Archive for the '1.08 VaYishlach' Category

Split Camp: Coming to Terms with Trump?

As we will see in VaYishlach, this week’s Torah portion, Jacob splits his family and live stock into shnei machanot– two camps- as a defensive measure in preparation for confronting his long estranged brother Esav. Under the cover of darkness Jacob sends the two camps over the river and then returns back over the river. As we all know too well. There is where he faces an angel by himself and wrestles till day break. There we read:

Vayivater Yaakov Livado vaYe’avek Ish imo ad  olot haShachar. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. (Genesis 32:25)

Rashi explains that the verb vaYe’avek is connected to the word avak– dust. As to say that they wrestled and got all dusty.

As well as we know the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, we often forget where it all happened. As we learned in VaYetzei, last week’s Torah portion, this happened in  Machanaim. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob resolved to return home. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob split his family into two Machanot– camps. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob realized the value of small things (See Rashi ad loc). It was there in Machanaim that Jacob wrestled with the angel. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob stopped running or could not run any more ( see hip injury). It was there in Machanaim that Jacob realized who he was. It was there in Machanaim his name was changed from Jacob to Israel.

We are so focused on his name and our name being Israel that we overlook the plain meaning of the text. This story of Jacob’s  travel to Machanaim  is in the context of his reconciliation with his estranged brother Esav. Before the Rabbis get to him, Esav seems like a really good guy who got manipulated out of his role as eldest and chosen child. While we repaint Esav as bad,  Jacob was the one in the wrong.

Is it possible that the name of this place being duel encampment has nothing to do with his strategic splitting of his wives and children, but instead of rift that existed between Jacob and his brother Esav? It was there is Machanaim that Jacob realized the work he needed to do to make peace with his brother. Is so doing  in Machanaim that Jacob became Israel. When we figure out how to include the marginalized elements of our family who we have wronged we too become Israel at Machanaim . The place of inclusion is surely Machaneh Elokim– God’s camp.

For many of us, we feel like Esav in that the election for the next president of this country was stolen. Every day that does by as Trump is putting together his administration we see how our larger camp is going to be split up. The lines of struggle are clear, what is not clear is how he will reconcile the two camps of Americans. While I will never grow in my tolerance of illegal and unethical actions at some point I hope to grow in appreciation for Trump’s presidency. To the victor goes the spoils, but also the responsibility of bringing peace to the camp.


The Quality of Torah

In this week’s Torah portion, VaYishlach, we learn of the reunion of Esav and Yaakov. We read that Jacob told his messengers to report to Esav, “I have sojourned (GaRTY) with Lavan”( Genesis 32:5). According to Rashi, the message was to communicate to Esav that Yaakov did live with the wicked Lavan, but he still kept true to observing the 613 (TaRYaG) commandments and did not learn any of Lavan’s evil ways. GaRTY and TaRYaG being the same letters in Hebrew in a different order. How does Rashi’s understanding of this word play affect the meaning of what Yaakov was trying to tell his brother?

In the plain meaning, Yaakov is trying to assuage his guilt over having stolen the birthright and blessing from his elder brother Esav. In this sense Yaakov is admitting to having done the crime and claiming that he served the time. Yaakov is a reformed man having just gotten out of  the jail of Lavan’s house. Maybe Yaakov is telling Esav that there was no great prize of the birthright or the blessing. Being “chosen” to keep the Torah was and will not be a cakewalk.

On a deeper level, we learn from Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin that Yaakov was saying, “While I remained firm in my observance of the 613 commandments, I failed to learn from Lavan to perform the commandments with the same dedication and zeal as he pursued his evil ways.” Even though Yaakov had dutifully kept the Torah, he still has a lot to learn, even from Lavan. Yaakov is not perfect.

In my own life, I have found that living by the code of the Torah is important. I learn from Yaakov that no code can ever be an excuse to act immorally. Even if he kept that Torah, he still had to apologize to his brother for his wrongdoing. Moreover, regardless of how much Torah I ever learn in life there is still what to learn from the “non-Torah” world. The enduring quality of Torah is shown when it opens us up to a pursuit of truth, the Jewish community, the larger world, and even our inner selves. We all have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. 

Kickin’ Up Dust : Protesting Racism

In Vayishlach, this weeks Torah portion, we read that, “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:25-29). Rashi explains “vaye’avek ” the wrestling in a literary way to mean that they became “dusted”. The word vaye’avek is related to the word avak, meaning dust, because they would raise dust with their feet through their movements. In their struggling and grappling with each other they stirred up dust. And in this process Jacob became Israel.

