his own [property]. Therefore, he encamped in the field and bought the place. He did so in order to take possession of the land. This act alludes to his conquest of the location early on, long before the inhabitants of the land would be dispossessed by his descendants… But Rabbi Avraham [Ibn Ezra] said that Scripture mentions this in order to teach us the great virtue of Eretz Israel, and that one who has a share in it is regarded as one who has a share in the World to Come.
The Radak (Bereishit 21:31, s.v. Al ken) explains the meaning of the patriarchs' naming of places:
This was a great sign to inherit the land, for it is known that whoever names a location becomes its master.
That is to say, Avraham's naming of a place demonstrates possession of the land. So too, according to the Radak, Ya’akov's naming of the altar attests to his intentions in his first actions – before all else, striking roots in Eretz Israel. This is the way the Ramban understands Ya’akov's purchase of the land. To these two things we may add Ya’akov's building a house, which indicates permanence, as opposed to the tent that characterizes Avraham's travels. All of these things together explain the meaning of Ya’akov's first actions in Eretz Israel.
“And He Encamped Before the City” – The Connection with the Inhabitants of the Land
Let us go back and focus on the first two verses of the passage cited earlier:
And Ya’akov journeyed to Sukkot, and built him a house, and made booths for his cattle. Therefore the name of the place is called Sukkot. And Ya’akov came in peace to the city of Shekhem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan Aram; and he encamped before the city.  
The Malbim distinguishes between two stages included in these verses:
"And he encamped before the city" — He did not encamp there as in Sukkot, where he dwelt in a separate place, apart from the city and its people. For here he encamped before the city, and intermingled with the people of the city, because he fixed his residence there.
In the wake of the Malbim's distinction, the words in the first verse, "And he built him a house," should be understood as echoing an inward focused movement on the part of Ya’akov, and the verse "And Ya’akov came in peace to the city of Shekhem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan Aram; and he encamped before the city" should be taken as alluding to his personal interaction with the local residents.
According to this, we can point to a fourth difference between Ya’akov and Avraham, in the area of the contact made with the local population. We do not find according to the plain sense of Scripture that Avraham or Yitzchak initiate any kind of contact with their neighbors.[2] Avraham and Yitzchak clash with the regional rulers against their will, and only Aner, Eshkol and Mamrei are mentioned by name as allies of Avraham (Bereishit 14:13). The one time that Avraham initiates communication with the local residents is when he wishes to buy a burial plot for Sara. In contrast, Ya’akov initiates contact with the inhabitants of the land when he first returns to Eretz Israel. Is this all for the purpose of buying a parcel of land?
If Ya’akov's entire interest in the local residents is so that they will allow him to purchase land in Eretz Israel, then he is not truly interested in them, but merely needs them in order to realize his plans. However, Chazal in Bereishit Rabba see much more than that in Ya’akov's establishment of a connection with the inhabitants of the land:
"And he encamped (vayichan) before the city" (Bereishit 33:18).
He showed favor (chanan) to the face of the city; he was the first to send them gifts.
Another explanation: "And he encamped before the city." He was the first to set up bazaars and sell inexpensive goods.
This is what they said that a person must give credit to the place from which he derives benefit.
Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai was hidden away in a cave for thirteen years, he and his son.
They ate inferior carobs to the point that their bodies were afflicted with sores.
In the end, he went out and sat himself down at the entrance to the cave.
He saw a hunter hunting birds.
When he heard a heavenly voice say "Mercy," that bird would escape; when he heard the heavenly voice say "Punishment," that bird would be trapped and caught.
He said: A bird is not captured unless it is decreed in heaven; all the more so, the soul of man.
He went out and found that that the crisis had abated.
He and his son came and washed themselves in the hot springs of Tiberias.
His son said to him: The city of Tiberias has done all these good things for us, yet we do not purify the markets from [the impurity of] the dead?
