Dvar Torah on Parshat VaYigash 5775 2014

In the Book of פרקי אבות , Sayings of the Fathers, there is a Mishna that states: אל תסתכל בקנקן אלא במה שיש בו, “Look not on the jar but what is in it; there may be a new jar that is full of old wine and an old one in which is not even new wine.” (Avot 4,20) Old wine is superior to new wine. The meaning is, of course, that we should not depend on outward appearances but look closely at the true nature of what we observe.

This statement comes to mind in connection with what Yosef sent his father when he invited him to come to Egypt. He knew his father would be shocked to see him dressed as an Egyptian, since his high governmental position required it. He wanted him to know that inwardly Yosef was still loyal to his Jewish tradition which he acquired from his father.

Yosef, therefore, sent his father: עֲשָׂרָה חֲמֹרִים נֹשְׂאִים מִטּוּב מִצְרָיִם, “…ten donkeys laden with the best of Egypt…” (Gen. 45,23) What exactly was it that he sent? The Talmud tells us: שלח לו יין ישן, שדעת זקנים נוחה הימנו, “he sent him old wine which old men find very comforting.” (Meg. 16b)

When Yosef sent him wine he was alluding to the statement quoted above. He did not want Yaakov to look at his outward appearance when they met. He wanted to assure him that inwardly he was still Jewish and was still living up to the traditions he had been taught.

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Dvar Torah Parshat VaYishlach 5775 2014

Yaakov sends messengers to his brother Esav with the following message: עִם־לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, “…I have lived with Lavan…”. (Gen. 32,5) Yaakov could have used many other words to indicate he lived with Lavan. Instead, he uses the word גַּרְתִּי. The root of this word is גר, which means a stranger or an alien. Yaakov is telling Esav that he was a stranger there although we know he lived there twenty years.

Yaakov adds an additional message. He tells Esav he had acquired oxen and donkeys and flocks and servant and maidservant. According to Chazal, he also told Esav that though he lived with the heathen Lavan, he, nevertheless, kept all Taryag (613) Mitzvot. Why does Esav care that Yaakov kept the Mitzvot?

Perhaps Yaakov was giving his brother the reason he left Lavan even though he was so successful there. He was telling Esav that there were two things that kept him as a גר, a stranger, in that land. One, his customs and practices were different and strange to Lavan and his people. Secondly, his efforts and diligence made him wealthy, and that the people there could not accept. Although he dwelled among them for twenty years he was still regarded as a stranger. That is why he used the word גַּרְתִּי, he was an alien.

History repeated itself untold times during the long Galut of the Jewish people. Wherever the Jews went their customs seemed strange to their neighbors and their financial successes could not be accepted by the people. They were chased out and had to start a new life elsewhere, and the process repeated itself.

Dvar Torah Parshat Vayishlach 2012 5773

There are only three Mitzvot in Sefer Bereshit and one of them is in this week’s Portion. This Mitzvah is known as גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה, GID HANASHE, “the displaced sinew on the hip-socket.” (Gen. 32,33)

The reason for this negative commandment, that prohibits us from eating this sinew, is well known. Yaakov remained alone in the night and fought with a man that turned out to be an angel. Since this opponent could not overcome Yaakov he struck the socket of Yaakov’s hip and dislocated it.

Hence, in memory of this event we are forbidden from eating this sinew.

Why is this incident so important that we must remember it? Perhaps there is a very meaningful reason in this event and for that rationale that we should never lose sight of it.

This man-angel tried to undermine Yaakov’s moral and ethical life. When he failed this he tried to destroy his stability so that he would not be able to stand up. He represented all of the world enemies the Jews have. They try to prevent us from living by the Torah ideals. Failing that they try to destroy us physically.

The Mitzvah of גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה, GID HANASHE, is to remind us of the eternal danger facing us from the world and to assure us, that although they may succeed in causing us great physical damage, they cannot take away our Judaism and our Torah from us.

Dvar Torah Parshat Vayishlach 5772 2011

The angel who fought with Yaakov asked him for his name. When he was told, the angel said: LO YA’AKOV YE’AMER OD SHIMCHA KI IM YISRAEL, “…no longer will it be said that your name is Yaakov, but Yisrael…”. (Gen. 32,29)

In reality this is a blessing and a great tribute to Yaakov but it also has turned into a disadvantage for the Jewish people. The fact is that when someone commits a crime his name is given in the media and people recognize him as the one who committed the crime.

