In honor of our children: Debbie and Jack, Shaun and Morris, Grace and Raymond, and all their children. In memory of our son, Elliot David Rahmey, A’H.
An Enemy Disguised As a Brother
Parashat Vayishlach begins with Yaakov leaving Lavan’s house with his wives, children, and livestock. Yaakov sent messengers ahead of him to let Esav know that he lived with Lavan, survived, and prospered. As Yaakov was departing from Lavan’s house, his messengers returned and informed him that Esav was on his way to meet him with a 400-man army. Yaakov became very distressed by his imminent encounter with his brother, even though Hashem had told him that He would protect him. Yaakov sent messengers ahead of him to greet Esav, with the hope of appeasing his brother.
There is a question presented here asking why Yaakov was so afraid of Esav, when Hashem’s protection was so readily available to tzaddikim like Yaakov Avinu. There are two explanations for his fear. The first is that Yaakov thought he used up all of his zachuyot—merits, and he felt that he did not deserve Hashem’s protection, considering he was so blessed with his wives and children. The second is that Esav was proficient in the mitzvah of kibud av va’em—bringing honor to one’s parents. Yaakov had been away, living in Lavan’s home for 20 years at that point. Therefore, he was unable to do this mitzvah, and he was afraid Esav had a leg up on him, being that he was home and honored his parents during this time.
Yaakov prayed to Hashem, “Hatzileni na meyad achi, meyad Esav—Rescue me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav (32:12).” Yaakov’s prayer seems redundant. Shouldn’t he have just said either “Rescue me from my brother” or “Rescue me from Esav?” Why did he use both references?
Yaakov teaches us a very important lesson. Although we know that Esav was his enemy, Yaakov was worried that Esav would come to him as a friendly brother or as a fierce opponent. From the days of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, “Esav” — the goyim — may have started as our friends, but eventually that changed, and they became our enemy. During the centuries following the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash, wherever the Jewish people settled, they were welcomed by the different host countries, at first. Then anti-Semitism set in, and the people of that country turned on the Jews and evicted them or tried to destroy them.
We must be aware that the Esav of today who lives among us can be very warm and welcoming like a brother, just like the feeling of “acceptance” we have in America today, or how the Jews of Europe lived in the early part of 20th century, or in Spain in the late 1400’s. We must know and be mindful not to get too close to the goyim, as the famous Gemara states, “Esav soneh et Yaakov—Esav hates Yaakov.” We’ve seen this hate emerge so many times throughout our history, even recently. The massive genocide of the Holocaust occurred just 75 years ago.
The parasha goes on to say, “Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (32:25).” Rashi explains that this man was Esav’s guardian angel. Esav’s angel is different from all the others, for just as Esav epitomizes evil, so too his angel is the prime spiritual force of the evil Satan himself. The Satan’s job is to come down to earth to seduce man to sin, then he goes back to Heaven to incite Hashem to prosecute man for his sinfulness.
“Why did Esav’s angel only pick a fight with Yaakov, and not with Avraham or Yitzchak?” Of our three Avot, we learned that Avraham epitomized chesed, Yitzchak founded the concept of avodah—prayer, and Yaakov represented Torah. He was an “ish tam yoshev ohalim.” So Hashem sent an angel to wrestle with Yaakov to pave the way for the ultimate salvation of B’nei Yisrael.
In Masechet Baba Batra (16a), it says that Esav’s angel had to attack Yaakov, because as the last and the greatest of our Avot, Yaakov symbolized man’s struggle to raise himself and the rest of the world with him. As the angel of Esav wrestled with Yaakov, he crippled him, though he could not destroy him. The Chafetz Chaim said that the yetzer hara doesn’t mind if a Jew fasts, prays, and gives tzedakah, but he’s angered when he learns Torah!
The pillar of Torah is the most crucial for B’nei Yisrael’s success in carrying out their mission on earth. Yaakov represents Torah and without it, Israel will fail. That’s why the Satan did not confront Avraham or Yitzchak. Many communities which assimilated ultimately disappeared, even if they invested in various charities. Only communities that remained loyal to Yaakov’s legacy, by building yeshivot and Torah institutions, grew and remain strong! Our community is a prime example of that legacy, because we had Rabbis and business leaders who understood that a Jewish community cannot thrive or survive without Torah at its core foundation. They built this community here on the shores of America with true Torah values, and we are the beneficiaries of the fruits of their labor.
Rabbi Duvi Bensoussan told a story about a Ben Torah that was rewarded for his learning. About ten years ago, there was a 17-year-old boy from Israel who was extremely dedicated to his learning in kollel. He lived and breathed Torah. One day, he wasn’t feeling well, so he went home to his mother, who knew he wouldn’t have left the kollel in the middle of the day if it wasn’t urgent. She drove him to the hospital, where they did extensive tests and learned that the boy was in desperate need of a kidney- and not just a regular kidney, but a kidney suited for a teenager. They told him to go to Belgium, the kidney transplant capital of the world, but warned him that Belgium had a law that priority will be given to European citizens for kidney transplants, ahead of citizens from other countries. If no one on the European list qualified to receive a transplant, due to blood type, location, or some other reason, then they would look at the list of citizens from other countries.
