D’var Torah: Vayishlach: Small vessels of light and hope


Rabbi Tracy Nathan teaches Judaics at the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.

This is the season of long nights, so it is fitting that we are reading the story of our ancestor, Jacob, the patriarch most closely connected with the night. When Jacob first leaves home, he is running from the rage of his brother, Esau, and stops to rest when night falls. He dreams of a stairway with divine messengers going up and down, and he experiences God telling him: “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.”(Genesis 28:15). This filled him with such awe that in the morning he made a pillar out of the stones he slept upon and poured oil over it as a ritual of sanctification. 

In this week’s portion, Vayishlach, Jacob is returning home after many years, and he is filled with terror when he learns that Esau is approaching with 400 men. At night, he ferries his family across the Yaavok River, and the Torah tells us: “Jacob was left alone.” (Genesis 32:25)

Our biblical commentators wondered how it came to be that Jacob was alone without his family at this moment, and Rashi brings a midrash from the Talmud to explain: “He had forgotten some small flasks, and he returned for them” (Chullin 91a). For me, this is Jacob facing the literal and metaphorical night once again, returning for the ritual items that remind him of that first night when he left home alone and with great fear and found that God was with him. Our sages, however, see something even more miraculous, as they look backwards and forwards at the significance of these “small vessels.” 

The Siftei Kohen on Genesis 32:25 explained that the flask of oil through which Jacob purified the pillar miraculously refilled itself, and Jacob realized the blessing of this vessel that should not be left behind. This oil later anointed the tabernacle, its vessels, the altar, Aharon and the priests, as well as the kings. He adds that this same replenishing oil served as a miracle for two women who were lifted out of their poverty with the help of the prophets Elijah and Elisha (I Melachim 17:14; II Melachim 4:1-5). 

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The Maharshal connected this same container with the miracle of Hanukkah, teaching that since Jacob concerned himself over these small flasks, God made a miracle for his children — the Hasmoneans — through the one flask of pure oil that would miraculously replenish itself for eight days as the Hasmoneans purified the temple and the altar (Yeriot Shlomo on Genesis 32:25). 

Perhaps Jacob gathered his strength and his faith to make it through a night in which he wrestled all night long with a mysterious opponent with the help of his small precious vessels of oil. For me, this is part of the power of ritual. Soon, we will light our Hanukkah menorahs and remember the miracle of our ancestors as they sought to repair what had been physically and spiritually broken in those days in this season. When we do, I hope to recall that we need not enter the night and its darkness with fear, for we have the stories and rituals of our ancestors to turn to for warmth and light and to remind us that hope and possibility are renewable resources in our Jewish souls.