Not so with the Jews. When a Jew commits a crime, not only is he blamed for his wrong action but his act reflects on all the Jewish people. His wrongdoing points toward all the Jewish people. The world is not satisfied by merely blaming him, but places the blame upon all the Jewish people as though they are all guilty of this crime.

When a wrongdoing is committed by a Jew it is reported in the press in a way that all the Jewish people are implicated. It were as if we all participated in the wrong act.

This is implied in the blessing Yaakov got from the angel. When your descendants will be found guilty, it will no longer be simply “Yaakov” who will be accused, but the world will recognize that it was “Yisrael” that committed the offense. This, of course, makes it most imperative that our conduct be above reproach at all times.

Dvar Torah Parshat Vayishlach 5770 2009

In this week’s portion we read of an unsung heroine whose name only appears here and not much is said about her. Yet she was so influential that her death created such a great mourning that the place was called ALON BACHUT, “the Plateau of Mourning”. (Gen. 35,9).

Who was this person and why was she so important that her death caused such a great grief? We are told that she was Devorah, Rebecca’s nurse who raised her in Lavan’s house. Why was that so important?

We know the kind of person Lavan was and Rebecca grew up in this household and yet she turned out to be an exceptional person. Even in early age she already had that attributes that made her suitable to become Yitzchak’s wife. This we learned when Eliezer went to look for a spouse for Yitzchak and Rebecca met him at the well.

This highlights the truth that a person can have a great influence even under difficult conditions. It certainly was not easy for Devorah living under the watchful eye of Lavan to teach Rebecca moral and ethical values that went contrary to his beliefs. Yet she did and she succeeded. Her demise caused a great mourning in Yaakov’s family because they all recognized the role she played in influencing his mother and hence Yaakov and the Jewish people.

Dvar Torah Parshat Vayishlach 2008 5769 דבר תורה פרשת וישלח

On his way to meet his brother Yaakov remains alone and is attacked by a man who turns out to be an angel. In relating this struggle the Torah uses the expression VAYE’AVEK ISH IMO, “…and a man wrestled with him…”. (Gen. 32,25)

Rashi tries to understand the root of the word VAYE’AVEK. He gives two explanations. The first one he quotes in the name of Menachem ben Saruk who was known as a great grammarian. He identifies the root of the word with the root for dust, AVAK. When two people struggle in the field they kick up the dust.

The second explanation of the word is Rashi’s own. He associates it with and Aramaic word which means intertwine. When two people wrestle they hold on to each other and their bodies seemingly interlock. This can also look like two people hugging each other and showing affection.

Both of these explanations describe well how the world anti-Semites approach their struggle with Jews. Some will use the method explained in the first interpretation. They do not mask their hatred but openly fight the Jews either physically or by words of hatred.

Others use a different method of fighting the Jews. They show closeness, affection, acceptance, but all along they have ulterior motives. They wish to destroy the Jewish people through assimilation and other peaceful moves.

Dvar Torah Vayishlach 2007 – 5768 דבר תורה וישלח

The angel that fought with Yaakov, after being defeated, blessed Yaakov by changing his name. The name Yaakov is the personal name that our forefather had from birth. This was the name given him by his parents. It described a specific action of his when he was born and he held on to the AKEV, the “heel” of his brother.

ISRAEL is the name the angel gave Yaakov. This was an elegant name which described how he successfully overcame the powers that attempted to destroy him. It is also the name used to refer to all of Yaakov’s descendants, BNEI ISRAEL.

When some one commits a crime today, he is blamed for his actions. No one else is implicated in his crime. Not so when a Jew is accused of a crime. Usually it is the Jewish people who are alluded to and an attempt is made to incriminate all the Jews by implication. A finger is pointed not only at “Yaakov” or Jacob, the one who committed the crime, but an attempt is made to implicate “Israel” or all the Jews, implying that this is the way a Jew acts.

The non-Jewish world has transformed the blessing that Yaakov got from a blessing to a detriment. No longer is it just Yaakov accused but it is all of Israel. (See Gen. 32,29)