Parashat Vayishlach

Education Through Encouragement

By Rabbi Yeonatan Gefen

This week’s Torah portion ends with an account of the genealogy of Esav. In the midst of this we are told of the birth of Amalek, the progenitor of the nation that would constantly strive to destroy the Jewish people. “And Timna was a concubine to Eliphaz and Eliphaz gave birth to Amalek.” The Talmud informs us of the background to this terrible occurrence. “Timna was a princess, but she wanted to convert. She came to Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov

[to convert] but they would not accept her. She then became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esav. She said that it was better to be a maidservant to this nation rather than be a powerful woman in another nation. [As a result] Amalek, who would cause Israel great pain, was born from her. What is the reason [that this incident produced Amalek]? Because they [the forefathers] should not have distanced her.” Rashi explains this to mean that they should have allowed her to convert.

It seems clear that the forefathers had sufficient reason to reject Timna’s efforts to join their nation. They were aware of the evil within Timna’s nature. Consequently, they refused to allow her to join the Jewish people. Why were they punished so harshly for their seemingly correct decision?

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that we learn from here that no matter how bad a person is, one should not totally reject him. As long as there remains any hope that the person will improve their ways, it is forbidden to distance them and thereby remove any chance of their repenting. Evidently, there was enough hidden potential within Timna that justified allowing her to join the Jewish nation.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz says that we learn a similar lesson with regards to Avraham’s relationship with his wayward nephew, Lot. Avraham only split up with Lot when a dispute threatened to sour their relationship. Avraham did not receive prophecy while Lot was with him. Nonetheless, Avraham refrained from distancing Lot until he perceived that there was no hope of preventing Lot’s spiritual descent. Despite all of Avraham’s efforts and self-sacrifice in helping Lot, the rabbinical sources still criticize him for distancing his nephew. “Rav Yehuda says, there was anger against Avraham our father at the time that he separated his nephew from him; God said, ‘He (Avraham) clings to everyone but to his own nephew he does not cling?!’ “ Even though Avraham made great efforts to influence Lot and was even prepared to lose the gift of prophecy in order to influence him, nonetheless he is criticized for eventually sending him away.

We have seen how it is incorrect to reject someone if there is any chance of saving him. What then is the correct approach to dealing with this difficult issue?

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh sheds light on how to deal with a wayward child in his explanation of why Yitzchok wanted to bless Esav instead of Yaakov. He argues that Yitzchok was totally aware of Esav’s low spiritual level, and he nevertheless wanted to give him the blessings. He writes: “The reason that Yitzchok wanted to bless the evil Esav was that he believed that through receiving the blessings, he (Esav) would change for the good and improve his ways, because righteous people feel pain when their children do evil and he (Yitzchok) was trying to help him improve his ways. And it is possible that it would have worked.”

The Ohr HaChaim does not explain how giving Esav the blessings would have caused him to improve his ways. It is possible that giving the blessings to Esav would give him great encouragement and show him that his father had faith in his ability to continue the legacy of the forefathers. Such a show of confidence could in and of itself be the catalyst to causing Esav to change his ways. We learn from here that encouraging and showing faith in the wayward person is a key tool in helping him find faith in himself and giving him the strength to change his ways.

We see this principle with regard to a remarkable story involving Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner. There was a student in his yeshiva who was struggling badly with his learning. As a result he was severely lacking in self-confidence and found himself in a great spiritual descent. On one occasion, Rabbi Hutner was giving a complex class in Talmud and this student asked a seemingly ordinary question. Rabbi Hutner responded as if he had asked an ingenious question and throughout the lecture repeated it several times with great admiration. Receiving such praise from such a great rabbi gave a tremendous boost of self-confidence to the boy. As a result, after this one occasion he experienced an incredible turnaround in his confidence, learning and general observance. By showing this young man that he was indeed able to learn, Rabbi Hutner was able to give him the boost that changed his life.

We learn from the incident with Timna that rejecting a person as a hopeless cause is a very serious matter. We also learn from the Ohr HaChaim’s explanation in Parshat Toldot that showing faith in a person is a tremendous way of helping him change his ways. These principles also apply to our general attitude and behavior towards our children, students and people around us. The Talmud tells us that we should push away with our left hand and bring in with our right, that we should give precedence to positive reinforcement over criticism. Showing others their inherent good is the most effective way of bringing about improvement. May we all merit to bring out the best in ourselves and those around us.

facts of life: take this serious

And Yaakov said to Shimon and to Levi, “You brought trouble upon me by besmirching me among the inhabitants of the land” And they (Shimon and Levi) replied, “Shall he treat our sister like a harlot?” (34:30,31)

When do we act zealously, striking back with force? When do we appease, look for reasons and ways to seek a diplomatic solution? We see two contrasting approaches in our parsha, surprisingly from a father and his sons. Shimon and Levi struck with revenge. They had no room for negotiation: If you touch a Jewish girl, you and your entire city will pay. Yaakov Avinu was not as quick to seek vengeance.

