Torah Weekly

For the week ending 14 December 2019 / 16 Kislev 5780

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 Esav’s offer that they should dwell together.

Shechem, a Caananite prince, abducts and violates Dina, Yaakov’s daughter. In return for Dina’s hand in marriage, the prince and his father suggest that Yaakov and his family intermarry and enjoy the fruits of Caananite prosperity. Yaakov’s sons trick Shechem and his father by feigning agreement. However, they stipulate that all the males of the city must undergo brit milah. Shimon and Levi, two of Dina’s brothers, enter the town and execute all the males who were weakened by the circumcision. This action is justified by the city’s tacit complicity in the abduction of their sister.

G-d commands Yaakov to go to Beit-El and build an altar. His mother Rivka’s 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 Eisav’s descendants.


Roots of Majesty

“No longer will your name be Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and prevailed.” (32:29)

One of the problems a writer has as he or she becomes part of the elder generation is that many of one’s go-to cultural references become redundant and/or incomprehensible. So, if “bee-hive hairdos for ladies” means nothing to you, please fast-forward to the next article in Ohrnet Magazine. Okay, so now for the rest of you baby-boomers who remember the “bee-hive,” you may also remember that to keep the bee-hive from collapsing required a prodigious amount of hair spray. There was one hair spray ad that I remember from the early sixties where a young couple runs toward each other across an idyllic Hawaiian sunset beach in deep slow motion. The young lady’s hair looks as rigid as a football helmet. Then, a deep, ridiculously resonant mid-Atlantic voice-over intones, “The closer she gets, the better she looks.” Having spent quite a lot of time in the Music Biz and rubbed shoulders with some of the most deeply ordinary beings to walk the planet, but whose choice of breakfast cereal is the stuff of informed public debate, I can tell you, “The closer you get the smaller they look.”

The Gemara (Mo’ed Katan 18a) says that Pharaoh was only one amah high — that’s the distance between your elbow and the end of your middle finger. His public image was vast, but the reality was tiny. I remember about two weeks after I arrived in Ohr Somayach as an alter bocher - a ‘mature’ bachelor - Rav Dov Schwartzman zt”l sent for me. I’d never met him before and had no idea who he was. I didn’t know that he was an unparalleled genius; that Rav Aharon Kotler, one of the Gedolim (leaders) of the previous generation and the founder of Lakewood Yeshiva, had chosen him to be his son-in-law. At first he seemed just rather avuncular. He kept his greatness well hidden. But the more I got to know him, the bigger and bigger he became. The closer you got, the greater he looked.

When you read this it will probably be around the time of the shloshim of Rebbetzin Gittel Kaplan zt”l, wife of Rabbi Nissan Kaplan shlit’a, and daughter of the Gateshead Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Avraham Gurwicz shlit’a. Rebbetzin Kaplan was one of the most aristocratic people I’ve ever met. She had a refinement that breathed majesty without the slightest effort. She was universally loved. She was unassuming, unaffected. The closer you got, the greater she looked. She bore a terrible illness with grace and without a single complaint. She personified chesed, loving-kindness. At her levaya (funeral) the common theme of the eulogies was the diffident self-effacing way in which she made everything she did seem quite usual, as though there was nothing special. And how special she was! On her last erev Shabbos in this world, she rose from her hospital bed, her entire system, her kidneys, her liver, on the threshold of total collapse, and she went to the Kotel with her family, dressed like a queen ready to greet another queen — the Shabbat Queen. And all with unassuming majesty.

In this week’s Torah portion Yaakov is given a new name, “Yisrael.” The root of Yisrael is sar — a verb that means “to prevail,” but it can also mean “superiority.” Through his own struggle with the angel, the negative spiritual force of Esav, Yaakov raised himself to the higher level of Yisrael. It’s true that Yaakov was born with a proverbial spiritual “silver spoon” in his mouth. What greater yichus (lineage) can there be than to have Yitzchak as your father and Avraham as your grandfather? But he didn’t rely on his roots of majesty. He took all that was bequeathed to him and through his own efforts ascended to complete the royalty of Yisrael.

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