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Parshat VaYetze – One Came Out, the Other Went Out, Two Woke Up!

Posted by rabbiart on November 24, 2014

We always must pay attention to the specific words, especially the verbs, when studying the text.  In the first aliyah of our Parshah we have two words which make us think of other stories in the Torah.  One – VaYetzei – looks backward. The other – VaYikatz – looks forward.

Often we are faced with the challenge of reading the text with a fresh set of eyes; difficult to do when our practice is to read this same text each year, and more or less at the same time. Sometimes it is an advantage to know the story as well as we do; remembering what has come before, anticipating what is yet to come.

Our Parshah begins with the word VaYetze –  וַיֵּצֵא. Jacob went out from Beer’sheva.  We know, of course, that he is in full flight from the revenge that he fears his brother Esau will take upon him. He hasn’t said it out loud, but Esau has planned to slay his brother.  Their mother Rivkah, although or perhaps because she favors Jacob, can feel Esau’s anger. She directs him to flee to Haran and stay there some time, until Esau’s anger is calmed.

All this is necessary because Jacob, the younger son, has taken his elder brother’s birthright, catching him in a moment when he is weakened by hunger.  And then by guile he has – let’s call it what it is – stolen the blessing intended for him.

With its opening word – VaYetze – the text reminds us of why this is so.  When the twins are born (Breshit 25:25) there is an earlier VaYetze. Speaking of Esau, the text says “the first came out ruddy and red, covered with hair”. Had Esau not come out first, the birth order would not have needed to be reversed. Esau would not have been Jacob’s antagonist, and never thought to kill him.

We read on a bit in our story, until Jacob is dreaming and suddenly – VaYikatz – Jacob wakes up.  He immediately concludes “Without doubt YHVH is in this place, but I, I did not know this”. He is immediately afraid and full of awe, so he names it Beth-El, the House of G-d. But when we the reader come to VaYikatz Ya’akov we are immediately reminded of another antagonist – Pharoah.  Pharoah similarly wakes up suddenly from his dreams  – VaYikatz Pharoah –  not once but twice, and demands to know their interpretation.

Jacob went out, and he woke up. He took a blessing from his brother, and now Esau is coming behind him. The consequences of his own wrongful behavior (notwithstanding Rabbinic tradition which goes out of its way to justify it) pursue him. He is already estranged, and remains so, from his brother his twin. This when the almost universal report from twins is that they feel each other’s experiences and long for mutual closeness. We wonder, did Jacob ever have that feeling.

Pharoah lies waiting in Jacob’s future.  His children will encounter Pharoah first, but eventually the two men will meet. Jacob gave Pharoah a blessing, and then – Vayetze miLifnei Pharoah – He went out from the presence of Pharoah.

A D’var Torah should end with a conclusion, or a call to action, or an observation about the state of affairs in the world. Jacob mistreated his brother (again, sorry Rabbinic tradition), eventually his children became slaves, strangers in a land that was strange to them. Younger and older struggled, even in the womb. Who was the rightful owner of the inheritance? Who should live in the land? Who should own the land? Who is the rightful inheritor of HaShem’s promises to Jacob, his father, and his grandfather? Sadly, this argument continues to the present day. Do we yearn for closeness with our brother? Perhaps in our lifetime the argument will turn to a conversation, and all of Avraham Avinu’s children will learn to share, and live in peace together. I’ve paraphrased a Robert Heinlein book title, why not paraphrase a bit of Theordore Herzl.  IF we will it, we will wake up, find out it is no dream, and go out from the painful place where we are and truly enter into the House of G-d.

This drash came to me in a flash at morning minyan. As the long-time Gabbai of our shul David Gallant (alav hashalom)  used to say when he was finished giving a drash at minyan. “That’s enough for now”.

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וַיִּשְׁלַח What Message Shall We Send

Posted by rabbiart on December 1, 2009

As the last parshah concludes, Yakov is going on his way –  הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ   – or “proceeding on the path”.

Yakov sends messengers.  What kind of messengers?  What message does he send? Who is he sending it to?  Why did Yakov send messengers at all?  There is  yet nothing in the text to suggest the Esav was still interested in Yakov, or in fulfilling the vow to a kill  made twenty years earlier.  According to Midrash Rabbah of Breshit (Section 65:3) the Kadosh Baruch Hu pointed out to Yakov that Esav was going his own way, “but you sent messengers to him”.  The comment immediately follows this parable.