He took lupines, cut them up, and threw them [on the ground]. Wherever there was a corpse, it would rise up [to the surface].
That night, a Cuthean arose… took a corpse and buried it [in the market of Tiberias].
In the morning he said: Did you not say that Ben Yochai purified Tiberias? Come and see a corpse!
[Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai] came, and stood over [the corpse], and said:
I decree that he who buried him there should die, and he who has died, shall live. And this is what happened.
He went to rest in his house and he passed a tower of dyers.
He heard the voice of an attendant saying: Did you not say that ben Yochai purified Tiberias? They say that they found a corpse.
[Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai] said:
Let it come upon me, if I do not possess rulings numerous as the hairs on my head that Tiberias is pure.
Apart from this, you were not with us in the count.
You breached the fence of the Sages! "Whoever breaches a fence, a serpent shall bite him" (Kohelet 10:8).
[The accuser] immediately went out, and this is what happened to him (a serpent bit him).
[Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai] passed through the Beit Netufa valley, and he saw a certain man gathering the aftergrowth of sabbatical-year produce.
He said to [the farmer]: Is this not the aftergrowth of sabbatical-year produce?
He said: But was it not you who permitted the aftergrowth of sabbatical-year produce?
He said to him: But did not my colleagues disagree with me?
[Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai] immediately raised his two eyebrows and stared at [the farmer], and he turned into a pile of bones.[3]
Another explanation: "And he encamped before the city." He entered at the time of sunset and established Shabbat boundaries while it was still day.
This is what we said that the patriarch Ya’akov observed Shabbat before it was given. (Bereishit Rabba 79, 6, ed. Theodor-Albeck, pp. 940-945)
The Midrash offers three explanations of "And he encamped in the city." The first two explanations relate to the socioeconomic realm, whereas the third explanation relates to the spiritual realm. We wish to examine the first two explanations, while seeking an answer to the question: to what end does Ya’akov interact with the local residents?
The first explanation: "He showed favor to the face of the city; he was the first to send them gifts," detaches the verb vayichan from its plain meaning of chanaya, "encampment," and expounds it in the sense of chanina or chen, "favor."[4] The face of the city are the city's leaders and dignitaries, to whom Ya’akov sends gifts in order to endear himself to them.[5]
The ordinary form for the act of encamping in the Bible is "vayachanu be-," in the sense of settling in a particular place for a certain amount of time, e.g., "And they encamped in (vayachanu be-) Refidim" (Bamidbar 33:14). Another acceptable form, though less common, is "vayachanu al," in the sense of a military siege, e.g., "Then Nachash the Ammonite came up, and encamped against (vayichan al) Yavesh Gilad" (I Shemuel 11:1).
The wording of the verse here is different: "And he encamped before (vayichan et penei) the city." This is what allows for a non-conventional exposition, chanina rather than chanaya. In addition, we know from the beginning of the verse, "And Ya’akov came in peace to the city of Shekhem," that Ya’akov arrived in Shekhem, and so the end of the verse, "And he encamped before the city," adds nothing new regarding the location of his encampment. Therefore, the word vayichan is expounded in a different sense.[6]
The second explanation "'And he encamped before the city.' He was the first to set up bazaars and sell inexpensive goods," describes Ya’akov's initiative as a commercial act undertaken for the benefit of the city's residents, in return for the good done to him by them.[7] It is not clear, though, what this good is. The Ramban, in his commentary ad loc., suggests that the residents of Shekhem help Ya’akov out against Eisav, but he does not expand on the matter or offer any proof. What is more, there is no hint to this in the biblical text. Does the Midrash mean to say that Ya’akov is grateful for the very possibility of encamping on the outskirts of the city?