Horav Yisrael Belsky, zl, observes that both approaches have their place in Jewish life. When their sister, Dinah, was violated by Shechem, Shimon and Levi avenged her and her family’s dishonor. Their righteous resentment did not allow for them to be appeasing in any way. This was a time for vengeance and reclaiming honor- not for diplomacy.

Yaakov Avinu viewed the tragedy from a different perspective. He understood the pain and disgrace that drove his sons to shed blood, but from his view, it was not the correct approach. He was concerned with the future of his family and how his sons’ violent reaction would possibly jeopardize the future of the Jewish People. As the Patriarch, his nature was to consider the full implications of his actions carefully. The same action that is correct and proper now might be harmful later on. Therefore, in the long run, impulsiveness is a dangerous course upon which to embark.

We see the Patriarch taking such a position in his original confrontation with Esav (at the beginning of the Parsha). The Torah indicates clearly that Yaakov had been prepared to fight – if necessary. He saw this option only as a last resort. He succeeded in controlling Esav’s anger, diffusing that which could have turned into a tragic situation and transforming it instead into one of resolution and brotherhood.

Now that we have presented the two approaches, apparently it seems that they are divided between youth and maturity – not simply in age, but in perspective. Young people often lack the willingness to compromise on principles. They are more than willing to go to battle to right a wrong – as evinced by Shimon and Levi. They are loathe to be considered weak. For them, this is an unforgiveable failing.

Contrasting youthful enthusiasm and inflexibility are the wisdom and calmness evinced by experience and maturity. The advice of the elders often has a calming effect on the zealous nature of youth. The elders guide and temper, when the youth are willing to listen and heed their advice. To paraphrase the Rosh Yeshivah, “Their wisdom and breadth of vision can harness the well-intended yet reckless enthusiasm of others, ensuring that any action taken is the right one, not only for the moment, but also for the longer term.” Yaakov Avinu exemplified such wisdom.

This does not in any way mean that we are to cast aside youthful enthusiasm. Indeed, the role of the younger Kohanim on the night of Yom Kippur is highlighted. Their task was to keep the Kohen Gadol awake by firmly reminding him of his responsibility. To fall asleep would mean risking the possibility of ritual impurity, which would invalidate him from performing the holiest service of the year. All night, they would snap their fingers and remind him to remain awake. They did this persistently – but respectfully. Why use younger Kohanim (as opposed to older ones)? They represent youthful energy, which, in contrast to the wisdom of maturity, does not lead to being overly cautious and indecisive.

In his unique manner, Rav Belsky sums up what should be the perspective of Torah-oriented Jews concerning which approach to employ, given a time-sensitive situation when a decision is mandatory – immediately – if not sooner. In other words, we do not always have the luxury of seeking out, the wisdom of Torah (daat Torah), as expounded by a Torah giant. Sometimes a person must rely on his own common sense, coupled with a profound understanding of how the Torah views his present predicament. The Rosh Yeshivah encourages us to learn from everyone: the people around us, our rabbis, our friends, even from people who oppose us. If we can open our eyes to view the situation objectively, we are able to grow and blend the above two approaches, in order to decide which is most situation appropriate. The problem arises when we begin to fall spiritually asleep, when we are losing our grasp of a situation. This is when we must know how to “snap our fingers”, to wake up and maintain a clear perspective on the question before us. We may never lose our mind to passion, nor should we calm ourselves into satisfaction by remaining too calm. There is a happy medium between losing control, acting unthinkingly and listening to the voice of calm reason, to the point that we do nothing and allow everyone to walk all over us. Some people, however, are “happy” about choosing the “happy” medium. Their error (I think) is in comparing themselves either to Shimon/Levi or to Yaakov Avinu. Their approach worked for them, because they were spiritually on the level which permitted their actions. We are obligated to attempt to blend both approaches and seek the most appropriate option.

something to think about

Once An Argument Is Over, Don’t Say Anything To Arouse It Again. 

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

“And Yaakov sent messengers before him to Esav his brother.” The Midrash censures Yaakov for sending these messengers to Esav, for Esav had already calmed down about Yaakov taking the blessings from their father and was involved in his own matters. By sending messengers, Yaakov started up with Esav and aroused his anger. This is an important principle for two people involved in a quarrel. Once the matter has passed, don’t say anything to the other person that would remind him of the matter. By bringing up the issue when it is not necessary to do so, you will start a new quarrel that is avoidable. Arguments should be forgotten, not remembered.

