Skip to content

Parashat Vayishlach 5774 — 11/13/2013

Parashat Vayishlach 5774 — 11/13/2013

Happy Birthday Rebbetsin Chaya Green

He took what had come into his hand as a present for Eisav, his brother. (Bereishis 32:14)

We would have expected Yaakov to handpick the choicest sheep, cattle, and camels, since he was trying to win favor with Eisav. Why was he not particular to single out the most perfect specimens of each species? Why did he take just “what had come into his hand,” which might have included animals that were blemished and perhaps even lame? [Similar to the idea in Malachi 1:8 regarding korbanos.]

   The explanation is that although, as the Torah tells us, Yaakov felt compelled to appease Eisav with presents [including animals], Yaakov did not want to be the one who proactively selected the animals being sent to their humiliating fate. He sent only “what had come into his hand:’ having made a logical deduction from the incident where he took large rocks to rest his head upon, and the rocks began to quarrel (“On me:’ each one said, “will the tzaddik rest his head”). That incident taught him that even inanimate stones have kedushah – all the more so living animals. The level of kedushah in animals is certainly higher than the level of kedushah in rocks, reasoned Yaakov, so he did not have the heart to choose with his own hands the animals that would go to Eisav, and thus be debased. For this reason, he took only “what had come into his hand’  (Chofetz Chaim)

I have a friend who confronts people who quote the Bible at her to justify views that she holds abhorrent.  She asks them when they became fluent in Hebrew, so that they can pick up the subtle nuances of expression from which the Rabbis can derive “mounds of halachot [laws].”  I’ve suggested that she follow that question up by asking if they’re quite familiar with  the Rabbinic tradition, as embodied in the Talmud and Midrashim, which has subjected every letter of Scripture to exacting and exhaustive analysis, and which also has a wealth of oral tradition, dating back to the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, upon which it can draw.

We have a beautiful example of just this phenomenon in the Chofetz Chaim’s analysis of the seemingly innocuous phrase “what came into his hand.”  Now one might be tempted to pass this off as an idiomatic expression meaning “what he possessed,” and indeed it can have this meaning.  But the Rabbis assume that Torah does not waste even a single letter – since Torah is Gd’s words, every word and every letter has meaning on many levels.  Why would Torah waste 3 words (in Hebrew: min haba b’yado) telling us that Ya’akov sent Esau a present from animals that were in his possession?  Where else would he have gotten the animals?  He didn’t steal a penny from the swindler Lavan in 20 years and he was fabulously wealthy, so it wasn’t likely he’d start a career as a cattle rustler now!

The Chafetz Chaim sees in this innocent expression some very profound ideas, of which I’d like to discuss 3.  First, he states explicitly that everything, animal, vegetable or mineral, contains within itself some level of kedushah, holiness.  Second, Ya’akov did not want to do anything that would actively degrade this kedushah.  Third, he used an apparently random means of selection (“whatever came to his hand”), trusting that Gd would arrange an ideal outcome.

As we have discussed on a number of occasions, creation is structured in layers.  We know this from modern physics, where the surface layer of macroscopic objects is made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms, which are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons, etc.  We believe that underlying all these particles, and the various forms and phenomena that they structure, is a single, unified field that has different modes of activity, each of which appears to us as a different particle, with its different properties and interactions.

Our Sages tell us that on the spiritual side we find a similar structure.  We have a body, but inside the body, animating it, we also have a soul.  That soul contains many layers, but at its basis is the infinite, unbounded basis of all life.  This infinite basis of all life is the source of holiness in the world.  The word holy comes from the word whole – the holy is that which reflects the wholeness and unity of its infinite source.  Now it is clear that a human being with fully expanded consciousness, who clearly perceives him or herself to be essentially infinite and tangentially finite, is a holy man or woman.  What the Chafetz Chaim is stating though, is that even lower forms of life, and even inanimate objects, to a certain extent also reflect the wholeness of the infinite, which is, after all, at the basis of their existence, just as it is at the basis of our existence.

To be able to perceive this level of reality is quite an accomplishment!  Having an intellectual conception of what it might mean is a starting point, but apparently Ya’akov Avinu was able to see the kedushah inherent in everything, whatever that level of kedushah might be.  But now consider – it is an article of faith for us that Gd does not command the impossible from us; if a commandment is in the Torah, it is doable.  Now Torah commands us “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  The commentators seem to hedge this somewhat, arguing that nobody can love someone else as he loves himself.  But perhaps Torah is telling us that we need to reach a level where we can directly perceive the infinite value of every piece of creation, and certainly another human being – the same infinite value that we perceive at our own basis.  Then there is, on a deep level, no difference between Self and Other, and we truly can love someone as ourselves.  This may be a tall order, but perhaps Torah is telling us that it is in fact not impossible after all.