This leads from the second explanation to the story that follows it about Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai after he emerges from the cave. The argument put forward by the son of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai — "The city of Tiberias has done all these good things for us, yet we do not purify the markets of [the impurity of] the dead?" — also comes in response to their bathing in the city's springs. We are therefore inclined to accept this interpretation.[8]
As mentioned, the two explanations in the Midrash present Ya’akov as relating to the local population in the land of Canaan, focusing on the socioeconomic realm. With respect to this point, the way that he is portrayed is radically different from the manner in which Avraham is portrayed by Bereishit Rabba. Avraham hosts guests and brings people under the wings of the Shekhina, but he does not deal with diplomacy or trade. Avraham meets people on the move from one place to another, but not those living at home in the city.[9] In light of all of this, we must ask what stands behind the words of Chazal here.
The Parallel to Eisav
It is hard to ignore the parallel emerging from the words of the Amoraim here in the Midrash (especially according to the first explanation) between Ya’akov's behavior toward Eisav and his behavior toward the residents of the city of Shekhem. Ya’akov initiates communication with Eisav as he returns to Eretz Israel: he tries to find favor in his eyes, and he sends him a gift.[10] Similarly, with the people of Shekhem, Ya’akov initiates communication, sending gifts and doing things to find favor in their eyes.
Is the Midrash critical of Ya’akov? At the beginning of Parashat Vayishlach in Bereishit Rabba, we find four petichtot that end with a repeating refrain regarding the very initiative on the part of Ya’akov to turn to Eisav:
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: He was on his way, and you sent to him, saying: “Thus says your servant Ya’akov." (Bereishit Rabba 75, 1, ed. Theodor-Albeck, pp. 877-881)
We further find:
When Ya’akov called Eisav “my master,” the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: You lowered yourself, and called Eisav “my master” eight times; I will establish eight kings from his descendants before there are any kings from your descendants (Bereishit Rabba 75, 10, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 891).
Is this the way we should read the midrash, as a criticism of Ya’akov who continues to grovel and seek favor? Is this tendency a character trait of Ya’akov, not only before Eisav whom he has good reason to fear?
The first explanation in the Midrash appears merely as a description of Ya’akov's behavior. In contrast, the second explanation is presented as an example of exemplary conduct from which we should learn a lesson: "This is what they said that a person must give credit to the place from which he derives benefit." If so, we can certainly not see the establishment of bazaars and the selling of inexpensive merchandise to the residents of Shekhem as undesirable conduct. Still, it is unclear whether Chazal wish to criticize Ya’akov when they describe him as sending presents to the people of the city. On the one hand, the very parallel to Eisav adds a jarring note; on the other hand, there is no further reference to the matter in the wording of the midrash.
Let us examine the derasha of the Amoraim of Eretz Israel on the words “Lo techanem” (Devarim 7:2), which also relates to chanaya and chanina, just like the first explanation appearing in our midrash.
Rabbi Ze'ira said in the name of Rabbi Yosei ben Chanina, Rabbi Abba Rabbi Chiya said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:
“Lo techanem” — You shall not show them favor (chen).
“Lo techanem” — You shall not give them a free (chinam) gift.
“Lo techanem” — You shall not give them a chance of acquiring an encampment (chanaya) in the land. (JT Avoda Zara 1:9)
This derasha may support the argument that indeed Chazal mean to express dissatisfaction with Ya’akov's sending gifts to the dignitaries of the city of Shekhem. However, this does not suffice as proof to decide the matter.
Tikkun Olam
I wish to offer another perspective on the words of Chazal. Ya’akov paves a new, unique way, striving to make contact with the inhabitants of the land, out of a desire to engage in tikkun olam, repairing and improving the world by instituting good practices. Ya’akov, who builds his family in exile in the shadow of Lavan, works in Eretz Israel toward building proper and healthy neighborly relations with the local residents. He is grateful to them for allowing him to settle in their territory, and he provides them with commercial benefits. From that place — from life itself — relationships may develop that will lead to blessing. The inhabitants of the land will become exposed to the ways and manners of Ya’akov's family, and they may even be influenced by the family’s religious faith. However, a crisis erupts in the story of Dina. Natural and proper neighborly relations lead to disaster; in its wake, the possibility of tikkun olam is buried. Ya’akov goes from Beit El to his father’s home in Chevron.