This past few weeks there have been a number of court cases that brought some of the systemic racial divides in this country to the surface. In response to these issues there have been many protests decrying the racial problems that exist in fabric of this country.  Many have pushed back at the protesters claiming that they are the real problem. But, there is not doubt that they are part of the reason that more people are struggling with important conversations about racism today.

When does this dust turn to dirt? When have the protesters causing a problem? There is no doubt that every real struggle needs people with integrity to work towards progress. As the people of Israel, our destiny will always be to struggle and kick up the dust. In last week’s Torah portion we read of Jacob’s dream. He is blessed that his offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen. 28:14). To ensure a better future, we might just have to risk getting a little dirty helping kick up the dust.

Between Brothers

In VaYishlach, the Torah portion two week’s ago, Yakov is preparing to reconnect and to reconcile with his estranged brother Esav. Here we read about the mysterious encounter between Yakov and the angel. We read that:

And he ( Yakov) took them, and sent them over the stream, and sent over that which he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. ( Genesis 32: 24-25)

This is clearly am important moment. This is when Yakov and our whole nation become Yisrael. But, why did Yakov return over the Yabuk? On this, Rashi quotes the Talmud:

And Yakov was left alone. Said Rabbi Eleazar: He remained behind for the sake of some small jars. Hence [it is learned] that to the righteous their money is dearer than their body; and why is this? Because they do not stretch out their hands to robbery.(Hullin 91a)

Why would Yakov risk so much for these little jars? What was in these jars? If we go back to the beginning of his journey, we recall Yakov’s dream with the ladder. Upon waking up he consecrated that place with oil:

And Yakov woke out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely God is in this place; and I did not knew it.’ And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Yakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. ( Genesis 28: 16-18)

One reasonable reading is that these “small jars” had more of this consecrating oil in them. So why did he need them at this moment?

To understand this we need to understand Hanukkah. On its surfaces Hanukkah is a simple holidays. We see the themes of light breaking through the darkness, a small group banding together to beat a much stronger force, and the power of having faith in community. But like everything else in Jewish life nothing is ever as simple as it seems. So let’s look deeper into the three miracles of Hanukkah. One miracle is that small group of zealots were able to beat the stronger forces and regain control of the Temple. Keeping Yakov’s dream in mind we should not forget that when recovering the Temple they also recovered the Even haShetiya– the foundational rock that was his pillow and was at the center of many of our stories ( see Dome of the Rock). When they recaptured the Temple they found on small jar of oil for the menorah in the Temple. The second miracle was that despite the fact that this small jar only had enough oil for one day it lasted for eight days. This story about the miraculous Hanukkah oil has allowed us to look past focusing solely on the military victory. This is important in that the war was not a black and white fight between the Jews and the Greeks. Rather, it was a civil war between a small group of religious zealots and a larger group of their Hellenized Jewish brethren. In my mind this is itself the third miracle of Hanukkah. Our ability to tell the story of the second miracle of the oil to overshadow the first miracle of a civil war. The story of the oil helped cover over the other story of the recovery of the Temple with its foundational rock.

This year is special in that Hanukkah shares the calender with Thanksgiving. On its surface they are similar in that they are both days of giving thanks. But what is Thanksgiving? It is traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. We retell the story of the first settlers to America who found salvation when they reached another foundational rock- Plymouth Rock.

But is that the real story of Thanksgiving? On October 3rd 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. There we read:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

Like the third miracle of Hanukah, Thanksgiving is not really a story about the Pilgrams, but rather the constitution of a ritual of reconciliation post-civil war. Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving represent the re-creation of national mythologies for the sake of mending the wounds of fighting between brothers. We in camping appreciate the impact of a good story regardless of its being true. Camp in its essence is an artificially manufactured community built on rituals, traditions, and history that need not be based on fact. It is here in this miraculous fabricated narrative that we create enduring memories of brotherhood. So while the story might not be true, the community could not be any more real.

So now I return to Yakov. Why did he return to get the small jars of oil? Like the Rabbis take on Hanukkah and Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving, Yakov was getting the oil in preparation to reconcile with his brother Esav. The stories we tell are the foundational rocks of our culture. The true miracle of our holidays is the oil that helps us rewrite those stories to make peace between brothers. Have a very meaningful Thanksgivukkah. Happy holidays.

