Vayishlach 5760

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Torah Portion: Vayishlach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

At the end of the previous parasha, Yaakov, Leah, and Rahel, and their household are leaving Lavan, (Rahel and Leah’s father) and heading back to the land of Israel. At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Yaakov must finally confront the brother he deceived and left behind so many years ago. Yaakov sends messengers ahead to Esav, and finds out that his brother has a large assembly of men coming towards him. The night before he meets his brother, he wrestles with the angel who changes his name to Yisrael. The meeting with Esav goes peacefully, but trouble is just around the corner: when Yaakov and his family arrive at the town of Shechem, his daughter Dinah is sexually assaulted by the prince of the town, and Yaakov’s sons go on a violent rampage in retribution. Benjamin is born, but Rahel dies in childbirth. Yitzhak dies, and his two sons come together to bury him. The parasha ends with a review of all Yitzhak’s descendants.

“Esav said: “I have lots [of possessions, wealth], my brother. Let what is yours remain yours.” But Yaakov replied: ” No, please! If I have found favor in your eyes, accept my gift, for in seeing your face, it is like I have seen a Godly face- let this be your will. Please, take this blessing, that I have brought to you, for God has been gracious, and I have everything.” He urged him, and he accepted.
(Genesis 33:9-11)


The contemporary Jewish theologian Arthur Green once remarked that the entire book of Genesis attempts to answer the question: “how can I live with my sibling?” From Cayin and Hevel right through to Yosef and his brothers, the families of Genesis are filled with tension and estrangement. At this point in the book, however, things seem to change- with Yaakov and Esav, we see that reconciliation and forgiveness are possible. Yaakov has spent the night alone, literally wrestling with his choices, and now seems to be making a genuine effort to demonstrate his remorse over his behavior towards his brother so many years ago. They exchange gifts and talk about their families- but even after this apparent reconciliation, they part and go in separate ways, not to see each other again till their father’s death.

The ancient rabbis had a somewhat different view of Yaakov and Esav than a simple reading of the text might suggest; for them, Yaakov was a pure and righteous soul, and Esav was emblematic of violence, revenge, and unworthiness. They identify Esav with the nation of Edom, which became a kind of symbol for Rome, one of the great villains of ancient Jewish history. It’s easy to understand where this line of thinking came from- after all, given that the very name of the Jewish people- Yisrael- comes from Yaakov/Yisrael, the rabbis must have felt some pressure to justify Yaakov’s actions and find ways to suggest Esav deserved what he got. According to this line of interpretation, in the verses above, Yaakov is essentially trying to appease his brother with gifts and bribes, still fearful of Esav’s rough personality.

Personally, I think the traditional rabbis were a little hard on Esav, and let Yaakov off the hook too easily, but as the saying goes, there are 70 faces to the Torah. Picking up on this theme of Yaakov/good vs. Esav/ bad, the Chafetz Chaim, (R. Yisrael Meir HaCohen, late 19th century leader of Eastern European Orthodoxy, most famous for his book of laws on the ethics of speech) points out the difference between the way the two brothers report their family success. Esav says, in verse 9 above, “I have lots”- rav– meaning, I have plenty of possessions and wealth. Yaakov, on the other hand, says: “I have everything”- kol – apparently meaning “I have everything I need.”

According to the Chafetz Chaim, this demonstrates two different approaches to living. The first, represented by Esav, always compares what one has to what others have; after all, “lots of stuff” begs the question: lots compared to what? The second way of being in the world, represented by Yaakov, is much more easily satisfied: “I have everything I need.” As the ancient teacher Ben Zoma teaches in Pirke Avot (4:1): “Who is rich? The one who is happy with their portion.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said essentially the same thing when he quipped: “Richest is he whose pleasures are cheapest.”

The Chafetz Chaim himself was famous for his simple living and reverent practice of gratitude. As I mentioned, one of his greatest contributions to Jewish life was his lifelong effort to practice and preach the highest levels of ethics in speech; he tried never to speak badly of another person or listen when other people were gossiping. There is a story (quoted in Itturei Torah, or Torah Gems in English) that when the Chafetz Chaim was old and hard of hearing, his students tried to get him to have an operation that would improve his hearing. But he wouldn’t do it, saying that God has given him a great gift by taking away his ability to hear all the slander and gossip that people were speaking. Now that’s an example of being happy with one’s lot in life!

Returning to our verses, we might note that Yaakov expressly attributes everything he has to God’s graciousness; in this interpretation, it seems like he appreciates from whence his blessings came, whereas one could imagine a more materialistic person only focussing on what he or she lacks. As the Chafetz Chaim points out, those with a dollar want a hundred dollars, and those with a hundred dollars want a thousand, and so on, and so on- unless one can regard one’s wealth as a blessing, as Yaakov did (in this interpretation), and freely give it away when circumstances call for generosity.

I’ll leave it to you to decide if the rabbis went too far in their portrayal of the contrasting personalities of Yaakov and Esav. Still, the verses do seem to point out a difference worth thinking about: do we always compare our blessings to others, or do we practice gratitude for what we have? That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive to better ourselves or our situation in life, but that we should do so for the right reasons, and with a grateful heart. Being happy with one’s portion doesn’t mean that we should passively accept any injustice- it means that our happiness is more dependent on our relationship with the Holy One than on the value of our possessions or other external circumstances. Take a look around- you might just have “everything,” and not even realize it.

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