The second point is that Ya’akov did not want actively to degrade the kedushah he perceived in the items he was sending to Esav.  Esav embodied the opposite of kedushah.  Holiness is the reflection of the perfect order that is inherent in Gd.  Esav’s lifestyle, focused on immediate gratification at any cost, is almost purely destructive.  It is dis-integrative, moving systems away from being able to reflect Gd’s perfection.  Ya’akov did not want to take an active part in exposing any integrated system to this disintegrating influence, yet he felt he needed to.

We all face this issue all the time.  We cannot not act; remaining inactive is an action in and of itself.  I am writing this right after Rosh haShanah while the country is debating what, if any, action to take against Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons against civilians in the Syrian civil war.  I assume by the time you read this a decision will have been made.  What is clear from the debate however, is that there are consequences of acting and there are consequences of not acting.  In the same way, on perhaps a smaller scale, every time we have a choice to make, we are caught up in the conundrum that whatever course we take, even the course of sitting on our hands, has consequences for which we are responsible.

This brings us to our third point.  Ya’akov’s solution was to take “what came to his hand.”  In other words, he didn’t choose the animals himself, he, as it were, cast lots among all his animals and the “lucky winners” got sent off to Esav.  Now the Biblical conception of a lottery is quite different from ours.  We think of a lottery as a game of random chance; a machine tumbles a bunch of ping-pong balls with numbers, and eventually spits out a few of them.  Whoever matches the randomly drawn numbers wins the prize.

As we discussed on a previous occasion, the Biblical conception of a lottery is quite different.  Some of the most important decisions in the life of the nation, most notably the division of the Land of Israel among the tribes, and the selection of the scapegoat every Yom Kippur, were made by lottery.  In the Biblical world-view, nothing is random.  This is because ultimately everything’s existence and action is based in Gd’s Existence and Gd’s activity, however we may try to understand how an infinite, unchanging Gd might act.  Therefore when we want to hand action back to Gd so to speak, we employ a lottery of sorts, something that appears on the surface to be random, but which we trust is Gd’s message to us telling us which is the correct way to proceed.

We can look at this on a deeper level.  When our mind is fully expanded, we realize that we are infinite, and therefore that our real self transcends the world of boundaries, finitude.  Since the infinite simply is, it does not participate in the activity of the finite.  After all, change, movement, activity, all take place within space and time, and the infinite is beyond space and time (see Rambam’s Principles of Faith, #3 and 4).  When we realize ourselves to be infinite, then all the activity of the world around is just happens.  We are beyond that activity.  Perhaps when Torah tells us that Ya’akov took “what came to his hand,” it is describing the perception from his level of awareness; he did not select the animals, because he knew himself to be infinite and not acting at all.  The animals that he “chose” came to his hand spontaneously, because for whatever reason, sending these animals to Esav was the most integrating choice (or the least dis-integrating choice).  In a sense, the answer to the conundrum of choosing a path of action is not on the level of action at all, but at the level of infinite being.  The Bhagavad-Gita (2:48) puts it succinctly: Established in being, perform action.  Our tradition holds Ya’akov Avinu as the most perfected of the three patriarchs, indeed of just about any human being.  Perhaps in this apparently offhand remark about some herds of animals, Torah gives us a glimpse of the inner reality of such a person, and urges us all to strive to reach that exalted level.

Shemoneh Esrei

Forgive us Father for we have sinned,

Pardon us O King, for we have rebelled,

For You are One Who pardons and forgives.

Blessed are You, Hashem, who graciously, repeatedly forgives.

Ya’aros D’vash notes the difference between forgiveness and pardon.  A father forgives an errant child, completely forgetting the transgression and leaving the child with a clean slate to start again.  If we inadvertently sin on occasion, we are still considered children of Gd, and can hope for this level of forgiveness.  I’m writing this between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and we are focused on beseeching Gd’s forgiveness at this time.  If we continue to sin, somehow unaware of the gravity of what we are doing, then we become more like rebellious servants of the King.  We can only hope for pardon, which means the King will forebear from punishing us, but the residue of the sin is still there, creating a barrier between us and Gd.  And it is this barrier that keeps us bottled up in our small, finite selves that is its own punishment.  When we recite this b’rachah, we need to keep in mind that our actions are extremely powerful, because they come from a conscious, human mind, with free choice and the ability to self-reflect.  As long as we are limited, we will make mistakes, which will limit us further.  As the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 4:2) puts it: A transgression brings another transgression in its train; the consequence of a transgression is another transgression.  By the same token, a mitzvah brings another mitzvah, clearing away the debris and bringing us closer to Gd, step by step.  It’s only a question of which direction we want to take!