Wrestling Club

In VaYishlach, this week’s Torah portion, Yakov is preparing to meet and reconcile with his estranged brother Esav. Here we read about the mysterious encounter between Yakov and the angel. There we read:

And Yakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yakov’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaks.’ And he said: ‘I will not let go of you until you bless me.’  And he said unto him: ‘What is your name?’ And he said: ‘Yakov.’ And he said: ‘Your name shall be called no more Yakov, but Yisrael; for you hast striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ And Yakov asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray of you, your name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that you do ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:25-30)

Who did Yakov really fight, man or angel, or was it perhaps a dream in which he found himself in a struggle with phantom demons? This is interesting disagreement between the Rambam and the Ramban. Did this wrestling constitute an external event or an inner prophetic experience through the medium of a dream? It is understandable that after a profound experience one would question the reality of that experience. In another way it is interesting to think that Yakov internalized the character of Esav.
I was thinking about this question of internalizing the other when reflecting on the relationship between Rabbi Meir and his master Acher, Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuyah. While Acher, literally “the other”, became an apostate, his student Rabbi Meir went on to be a very important Rabbi and a central figure to the Mishana.. There we read:
Our Rabbis taught: Once Acher was riding on a horse on Shabbat, and Rabbi Meir was walking behind him to learn Torah from his mouth. Said [Acher] to him: Meir, turn back, for I have already measured by the paces of my horse that thus far extends the Sabbath limit, He replied: You, too, go back! [Acher] answered: Have I not already told you that I have already heard from behind the Veil: ‘Return all you backsliding children’ — except Acher. ( Hagiga 15a)
It is prohibited to ride on a horse on Shabbat and it is prohibited to walk beyond a certain distance. Rabbi Meir left the comfort of the house of study to learn from his master even though his master had gone off the derech, the path of Jewish law. Is Acher real or just an internalized character in Rabbi Meir’s life? This story like the story of Yakov and the angel make me wonder how we internalize the traits of our opponents. Maybe this Esav character is now actually part of Yakov in the same way that Acher is now actually part of Rabbi Meir. How else would we have learned about this interchange between Rabbi Meir and Acher if it was not reported to us by Rabbi Meir. The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.

Achilles Heel

In Greek mythology, when Achilles was a baby, it was foretold that he would die young . To prevent his death, his mother Thetis took Achilles to the River Styx, which was supposed to offer powers of invulnerability, and dipped his body into the water. But as Thetis held Achilles by the heel, he had a chatzitza and  his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river. Achilles grew up to be a man of war who survived many great battles. But one day, a poisonous arrow shot at him was lodged in his heel, killing him shortly after.

Achilles’ name can be analyzed as a combination of ἄχος (akhos) “grief” and λαός (Laos) “a people, tribe, nation, etc.” In other words, Achilles is an embodiment of the grief of the people. Achilles’ role as the hero of grief forms an ironic juxtaposition with the conventional view of Achilles as the hero of kleos (glory, usually glory in war).

Achilles stands as an interesting foil for the person of Yaakov. In Vayishlach, this weeks Torah portion we read:

25 And Yaakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaks.’ And he said: ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ 28 And he said to him: ‘What is your name?’ And be said: ‘Yaakov.’ 29 And he said: ‘Your name shall be called no more Yaakov, but Yisrael; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ (Genesis 32:25-29)

What is Yaakov’s name? As we learn from Toldot, Yaakov was named for when he was born he was grabbing the heel of his brother Esav. Through his adolescence he seems weak compared to his hunter brother living as a tent dweller. Here, this week, he returns as a warrior having worked hard in the world for many years, confronted his father-in-law, and now wrestling this angel. Having struggled with men and God he is renamed Yisrael. Like Achilles Yisrael is the glory of his  people, tribe, and nation. And interestingly he gets this name when he in injured.  Esav is not his Achilles Heel as his name Yaakov might have indicated. Ultimately his Achilles Heel is he himself  both his physical hip and his own character. Confronting the angel is how he can resolve his years in exile. All to often we  point at other people instead of ourselves as the source of conflict in our lives. In the end when we mature we grow and accept that we are the ones that need to choose to change. What makes Yisrael great is not his being perfect or Godly, but rather his being vulnerable and human.  Our collective Achilles Heel is thinking that there is any glory in war. Yisrael’s glory to be emulated is being introspective and reflective from a position of strength.





One night I dreamed I was walking along a path on a pristine beach. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.

In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes the path was well worn, other times it seemed that I took the path less traveled, and still yet other times I had blazed my own trail. What bothered me was that I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see that the otherwise clear path was muddled and unclear. So I cried aloud, “What about the promise that if I followed the path, it would always guide my way. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has no clear path in the sand. Why, when I needed guidance most, I was left alone with no direction?”

And then I was quiet and I heard a still small voice reply, “The years when you could not see a path is when we wrestled, we are always together Yisrael.”

-Adapted for Parshat VaYishlach from Mary Stevenson, 1936

– Reposted with better picture

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