The relationship between trade and the possibility of intermarriage is mentioned explicitly by the people of Shekhem: "These men are peaceable with us; therefore let them dwell in the land, and trade therein; for, behold, the land is large enough for them, let us take their daughters for wives, and let us give them our daughters" (Bereishit 34:21). Trade establishes connections between people and cultures, and from here it is a short path to intermarriage.
This danger is echoed in the Torah's warning in the wake of the sin of the Golden Calf: "Lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land… and you take of their daughters for your sons"(Shemot 34:15-16).
In the Sifrei as well, the Tannaim place the sin of the people at Ba'al Pe'or in the context of trade:
They came and dwelled in Shittim, in a place of folly (shetut).
At that time, the Ammonites and Moabites arose and built markets for themselves from Beit Ha-yshimot until Har Ha-sheleg, where they installed women selling all kinds of sweetmeats, and the Israelites would eat and drink.
Then an Israelite would go out to walk about the market and try to buy something from an old woman, and she would offer it to him at its value.
A young woman would then call out to him from within, saying: Come, buy it for less. He would do so one day and the next.
On the third day, she would say to him: Come inside, and pick for yourself. You are like one of the family.
And he would go in…. (Sifrei Balak 131)
Like Ya’akov's encamping in Shekhem, what happens at Ba'al Pe'or also occurs at a time of transition, from the situation of "a people dwelling alone" in the wilderness to one of contact with a neighboring culture. These twilight zones are fraught with dangers and shadows.[11]
The idea of initiating contact between the nation of Israel dwelling in its land and the surrounding nations, in order to lead them to belief in God, is a messianic idea of tikkun olam in its broad and deep sense. It may echo the transition from the name "Ya’akov" to the name "Yisrael" — but in the days of the first steps of Ya’akov's family in Eretz Israel, the time for this idea has not yet arrived.
I wish to elaborate a bit on the significance of the inclusion of the story of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai's emergence from the cave in the midrash, in connection with the second explanation. According to the versions of the story in Talmud Yerushalmi and in Talmud Bavli, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai derives from "And he encamped before the city" that he must engage in an act of tikkun, as did Ya’akov, and he decides to purify impure places in the city of Tiberias:
He said: We must engage in takkana, as did our early forefathers. "And he encamped before the city” — they set up markets (without taxes) and sold in the market. He said: Let us purify Tiberias. (JT Shevi'it 9:1)
He said: Since a miracle has occurred, let me go and institute (atakken) something, for it is written: “And Ya’akov came whole,” and Rav interpreted: Whole in body, whole financially, and whole in his learning. “And he encamped before the city” — He instituted (tikken) coinage for them.
Shemuel said: He instituted markets for them.
And Rabbi Yochanan said: He instituted baths for them. (BT Shabbat 33b)
These sources indicate that the actions in the midrash express deep ideas. They also indicate that Ya’akov's actions in Shekhem are related to the idea of tikkun.
Ya’akov wishes to repay the people of Shekhem, but his settling in that place results in their deaths, through Shimon and Levi's response to the rape of Dina. The tikkun performed by Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai also involves death. It seems that Chazal are pointing here to the complexity of the tikkun performed by the supremely righteous.
The Sanctity of Place
The third opinion in the midrash sees Ya’akov's work in the city of Shekhem not in relation to its people, but in relation to the land. "Another explanation: 'And he encamped before the city.' He entered at the time of sunset and established Shabbat boundaries while it was still day." As Shabbat is about to commence, Ya’akov occupies himself with setting the boundaries of the day. The Midrash crosses the twilight state of time — between light and sunset and between weekday and Shabbat — with boundaries in the dimension of place. Ya’akov works to bring holiness into the dimension of place, in Eretz Israel.
