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Parashat Vayishlach 5776 — 11/28/2015

Parashat Vayishlach 5776 — 11/28/2015

Bereishit 32:4-36:43

L’ilui nishmat Maria Smallow


Titein emet l’Ya’akov, chesed l’Avraham / Give Truth to Ya’akov, lovingkindness to Avraham… (Micah 7:20)

The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is Truth.  (Shabbat 55a)

“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (Keats)

Satyameva Jayate / Truth always triumphs (Sanskrit proverb)

Ya’akov is the embodiment of the attribute of Truth, according to Rabbinic tradition.  He is the product of the two previous generations of the Patriarchs: Avraham, who is the embodiment of chesed, lovingkindness, the unrestricted flow of energy from the infinite into finite creation, and Yitzchak, the embodiment of gevurah, strength, the quality of giving boundaries to the flow of chesed so that it can be channeled in a productive way.  When these two tendencies are properly balanced, the result is, in Kabbalistic terms, tiferet / beauty, harmony of all the parts.  This harmony is also associated with truth, hence the association of Ya’akov with truth (I don’t know if this is where Keats got the association though!).

So R. Steinsaltz takes this opportunity to tackle the issue of Truth – where is Truth to be found?  First, he notes that if Ya’akov is the paradigm of Truth, then many of his actions: getting the blessings from Yitzchak that he presumably intended for Esau; using “genetic engineering” to get Lavan’s flocks into his own hands; promising Esau that he would “come to him in Seir” when he knew he had no intention of getting anywhere near the place – leave us scratching our heads to try and figure out what Truth is.

This world, by its very nature and structure, is full of falsehood, and in a world of falsehood, the choice between truth and falsehood does not exist. Hence, our recurring question in this world is not whether to be truthful or not; in actuality, the whole truth was never within our grasp in the first place.

   The choice that we have in the reality of this world is a lot less dramatic than the abstract question of truth versus falsehood, but it is a much more nuanced question. In a world where only partial truths exist, how and to what extent should we accept the inevitability of falsehood? Should we be satisfied with half-truths, quarter-truths, or three-quarters truths? If we accept that a life of total truth is impossible, the least that we can do is set forth guidelines as to the manner in which we do not speak truth.

A very sobering assessment, isn’t it?  It actually is a tremendous challenge to navigate a world of falsehood, continually, like Diogenes, seeking Truth.  In fact, R. Steinsaltz answers his previous question, about Ya’akov’s seeming deviation from the Truth, by saying that Ya’akov may embody Truth with a capital T, but when acting in the world, the actual realization of Truth may be far from the absolute Truth.  In Lavan’s world, Truth may have to be realized by means of deception.  To quote an old proverb from India, it takes a thorn to remove a thorn.

A wise man once defined Truth as “that which lasts [forever].”  If this is the case, then it is certainly futile to try to find Truth in the ever-changing material world.  The best we can do is try to find unchanging principles – laws of nature or laws of mathematics – that underlie the changing forms and phenomena of creation.  This is the realm of science and mathematics, but even there, one finds shaky ground.  In physics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle tells us that we can never obtain absolute knowledge of the state of a system, and in mathematics, Gödel’s theorem tells us that our knowledge of any mathematical system will always be incomplete.

If we want absolute Truth, we must look for it in an Absolute realm, which transcends the creation.  Virtually every tradition posits the existence of such a level of life – an unchanging, unmanifest reality which somehow manifests itself as a world full of changing forms and phenomena.  This underlying reality actually resides deep within each one of us – it is our soul, what we essentially are when we strip away the trappings of body, mind, social conventions.  So each one of us carries Truth within ourselves, only it is covered up by our attachment to our bodies and their desires for physical pleasure, and our minds with their idées fixes and our need to be right.  In the same way, Gd is the Truth of the world, but His presence is covered over by the material creation, at least to ordinary perception.

What we need to do is to reconnect with our own infinity, which is our own nature.  We can embody Truth, but only if it is an all-time lived reality to us.  That is our primary purpose in life.  Once our awareness is established on the transcendental level, then all of our activity, even though activity is performed in the world of change, reflects the perfectly integrated level of Truth.  We have transcended our body and mind – no longer do our old, petty agendas dominate our actions.  Instead, our action can be completely in accord with Gd’s Will, undistorted by considerations of our individuality.  Our every action brings Truth and beauty, integration and evolution and spontaneous creativity into the mundane world.  We may never find absolute Truth in creation, but we can certainly remake ourselves, and thereby remake creation, to approach Truth asymptotically.

Haftarah: Ovadiah 1:1-1:21

(The Haftarah is the whole Book of Ovadia, which is part of the book of the Hebrew Bible known as “The 12” = 12 “minor” prophets: Hosea, Amos, Micah, Ovadia, Nachum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zecharia, Malachi, Jonah, Joel.  Ovadia was a descendent of Edomite converts and prophecied against Edom = Esau; this is the connection with the parashah, which deals with the confrontation between Ya’akov and Esau.)

Because of the day you stood aloof, the day strangers plundered his [i.e. Israel’s] wealth, foreigners entered his gates and they cast lots on Jerusalem – you were one of them.  You should not have gazed on the day of your brother, the day he was exiled; you should not have rejoiced over the children of Judah on the day of their destruction; you should not have spoken arrogantly on the day of distress!  [11-12]

It appears that Edom’s worst sin was standing aloof, looking on while Israel was being despoiled.  Certainly, the Babylonians’ destruction of the Temple was a terrible thing, which we undoubtedly thoroughly deserved.  But to have our own family just watch it happen, and either not care at all, or even rejoice over it – it certainly rankles.  Apparently it rankled Gd as well, as the prophet goes on to say that this cavalier attitude on Edom’s part would catalyze their complete destruction.  Torah tells us we are put on earth to “walk in Gd’s ways,” which the Sages say means, “Just as Gd is compassionate and merciful, so should we be compassionate and merciful, etc.”  This empathy, which comes from a deep feeling of connection with Gd and with Gd’s creation, is the antithesis of Edom’s attitude.  And although the prophet goes on to describe Edom’s destruction and Israel’s reward for their respective approaches to life, truly being merciful and compassionate is its own reward.  Incidentally, lest one think that this is a theoretical issue, be reminded that in Rabbinic tradition Edom = Rome = by extension Western civilization.  How merciful and compassionate is Western society – especially US society?