R. Huna quoted this verse “He that passes by, and meddles with strife not his own, is like one that takes a dog by the ears.” Nahman b. Samuel said: “This may be compared to the case of a robber who was sleeping on a path.  A man passed by and woke up the robber, saying “Get up, for there is danger here.” At that the robber arose and began beating him.  The man cried out “Hashem rebuke this wicked man!”.  The robber retorted “I was asleep and you woke me up.”

There are several nice little points packed into this parable.

  1. Rabbinic tradition is not fond of Esav, so here R. Huna manages to compare Esav to a dog. The modern reader might focus on the double-dealing nature of Yakov, and feel that Esav is a more laudable character. Rabbinic tradition has no such qualms.
  2. Nahman b. Samuel is perhaps constructing an analogy where Esav is the robber, and Yakov is the good samaritan who receives a beating for his trouble.
  3. Yakov would have been better off to let sleeping dogs lie. Just as there is nothing to fear from a sleeping dog, Yakov had nothing to fear from his brother.

Yakov good, Esav bad, end of story.

Who does Yakov send? Are they men or angels?  Are they peaceful emissaries or a scouting party getting ready for combat?

Some translations render the word מַלְאָכִים (malachim) as “angels” rather than “messengers”. Again, the modern reader may wonder why the word is not translated as “messengers” when clearly that is the sense of the verse – or so it would seem. Rabbinic tradition is not uncomfortable with mixing the natural and (we might call it) the supernatural.  If the text says “angels” appeared, then it must be literally so. Even in cases where the text says “man”, some midrashim interpret the text to mean “angel.”In this case we have a textual basis for identifying Yakov’s delegates as angels.  In the last three verses of the prior parshah Lavan departs to return home, and Yakov proceeds on his way.  מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים (malachei elohim) – Elohim’s angels – meet him. He declares that the place is Elohim’s encampment.  So in the next verse when Yakov sends malachim it is natural to think that he is sending angels rather than human messengers.

In a story that mixes pshat and drash, Yakov is a bundle of conflicting emotions,.  In the text, Esav is “his brother.” Yakov wants to believe that he can reconcile; that he and Esav can still be brothers.

According to one midrash on the word malachim, Elohim’s encampment is populated by four thousand angels disguised as armored troops. So when Yakov sends messengers he is telling Esav that he is not the weak mama’s boy of twenty years earlier, but rather has grown into a powerful man with a powerful force at his disposal.  Part of him wants to deal with Esav from a position of strength.  They may still have a sibling relationship, but Yakov wants to be clear that he is the stronger brother.

The messengers return with the news that Esav is coming with four hundred men. A different midrash interprets “four hundred men with him” as each man is like him.  Just as Esav commands four hundred men, each of the four hundred men commands four hundred men.  So in this midrash, Esav has a force of 160,000 men!  fear takes over. Yakov is afraid, very very afraid.  And distressed.

If you were Yakov, what would you do?

Yakov wants to be loving and strong, yet he is afraid.   Yakov prepares for battle even while he hopes for reconciliation and peace.  Just as Yakov fights his fight and establishes his identity, each of us has to decide who we shall be in the world, and what our name shall be; warrior or peacemaker.  We can prepare to be the one, and hope to be the other, but ultimately,  it is not possible to be both.  Conducting war does not increase peace in the world; it is a delusion to think otherwise.

Ultimately, Yakov and Esav establish a cold peace. They meet, embrace, and one brother kisses the other. But soon they part, and the story continues without Esav.

In our time, can we do better?

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Parshat Vayishlach

Posted by rabbiart on April 21, 2008

This Shabbat the Torah portion is about our fears, and how we sometimes project our feelings onto others – and how this can lead us down an unhelpful path.
As the parshah opens, Yakov is returning from his sojourn with his brother-in-law Lavan. He has built a family of two wives, two concubines, eleven sons and a daughter, and a collection of servants. He has become quite wealthy. He sends messengers ahead of him to his brother Esav, telling of his great possessions. The messengers report back, saying that Esav is coming to meet Yakov, and bringing with him four hundred men. Yakov is immediately afraid and distressed, so he splits his entourage into two camps, thinking that if Esav attacks and destroys one, the other will escape. Then he prays to HaShem for deliverance, but he feels compelled to remind HaShem of HaShem’s promises to him. As a further measure, he sends a large collection of gifts to his brother.
When the brothers finally meet, Esav runs to Yakov, embraces him, falls on his neck and kisses him. The brothers both weep. Esav asks about the presents that Yakov has sent ahead to him. Then he tells his brother “I have enough, my brother, keep what is yours.” At Yakov’s insistence, Esav agrees to accept the gifts, and suggests that they continue their journey together. When Yakov demurs, explaining that his children are still young, and his flock slow to move, Esav offers to leave some of his men with Yakov. Again Yakov reacts with fear and suspicion.

