Onkeles’ Figurative Translation

Before Jacob passed away, he blessed his son Joseph. Among other blessings he stated:

“I have given you one portion more than your brothers, the city of Shechem, which I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.”

The primary Aramaic translator of the Torah, Onkeles, translates two of the Hebrew words used here in a rather novel way. Instead of a literal translation he turned the words charbi – “my sword” - into tzlosi – “my prayer” - and kashti – “my bow” - into ba’usi – “my petitions.” The same translation can also be found in the Talmud (Bava Basra 123b).

Unlike the Talmud which frequently focuses on the subtle nuances of the text, Onkeles generally remains faithful to its simple meaning. Yet, here he deemed it necessary to deviate from that approach and interpret the two words for weapons allegorically as a reference to two forms of prayer.

What most likely prompted Onkoles to translate Jacob’s blessing in this way is the fact that we cannot find any reference in the Torah to Jacob fighting in a physical battle over the city of Shechem.  His sons Shimon and Levi destroyed the city unaided when they learned Dinah had been violated by the son of the city’s mayor with the complicity of the entire community. Nowhere does the Torah mention Jacob’s role in that battle. On the contrary, Jacob was rather troubled by his sons’ rash and violent behavior and criticized them for it.

Many years before, when Jacob, disguised as Esau, appeared before his father to receive the blessings, Isaac said: “The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau.”  Our Sages understood this to mean that Jacob personified the ideal of spoken prayer, while Esau embodied physical violence. How then can we understand Jacob’s claim that he had conquered Shechem with his sword and bow?

Onkeles must have concluded that Jacob was using these terms figuratively, while actually referring to prayer.

There is still a need to understand how the sword and bow relate to prayer and why Jacob referred to his prayers using two figures of speech: “my prayer” and “my petition.” Isn’t every prayer a petition to G‑d and every petition to G‑d a prayer? 

Maharsha, one of the leading commentators of the Talmud, explains that the term “sword” is used in the Torah in reference to Esau, whereas the “bow” is mentioned as Yishmael’s instrument of choice. Jacob’s two forms of prayer correspond to the two violent modes of Esau and Yishmael.

How are we to understand these two “weapons” and their connection to Esau and Yishmael?

Doing Battle

 Prayer according to the Zohar, is a time of battle. We spend our entire lives surrounded by influences unreceptive to G‑d and spirituality. While Torah study and Mitzvah observance fortify us against these threats to our spiritual life, it is prayer specifically that brings us to the battlefield where we tackle those negative influences head on.

 When Jacob dreamt of the ladder, our Sages in the Zohar interpret it as the ladder of prayer.  The Midrash states that it had four rungs, which correspond with the four tyrannical empires that subjugated the Jewish people. These two explanations complement one another. Prayer is the means by which we combat the negative forces represented by these nations.

 The Bully and the Seducer

One of the obstacles we encounter in our lives is our internal Esau, which is characterized by anger, hostility, obsession with power and destructive tendencies. Esau personified the Divine trait of gevurah, which translates as “power” or “toughness.” And while his father Isaac used this trait in a positive way by being harsh on evil and demanding of himself, Esau allowed this inherited trait of gevurah to degenerate into an evil and destructive power. 

Yishmael was a son of Abraham, the paragon of kindness and love. When the Divine trait of love gets out of hand — as it did for Yishmael — it can lead to excessive indulgence in the material and sensual aspects of life. Satisfying every desire and whim might be less destructive in the short run than the destructive evil of Esau, but in the long run it can cause a society to crumble and even disappear. The evil associated with our internal Yishmael is more subtle and insidious.

To combat the internal Esau effectively, one must use a sword. A sword is a close-range weapon that deals with an adversary standing in close proximity. It cannot be employed to reach a distant and subtle enemy. For that distant adversary one needs a bow and an arrow which can fly long distances and strike a more elusive target.

Hence, the “sword” to which Jacob referred is better understood as the aspect of prayer that he used to combat the more blatant and conspicuous form of evil — the Esau form — whereas his “bow and arrow” referred to the petition component of prayer he wielded to combat the more elusive and subtle form of evil — the Yishmael form.

The Final Challenge

The Midrashic work Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer states that Moshiach will follow the Kingdom of Yishmael.  This statement implies that the Kingdom of Yismael will be the final ”empire” and challenge for the Jewish people.

For thousands of years the Jewish people have been subjected to the worst forms of tyranny and oppression – the inner Esau – culminating the spread of Communism and then the Holocaust in the last century. The primary challenge we have today comes from our over indulgence in the material world – representing the inner Yishmael. The temptations, enticements and powerful allure of the secular world have wreaked havoc on the moral and spiritual fiber of the Jewish nation, just as they have done to society in general. No matter how insular we might think our family might be, we are not impervious to the outside world’s insidious influences. This is indeed the formidable last challenge we must face before the ultimate Redemption.

For that struggle, we need not only the “sword” aspect of prayer but also the “bow and arrow” of petition that can reach the most insidious influences.

The Ultimate Request

The word used for prayer that is related to the “bow” is b’usi, which means petitions, or requests. Of all the requests that a Jew makes in his daily prayers — specifically, in the Amidah, or the Shemoneh Esrei as it is also known — the most significant one is the request for Moshiach and Redemption. This is true not only because Redemption is the most important request, but also because all our other requests are contained within it. When Moshiach takes us out of exile and ushers in the Redemption illness, famine, poverty and all the other ills of society, particularly war and bloodshed, will cease.

So when Jacob said he took Shechem with his “bow” – “petition” – he was intimating, prophetically, that our prayers should revolve around the request for Moshiach and Redemption. At the time of their coming, we will triumph over all our internal adversaries, including Yishmael, the most insidious and arguably the most difficult to vanquish.

To be sure, we still need to use the spiritual equivalent of the “sword” to strike against all of the overt forms of external and internal violence. In our current time, we are still witnessing the “marriage” of Esau with Yishmael — i.e., the inclusion of violence and bloodshed within Yishmael’s distorted aspect of “love.”  This unholy merger was foreshadowed by the Biblical story of how Esau married into the family of Yishmael, thus impregnating Esau’s violence with Yishmael’s lust and vice versa. Recent tragic events here in the United States starkly remind us that we continue to have a serious problem with violence as symbolized by Esau.  We still need to wield the “sword” aspect of prayer to combat this more flagrant form of evil.

The most potent threat to the survival of our country - and its wellbeing - is still the decay of moral values symbolized by Yishmael. The “bow and arrow” component of prayer is indispensable in confronting that threat and should receive even greater emphasis. The intensity of our heartfelt pleas to G‑d, contained in the words “ad masai” (“how much longer?”) — which have reverberated through the ages — must be increased. It is not that G‑d doesn’t hear the faint and muffled sounds of our cries. The problem is that we do not hear our own voices and thus may appear to be saying these words perfunctorily. We must therefore shake the rafters with our cry and shout out to G‑d: “We can’t tolerate golus - exile - in any form or shape; whether it be Esau’s or Yishmael’s. Bring us Moshiach now!