Realize That You Have (Get) What You Need. Esav said “I have a lot”; Yaakov said “I have everything” — According to the Chofetz Chaim, Esav still wanted more, whereas Yaakov was satisfied with his lot. Regardless of how much you have, there is always much more that you can want. Having the attitude that you never have enough will cause you constant frustration. You will always focus on what you are missing and your life will be filled with anxiety and suffering. The attitude to internalize is that of Yaakov, “I have everything that I need”. Of course, you have the right to try to acquire more, but if you are unable to do so, you will feel calm and serene. If you do acquire more, good; if not, it is sign that for your best interest you do not really need any more.

First Aliyah: Yaakov was on his way home to his father Yitzchok after twenty years of absence, having fled Canaan to escape his brother Esav’s anger. As a peaceful overture, Yaakov now sent ahead messengers to Esav with a reconciliatory message. The messengers returned with an warning report: Esav is coming to “greet” Yaakov with a troop of 400 men. Yaakov was distressed. He divided his family and belongings into two groups—to allow one group to flee while the other was engaged in battle. He then prayed, calling upon G‑d’s promise to protect him.

Second Aliyah: In an attempt to appease Esav, Yaakov sent him a lavish gift, consisting of hundreds of heads of cattle and sheep. He sent this gift in increments, one herd at a time. That night Yaakov crossed the Jabok River with his family, and after all had crossed but him, he encountered an angel – Esav’s guardian angel – who wrestled with him until dawn. Though the angel was unable to prevail over Yaakov, he dislodged Yaakov’s sciatic nerve, causing him to limp. When the angel wished to leave, Yaakov refused to let him go until he blessed Yaakov. The angel blessed Yaakov and informed him that his name would eventually be changed to Israel.

Third Aliyah: The Torah informs us that we don’t eat the sciatic nerve of otherwise kosher animals because of the wrestling episode mentioned in the previous section. Esav arrived. Yaakov respectfully approached his brother, who then ran towards him and embraced him, as they both wept.

Fourth Aliyah: Yaakov’s family approached and greeted Esav. Despite Esav’s objections, Yaakov prevailed upon him to accept the gift he had sent ahead. Esav offered to accompany Yaakov on his trip home, but Yaakov declined the gesture. Esav returned to his home in Se’ir, and Yaakov proceeded to the city of Sukkot. Eventually Yaakov arrived at the outskirts of the city of Shechem, where he purchased a plot of land and erected an altar to G‑d.

Fifth Aliyah: Yaakov’s daughter, Dinah, ventured out into the city of Shechem, when Shechem, also the name of the crown prince of the city, abducted and violated her and kept her hostage. Chamor, the governor of the city, approached Yaakov and informed him that his son Shechem was infatuated with Dinah and desired her hand in marriage. Yaakov’s sons slyly agreed to the proposition, provided that all the men of the city would circumcise themselves. Upon the urging of Chamor and Shechem, the Shechemites agreed to the proposal. On the third day following their mass circumcision, Dinah’s two brothers, Simon and Levi, entered the vulnerable city, killed all its male inhabitants, and liberated Dinah from Shechem’s home. Yaakov was displeased by this act, fearing retaliation from the neighboring Canaanites. Nonetheless, Yaakov traveled on, and “the fear of G‑d” was upon the surrounding cities and they did not pursue Yaakov and his family. Yaakov arrived in Canaan, in Beth-El, and G‑d appeared to him, blessed him, and changed his name to Israel.

Sixth Aliyah: Yaakov’s family continued on towards Hebron. While en route, Rachel, Yaakov’s beloved wife, passed away while giving birth to her second son, Benyamin. Yaakov buried her on the spot, on the roadside leading to Bethlehem. They traveled yet further, and Yaakov’s eldest son, Reuben, interfered with his father’s marital life. At long last, Yaakov arrived in Hebron. Yitzchok died, and was buried in the Cave of Machpelah alongside his wife and parents. The Torah now lists the wives and descendents of Esav, who left Canaan and settled in Se’ir.

Seventh Aliyah: This section enumerates the princes of the original Se’irite natives, as well as the monarchs of that land that descended from Esav.

simcha corner

Rabbi Rabbinowitz’s appointment as the shul’s new Rabbi coincided with the shul’s appeal for aid for the victims of an earthquake that had just taken place in Israel.

Unfortunately, on his first Shabbat, the center page of the shul’s bulletin was accidentally omitted. So members of the congregation read from the bottom of the second page to the top of the last page:

“Welcome to Rabbi Rabbinowitz and his family … the worst disaster to hit the area in this century. The full extent of the tragedy is not yet known.”