Torah Weekly

For the week ending 13 December 2008 / 16 Kislev 5769

Parshat Vayishlach

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Returning home, Yaakov sends angelic messengers to appease his brother Esav. The messengers return, telling Yaakov that Esav is approaching with an army of 400. Yaakov takes the strategic precautions of dividing the camps, praying for assistance, and sending tribute to mollify Esav. That night, Yaakov is left alone and wrestles with the Angel of Esav. Yaakov emerges victorious but is left with an injured sinew in his thigh (which is the reason that it is forbidden to eat the sciatic nerve of a kosher animal). The angel tells him that his name in the future will be Yisrael, signifying that he has prevailed against man (Lavan) and the supernatural (the angel). Yaakov and Esav meet and are reconciled, but Yaakov, still fearful of his brother, rejects Esavs offer that they should dwell together. Shechem, a Caananite prince, abducts and violates Dina, Yaakovs daughter. In return for Dinas hand in marriage, the prince and his father suggest that Yaakov and his family intermarry and enjoy the fruits of Caananite prosperity. Yaakovs sons trick Shechem and his father by feigning agreement; however, they stipulate that all the males of the city must undergo brit mila. Shimon and Levi, two of Dinas brothers, enter the town and execute all the males who were weakened by the circumcision. This action is justified by the citys tacit complicity in the abduction of their sister. G-d commands Yaakov to go to Beit-El and build an altar. His mother Rivkas nurse, Devorah, dies and is buried below Beit-El. G-d appears again to Yaakov, blesses him and changes his name to Yisrael. While traveling, Rachel goes into labor and gives birth to Binyamin, the twelfth of the tribes of Israel. She dies in childbirth and is buried on the Beit Lechem Road. Yaakov builds a monument to her. Yitzchak passes away at the age of 180 and is buried by his sons. The Parsha concludes by listing Esavs descendants.


Conspicuous Consumption

"Thus says your servant Yaakov" (32:5)

The Jewish People has never found itself in a predicament as complex and disturbing as the one that faces it today.

On the one hand, we have never enjoyed such material comfort and security. Not even during the "Golden Age" in Spain were Jews so accepted into the life of the non-Jewish world. Who would ever have thought that a Jew, and a religious one at that, could be seriously considered for Vice-President of the United States of America, let alone its President?

Jews are more comfortable, more respected, and have a larger slice of the national "apple pie" than ever before.

And yet, on the other hand, the Jewish People are threatened by a new anti-Semitism, on the campus and off, whose depth and virulence can only be conjectured.

There is no doubt that this stems, at least in part, from living the American Dream at not-quite-first remove.

The American Dream is not our dream. It is the dream of our brother Esav. Esav sees the world as a series of spreadsheets and bottom lines, skyscrapers and condos. He sees roast beef on every table.

We see a prayer book on every table.

The hands are the hands of Esav. And nothing incites Esav more than when he sees us usurping his position. Esav knows who we are. He understands, subconsciously, that Yaakovs mtier is the voice, the world of the spirit, of Torah and prayer. When Yaakov strays into Esavs territory and lords it up to boot, Esav reacts with implacable ferocity.

Which is not to say that we have to live in abject poverty, just we dont have to knock out our neighbors eyes with our conspicuous consumption, living the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

We learn this from this weeks Torah portion:

"Thus says your servant Yaakov"

The Midrash tells that Rebbe (Yehuda HaNasi) would sign letters to his friend the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus with the words "your servant." Rebbe said "Am I better than Yaakov our Patriarch who referred to himself as Esav's servant?"

The Midrash criticizes Rebbe for following Yaakovs example, since it itself opposed Yaakovs conduct in this regard. Nevertheless, Yaakov calling himself Esavs servant created a relationship with Eisav and his offspring that binds us to this day. This spiritual land-mapping is called "the actions of the fathers are a sign to the children."

Jewish identification in America and Europe is at an all-time low, and going down. Support for Israel - the Judaism of previous non-religious generations - has evaporated in direct proportion to Jewish cultural identification. And intermarriage, largely unheard of a hundred years ago, has galloped past the fifty percent mark, which means that more Jews now chose non-Jewish partners over Jewish.

If theres one glimmer of light, it seems to be the religious community (bli ayn hara). The religious community is burgeoning both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Its birthrate together with rampant assimilation in the non-religious sector have brought the religious community to the forefront of Jewish social life both numerically and intellectually.

However, the religious community isnt perfect. (Is any community?) Divorce, while scarce compared to the secular community, is growing steadily. The phenomenon of "children at risk", children who leave observant homes and frequently end up on drugs and alcohol, is now a fact of the landscape.

But, maybe most of all, we should be very careful not to show off our new-found prosperity by making extravagant weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, building huge mansions, and spending fortunes on glatt kosher dream cruises.

Are we better than our Patriarch Yaakov?

  • Sources:Based on the Avnei Ezel

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