With him began the revelation of the holiness of Shabbat, as it is stated in Bereishit Rabba (79, 6) regarding the verse "And he encamped before the city," that he established Shabbat boundaries. This is the beginning of holiness on the part of God, who shines upon the seed of Ya’akov whose form is imprinted on the Throne of Glory, from which all the souls of Israel are taken… (Rav Tzadok Ha-kohen of Lublin, Yisrael Kedoshim 10)
Regarding the verse: "And he encamped before the city." We already wrote elsewhere that just as when the righteous man leaves the city, it is written: "And he went out," teaching that its splendor departs, its glory departs; so too when he entered Eretz Israel, its splendor returned, its glory returned. (Sefat Emet, Vayishlach)
According to what we have said, the sages of the Midrash point to the spiritual work performed by Ya’akov upon his return to Eretz Israel, on the plane of tikkun and the holiness of the people of Israel — applying it in the dimension of time and in the dimension of place.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] According to the plain meaning of the verse, the words "And he called it El Elohei Israel" refer to the altar. See Rashi and Ramban, ad loc.
[2] See Bereishit 12:6, and Rashi ad loc. The words "And the Canaanites were then in the land" appear in the verse to emphasize the contrast between the current reality and the Divine promise concerning the land. In Midrashic literature, Chazal develop the image of Avraham as bringing people under the wings of the Shekhina. See our shiur on Parashat Vayera in this series.
[3] The version of the story brought here is based on the parallel in JT Shevi'it, with changes in accordance with the reading found in Bereishit Rabba here. In this framework, we will not engage in an exacting analysis of the story, and our discussion will concentrate on the story's contribution to understanding the second explanation brought in Bereishit Rabba on the words, "And he encamped before the city." For a broader discussion of the story, see: Yaffa Zilcha, Be-ein Aggadat Ha-Yerushalmi (Jerusalem: 5769).
[4] In II Melakhim 13:23, we find the form vayachan: "But the Lord was gracious (vayachan) to them, and had compassion on them, and showed respect to them, because of His covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov, and would not destroy them, neither has He cast them from His presence until now."
[5] For the identification of "penei ha-ir" with the city's dignitaries, see: Yehuda Theodor, Peirush Minchat Yehuda, Bereishit Rabba, ed. Theodor-Albeck, pp. 940, 1107.
[6] Rav Ze’ev Wolf, in his commentary (Maharazav) ad loc., points to the contradiction between the beginning of the verse, "And Ya’akov came in peace to the city of Shekhem," which implies that he enters the city, and the term, "vayichan," which suggests that he encamps outside the city, as the driving force behind the derasha.
[7] In the wake of the wording of the Midrash, "a person must give credit to the place from which he derives benefit," the Rashash suggests, in his commentary ad loc., that the word vayichan is expounded as vayihan, in the sense of hineni, "here am I," or vatahinu, "we deemed it a light thing" (as in Devarim 1:41). He adduces proof from Bereishit Rabba 65, where the verse, "And he said to him, Here am I" (Bereishit 27:1), is expounded by way of the verse, "When he speaks fair (yechanen)" (Mishlei 26:25).
[8] In the parallel versions of this story, we do not find this statement of the son of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, and in its place Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai offers to make this improvement, though no mention is made of his having enjoyed direct benefit from the city. See BT Shabbat 33b; JT Shevi'it 9:1. In my opinion, the reading here is the original reading of the story, but this is not the forum in which to elaborate.
[9] This can be understood in a metaphorical sense: those who are on the move are those who are experiencing spiritual unrest, or at least spiritual confusion, and they are in search of something, whereas those who are settled are occupied and immersed in their mundane lives. See also below.
[10] The words chen and panim are guidewords in the Ya’akov-Eisav story.
[11] It should be remembered that the city of Shekhem is a site of disaster throughout Scripture.