Vayishlach: Two Camps

December 7, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei, Vayishlach | Leave a comment

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, (And he went), Jacob is feeling successful and confident (a rare mood for him).  He is returning to Canaan as the head of a large extended household, and the owner of a great wealth of livestock—material blessings he wanted so much in his youth that he tried to steal them from his brother Esau.  Furthermore, he has just freed himself from Lavan, his manipulative uncle, father-in-law, and boss.  Now he sees angels, messengers of God, for the first time since he left Canaan 20 years before.

Jacob went on his way, and messengers of God encountered him.  And Jacob said, when he saw them:  This is a camp of God!  So he called the name of that place Pair-of-Camps.  (Genesis/Bereishit 32:2-3)

machaneh = camp, temporary protective enclosure; from the root chaneh = encamp, stay temporarily, lay siege against

machanayim = pair of camps

This is the first time the word machaneh, “camp”  appears in the Torah, and in this first reference the word means a group of people who have set up their tents to spend the night.  Jacob sees that the same place holds two camps:  his earthly camp of people and animals, and God’s heavenly “camp” of angels.

Or does the camp of angels also belong to Jacob?  He is the one who sees God’s messengers, the patriarch who is vulnerable to divine visitations.  A pair of camps in the same place might also mean a pair of camps in the same person:  Jacob as a clan leader focused on material things, and Jacob as the carrier of Abraham’s connection with God.

These two roles are not in conflict yet.  His return to Canaan both liberates his family and followers from Lavan and takes a step toward fulfilling his covenant with God. With both sides of his life going well, Jacob feels bold enough to send messengers to his estranged brother Esau at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (And he sent).

The messengers return with the news that Esau  is coming to meet him, accompanied by  400 men, a common number for a fighting unit.  Jacob’s new confidence and unity of purpose collapses.  He succumbs to fear and anxiety once more.

Jacob was very afraid, and shaped by distress; so he divided the people who were with him, and the flock and the herd and the camels, into two camps.  And he said:  If Esau comes to the first camp and strikes it down, the remaining camp will survive.  (Genesis 32:8-9)

Yet when they cross the Jordan and stop at the Yabbok River, everyone is together.  Once again, it seems there are two camps in the same place—or two camps in the same person.  Jacob alludes to this when he prays to God to save him and his family from Esau:

I am too insignificant for all the kindnesses and all the security that you provided your servant; for with my walking-stick I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.  (Genesis 32:11)

On one level, Jacob is thanking God for fertility and prosperity,  enough to fill up two camps.  On another level, he is anticipating a battle with his twin brother.  Jacob knows Esau’s rage 20 years before was justified.  He knows he is guilty of cheating Esau out of both his birthright and his father’s blessing.  In one inner camp, Jacob is grateful for his earthly success.  In the other camp, he knows he does not deserve it.  His guilty conscience is preparing to lay siege to his ego.

Jacob sends off servants with lavish gifts of livestock to propitiate Esau.  Everyone else settles down for the night in “the camp” on the Yabbok river.  Unable to sleep, Jacob gets up in the middle of the night and moves the whole physical camp across the river.  Then he crosses back, alone.

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn came up.  (Genesis 32:25)

The “man” represents many different things, from a face (or messenger) of God to Jacob himself. I think Jacob’s material ego wrestles with with his spiritual soul.  The side that only wants family, peace, and prosperity for himself wrestles with the side that knows God is running the show and using him to transmit the religion of Abraham.

Neither camp wins the struggle.  The material Jacob emerges limping.  The spiritual Jacob takes the name Yisrael, which means “God rules”.  In the morning, the material Jacob organizes his retainers and his family so that the ones he loves the most are in the back, farthest from the threat of Esau.  Jacob bows to his brother seven times, as if he were a king, and calls him “my lord”.  But Esau greets Jacob with kisses and tears, and calls him “brother”.

The word for “camp” comes up again when Esau asks about the gifts of livestock that Jacob sent him:  And what do you mean by all this camp that I met?  (Genesis 33:8)

To call servants leading groups of animals a “camp” is a stretch.  But Esau’s underlying question is:  What do you mean by all this defensive maneuvering, as if you were an opposing force laying siege against me and my men?

He said:  To find favor in my lord’s eyes.  And Esau said:  I have plenty of substance, my brother.  Let what is yours be yours.  (Genesis 33:8-9)

Jacob persuades Esau to keep the gifts, because he, too, has lots of substance.  The two substantial brothers go their separate ways, both leaders of clans (as in the right of the firstborn) and both possessing wealth (as in the blessing their father intended for Esau).

And Jacob came shaleim to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, as he traveled in from Paddan Aram; and he encamped facing the city.  (Genesis 33:18)

shaleim = whole, complete, undivided, safe and sound, in peace

It sounds as if Jacob is finally whole, finally just one camp, after going through his night of wrestling, his renaming, and  his reunion with Esau.  Alas, the rest of this week’s Torah portion portrays a Jacob who is divided, insecure, indecisive, and in need of reminders that he vowed to return to Bethel to worship God.  Jacob is still two camps.

To be human is to be divided by opposing psychological forces.  Sometimes I have a good day, and I feel whole.  I may foolishly think I have resolved my own inner conflict between the need to retreat into a simple life of comfort, and the need to rise to the challenge of a religious calling.    But then the wrestler reappears, and I know that I am still two camps.


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