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Two Ways of Subduing Evil

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Bereishit, 32:23: And he got up that night and took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok."

Rashi, Bereishit, 32:23, sv. And his eleven sons: And where was Deena? He put her into a chest and closed it over her, so that Esau should not set his eyes upon her. For this Yaakov was punished; because he withheld her from his brother although she might have returned him to virtuous conduct. And she fell into the hand of Shechem [as a punishment to Jacob].

When Jacob returned to face Esau he brought along all his sons with him, however he hid Deena in a box because he feared that Esau would want to marry her. The Sages strongly criticize Yaakov for not letting Deena marry Esau, because had she done so, she may have caused him to repent.(1) The Nachalat Yaakov points out a seeming contradiction with a comment of the Sages on an earlier episode in the Torah. The Midrash tells us that Leah knew that she was destined to marry Esau. She did not want to marry him and through her tears and prayers she was spared from this fate.(2) Yet we do not see anywhere that Leah was at fault for her unwillingness to marry Esau. Why was this the case; in the same way that Deena could have been a good influence on Esau, wasn't it possible that the righteous Leah could also help him repent?!

The Nachalat Yaakov answers that Deena was more mesugal (adept) to influence Esau positively than Leah. He suggests a proof for this from the fact that Deena did indeed seem to have a positive influence on the far-from-righteous Shechem, as he was willing to convert after he abducted her. According to this answer, Jacob must have recognized Deena's natural ability in rectifying evil and therefore was held responsible for not giving her the opportunity to positively influence Esau. It is possible to further support this answer by more closely analyzing the background of the birth of Deena.

The Gemara in Brachot tells us that when Leah was pregnant with her seventh child she came to a startling realization: She knew that twelve tribes were destined to be born from Yaakov. She already had six boys, and the two maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah, had two each. Rachel, at this point had no children and Leah realized that if she were to have a seventh boy, then Rachel would have less boys than the maidservants. In order to save Rachel from this embarrassment, Leah prayed that she should have a girl, and indeed the fetus was miraculously transformed from being a boy to a girl. Thus, Leah gave birth to Deena and Rachel soon after gave birth to her first son, Joseph.(3) The Targum Yonatan goes even further in connecting the births of Deena and Joseph. He says that Leah was in fact pregnant with Joseph, and Rachel was pregnant with Deena, but due to Leah's prayers that she have a girl, the two fetuses were actually swapped - Deena entering into Leah, and Joseph into Rachel.(4)

It seems that there is a profound and significant ramification of the connection between Joseph and Deena that may have been brought about in their sharing the same wombs. The Sages reveal to us one of Joseph's unique qualities right at the time of his birth. Jacob had been staying with his devious uncle Lavan for many years up to that point, and had refrained from returning to the land of Israel because of his fear of his antagonistic brother, Esau. However, as soon as Joseph was born, the Torah tells us that Yaakov demanded of Lavan that he let him and his family return to Israel.(5) The Midrash and Gemara explain based on a verse in the Book of Obadiah; "The House of Jacob shall be a fire and the House of Joseph a flame and the House of Esau for straw." (6) A fire cannot destroy straw unless it has a flame with which to spread the fire. Accordingly, Joseph is compared to a flame in that Jacob alone is not able to overcome Esau unless he has the 'flame' of Joseph to spread his own power to the extent that Esau can be overcome. The Gemara then proves that on all the occasions that the Jewish people overcame Esau's descendants, Amalek, in battle, it was only with the aid of Joseph's descendants.(7) We also see this in the fact that Joshua, a descendant of Joseph through Ephraim, overcame Amalek in war. The Midrash stresses that it is the descendants of Rachel in particular who have this ability.(8) And ultimately we know that there will be a Mashiach ben Yosef (a Messiah that descends from the Tribe of Joseph). His role will be to destroy our enemies and pave the way for Mashiach ben David to complete the positive actions of ending the Exile and rebuilding the Temple.

Thus we have seen that Joseph, through his mother, Rachel, had an inborn ability to conquer the evil descendants of Esau. Where do we see the quality of fighting evil in Rachel? It has been suggested that this is demonstrated in Rachel's actions with regard to her idol worshipping father, Lavan. When Jacob and his family escaped, Rachel stole Lavan's idols in an attempt to prevent her father from idol worship.(9) This demonstrates a propensity to removing evil. This form of Avoda (service) is normally described as 'sur merah', based on the verse in Psalms that says, 'sur merah v'aseh tov' which means that one should leave evil and do good.(10) This is explained to refer to two approaches in spiritual growth: one is to avoid and overcome one's negative traits and the other is to focus on improving our good traits. Leah was more inclined to the 'aseh tov - do good' aspect, and therefore was less empowered to overcome evil than Rachel. In turn, Rachel's descendants, more than those of Leah, were able to defeat Amalek, the ultimate symbol of evil.

We can now understand why Deena was more likely than Leah to be able to positively influence Esau. Deena, despite being born from Leah, was also influenced by her initial mother, Rachel. In the same way that Rachel had a propensity to overcome evil, so did Deena. However, the way that she could do this was not the same as Joseph: Joseph's ability was to eliminate evil by destroying it, whereas Deena's was to remove evil by reforming it as she did with Shechem. In this vein it has been suggested that when Deena went out to visit the local girls of the land her intent was to bring them closer to God. We can now more deeply appreciate why Yaakov is criticized for not allowing Deena to marry Esau, but Leah is not taken to task for not wanting to marry Esau herself.

One lesson we learn from here is that historically there were two approaches in how to overcome negativity that surrounds us; destroying it or reforming it. In this day and age, the more conciliatory approach tends to be far more appropriate in most situations. Accordingly, whilst it is clear that the Torah outlook is that there is absolute morality and certain modes of conduct are incorrect, nonetheless, an aggressive approach to such behavior is generally unsuccessful and often demonstrates a lack of ability to understand other people. As the great Chazon Ish wrote, nowadays the way to reduce negativity in the world is to lovingly demonstrate the truth in such a way that people will come to recognize its value.


1. Bereishit Rabbah, 76:9, quoted by Rashi, Bereishit, 32:23.

2. Bereishit Rabbah, 70:15, quoted by Rashi, Bereishit, 29:17.

3. Brachot, 60a.

4. Targum Yonatan, Bereishit, 30:21. The Maharsha in Chiddushei Aggadot, Niddah, 31a says the same explanation, in the name of the Paaneyach Razi

5. Bereishit, 30:25.

6. Ovadiah, 1:18.

7. Bava Batra, 123b.

8. Bereishit Rabbah, 73:7.This would help explain the fact that King Shaul, a descendant of Benjamin, not Joseph, was also able to overcome Amalek in war - he was a descendant of Rachel through Benjamin.

9. Bereishit, 31:34.

10. Tehillim, 34:15.


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