The boy went to his Rosh Yeshivah to ask what he should do, if he should risk going to Belgium knowing he may never receive a kidney. The rabbi looked at his beloved and prized student and said, “Your life revolves around Torah, and Hashem will make the world revolve around you. Go to Belgium. Hashem will give you the perfect kidney.”
The boy flew to Belgium with his father and arrived at the hotel near the hospital to wait for kidney that matched. He was told there were hundreds of European citizens that were on their list, and they would be obligated to go through the entire list of names before reaching his, should a kidney become available. He went to the Belgium kollel to resume his learning. The next day, an incredible miracle occurred. Huge plumes of volcanic ash coming from an Icelandic volcano floated into the air, and every single European flight was grounded. No one was able to fly in all of Europe! It was chaos. Some kidneys became available for donation, and the hospital began calling the people on the European citizen list to find a match. They called number after number, name after name. No one could fly in to receive the transplant! They finally called this young kollel boy and informed him there was a perfect kidney waiting for him, but he would have to be in town within 24 hours. He went straight from the Belgian kollel to the hospital. The kidney took really well, and this boy’s life was saved!!
The Angel with No Name
After Yaakov’s struggle with the angel, when dawn was breaking, Yaakov asked, “Please tell me your name,” and the angel answered him, “Why do you want to know my name?” Rashi says that angels’ names are reflections of their mission here on earth. The angel replied that he had no set mission, so its name was never the same. Sometimes the yetzer hara can come in the form of a desire for money or honor, or in the form of drugs or gambling, or any other harmful desires or addictions.
Every one of us has these buttons that the yetzer hara knows how to push in order to make us sin. Sometimes, the yetzer hara will go as far to trick us and convince us that not only is a particular sin not terrible, but actually a mitzvah. So we always must be on guard to stay far away from sin. The best antidote for that is to spend time learning Torah or supporting those to do so!
Yaakov’s Ultimate Reward
We learned that Yaakov received the berachot from his father Yitzchak, but we also learned in these parshiot how Yaakov had a difficult life. He had to run from his brother, then he was the victim of Lavan’s trickery for 20 years, who cheated Yaakov by changing his deal many times. Yaakov struggled when Rachel couldn’t have children, until she finally had Yosef and then tragically passed away on the road when she was giving birth to Binyamin. Yaakov also suffered for 22 years while Yosef was missing from his life when his brothers sold him as a slave.
Although Yaakov’s life was the most challenging of all the Avot, he was the one responsible for building the Jewish nation. Just like our forefather Yaakov, we don’t always see the salvations or answers we pray for, but if we can recognize that Hashem is controlling everything and guiding us every step of the way, it will bring a certain amount of consolation, and our actions can change the course of the future.
Ben Oni or Binyamin
When Rachel was giving birth to her second son, the Torah says, “As her soul departed, she died; she named him Ben Oni, but his father called him Binyamin (35:18).” Rabbi YY Jacobson presents a question that is asked. Why, when Rachel was in such a critical condition, did Yaakov argue with her over the name to be given to their newborn child? Wouldn’t Yaakov want to say words of comfort?
The answer is simple. These were words of comfort. Rabbi YY Jacobson explains this, saying that when Yaakov was leaving Lavan’s house, Lavan discovered his idols were missing. He accused Yaakov of stealing them, to which Yaakov replied, “The one with whom you find your gods shall not live (Vayetze 31:32).” Yaakov had unknowingly cursed his beloved wife, Rachel, because he didn’t realize she had taken them. When Rachel was dying, she named the baby “Ben Oni” which can be translated to “the son of my deception.” Rachel didn’t want her husband to feel guilty or upset about the curse, she was telling him “It’s my fault for taking the idols, I am to blame, not you.” But Yaakov felt the same emotion for his wife, and he named him Binyamin, which can translate to “the son of the oath,” since one raises their yamin—right hand when making one. Yaakov blamed his own oath to Lavan as the cause of his wife’s tragic death. In these few words, the Torah describes the incredibly special relationship Yaakov and Rachel had. The last words Yaakov said to his wife were to make her feel at ease, and Rachel’s last words to her husband were to make him feel better as well.
Rabbi YY Jacobson discusses another explanation from Ramban, saying the word Oni has many meanings, and can be interpreted as “grief” and also “strength.” When Rachel was dying, she named her son Ben Oni—son of my grief. But Yaakov renamed him, naming him Binyamin—son of the right or strength, as the Ramban says, “for the right side is the seat of strength.” The Ramban explains that just like the other sons who were all named by their mothers, Yaakov wanted this son to be named by his mother, and he accepted the name Ben Oni, only he converted it to the positive meaning of strength.
Rabbi Jacobson expounds on this Ramban. Yaakov was communicating to himself, to his wife, to his newborn baby and to his children one of the most important messages of Judaism. The same word in Hebrew used for grief and pain is the word used for strength and vigor. How? All sorrow and pain must bring forth a new birth of strength, awareness, and insight. Yaakov ensured that his son will not see himself as a product of sorrow and pain. Yes, he would grieve for the pain and sorrow, but he would never become a victim of it. Instead, he would transform his pain into a source of strength and empowerment.
May we all be able to overcome our yetzer hara so that we can keep far away from sin and so we can have the zechut to be able to learn and support Torah institutions in our community and in Israel. May we also learn to live with the understanding and comfort that everything that Hashem does for us is only good which we will ultimately see in the end. Amen!
Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey
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