Who is the better model in this story?
Who has the guilty conscience?
Who is more ready to forgive and move on?

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Parshat Toldot

Posted by rabbiart on April 21, 2008

Brothers fight – does anyone win?

Our parshah is reminiscent of Dickens, but instead of two cities, it begins a tale of two brothers. For one, it will be the best of times; for the other, it will be the worst. Their struggle begins even before birth, as the theme of barren mothers continues from Sarah to Rivkah.

In the section of the triennial cycle (25:19 – 26:22, the full-cycle first three aliyot) that we read this Shabbat, Yitzhak and Rivkah are married, but struggle to have children. Yitzhak entreats HaShem on behalf of Rivkah, and she becomes pregnant. As she feels the twins struggling in her belly, Rivkah goes to ask HaShem about her (we infer from the text) difficult pregnancy. HaShem speaks to Rebecca, telling her that two nations are struggling in her womb. They shall separate, and the younger will become stronger, and be served by the elder. The twins are born; Esav first. His brother follows, holding on to his heel.*
The brothers themselves are very different, Esav being a hunter, while Yakov is a tent-dweller (and perhaps a bit of a mama’s boy?). Two famous incidents demonstrate the brothers’ character and their relationship. We read of the first incident in this week’s parshah. Yakov demands his brother’s birth-right in exchange for some porridge. (In the second, Yakov will appropriate his father’s death-bed blessing. They will be reconciled – perhaps – only upon Yakov’s return from Padan-Aram some 20 years later.) Then there is another famine, and Yitzhak and Rivkah flee to Avimelech of Gerar, following in their parents’ footsteps, and behaving as did their parents. HaShem repeats the promise made to Avraham, adding that the promise is renewed because of Avraham’s devotion. They leave Gerar with great wealth, and travel from place to place digging again the wells that Avraham had dug. Other than the Akedah, which is primarily about Avraham, this is the only incident recorded in the Torah that tells of Yitzhak’s life. It is a duplicate of his father’s experience.
It is entirely natural for Jews to question Yakov’s behavior in demanding his brother’s birthright in exchange for food and later appropriating the blessing that typically would have gone to the first-born. (Why not? We question everything!) Our traditional commentators have struggled with it as well. In general they struggle to come to terms with the relationship between the two brothers. Rashi mentions that this incident took place on the day Avraham died, so that he would not have to see one of his grandsons devalue his birthright. A widely quoted Midrash teaches that whenever Rivkah would go past the Yeshivah of Shem & Ever, Yakov ran and struggled to come out; whenever she passed in front of gates of idolatry, Esav struggled to come out. Using standard rabbinic interpretive devices, various interpretations claim that Esav came in from the fields after either violating a betrothed maiden, or having committed murder. In general we might observe that the midrashic sources hasten to conclude that Esau’s character was mal-formed from before his birth. Therefore – the sources conclude – Yakov’s treatment of him is justified.

HaShem repeats his promise to Yitzhak

When the focus of the story returns to Yitzhak, HaShem repeats the promise that HaShem gave Avraham, except that now it is conditional. If Yitzhak continues to live in the land, HaShem will be with him, and bless his descendants, and make them numerous, and live up to the promise that HaShem gave Avraham. Why? Because Avraham listened to HaShem’s voice, and kept HaShem’s charge, commandments, laws and Torah. וַיִּשְׁמֹר, מִשְׁמַרְתִּי, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי.

As we read the parshah this Shabbat we might consider the nature of our relationships with each other – and our responsibilities as inheritors of Avraham’s promise. It is easy to get along with those who think as we do, and more challenging to live in shalom with those who are different and who see the world differently. The Torah states that Yitzhak loved Esav, because Esav provided game for Yitzhak to eat, but Rivkah simply loved Yakov. No reason was necessary. As we go through life, shall we love conditionally, like Yitzhak’s love for Esav, or shall we love one another without conditions, like Rivkah?

* The name Yakov – in Hebrew יַעֲקֹב – comes from the Hebrew root עקב. This word can mean “heel”, but also “crooked or deceitful” as well as the word (in the plural) for consequences.

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