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Parashat Vayishlach 5777 — 12/17/2016

Parashat Vayishlach 5777 — 12/17/2016

Bereishit 32:4-36:43

L’ilui nishmat Maria Smallow

The theme of our parashah is the confrontation between good and evil, as exemplified by Ya’akov and Esav (and the “man” that Ya’akov wrestled with, whom the Rabbis variously identify as Esav’s guardian angel or the Satan/Accuser or Samael, the angel of Evil, or all of the above). Ramchal elucidates various aspects of this confrontation.

Ya’akov sent angels before him to Esav his brother, in the land of Se’ir, the field of Edom (32:4)

Defeating evil generally requires forcing them into submission in their place of rule. Esav ruled over Har Se’ir … Ya’akov therefore sent angels, rooted in gevurah, strength, in the hopes of defeating the forces of Esav.

I might point out the varied meanings of the word Se’ir – Esav’s place. The word can mean goat, or demon (demons were often associated with goats in many cultures; I suspect Joseph Campbell would be a good place to turn for an analysis of this phenomenon) and it can also mean hair. Now a goat is a domesticated animal of course, but it has a bit of a wild streak in it, especially of a sensual nature, and that is perhaps the connection with demons. In Indian tradition it is held that cutting the hair releases the senses from control, which is why you often find that Indian holy men have long hair. This was borne out by a US Army study (during the Vietnam era) that found that Native American scouts lost their “sixth sense” (measured both by self-report and by objective tests) when forced to abandon their traditional long hair for a GI cut. The Army quickly made an exception to their grooming policy. Thus we see that Esav/evil is associated with a kind of instinctual, wild, out-of-control, animalistic approach to life. This is, of course, opposed to the spiritual ideal embodied by Ya’akov, who restrained his instinct to satisfy his bodily cravings in order to develop his spirit.

Now Esav is a son of Yitzchak, and therefore had a side of good in him. For example, he was exemplary in his honoring his parents, an area where Ya’akov is faulted (for staying away for so long). When Ya’akov returned he sent to Esav the following message: Im Lavan garti – I stayed with Lavan. The significance of the word garti, “I stayed” is twofold. First, it indicates a temporary residence – Ya’akov was forced to leave the Land of Israel by Esav’s murderous intent. Second, the numerical value of garti is 613, the number of mitzvot in the Torah. How Ya’akov knew the number of mitzvot in the Torah is a question for another drash, or another book. What Ya’akov was hinting to Esav was that he may have been in a place of impurity, but he was able to maintain the purity of his lifestyle and his consciousness in spite of that, and that purity would protect him. Furthermore:

Ya’akov and Esav were each placed in this world to rectify certain aspects of creation. Ya’akov’s task was to rectify aspects of kedusha [holiness], while Esav’s task was to battle the tumah [impurity] and bring the sitra achra [the “other side” – the side of evil] into submission. When Esav chose a path of evil and ignored his task, Ya’akov had to take on his task as well. Ya’akov therefore set out to accomplish this by going to the house of Lavan.

This division of labor is the reason that Yitzchak originally wanted to give the material blessings to Esav; when Rivka saw that the blessings would be misused by Esav she set up the little charade that diverted them to Ya’akov, who was going to need them as he took over Esav’s role as well as his own. That of course is what set up Ya’akov’s exile into Lavan’s domain, and the subsequent confrontation with the “aggrieved” Esav.

It seems obvious what it means to rectify tumah – where there is darkness, bring in light. Esav preferred to wallow in the darkness, so it became up to Ya’akov (this means us, the Jewish people!) to do so. But what does it mean to rectify kedusha? Presumably kedusha is already rectified! The only answer I have been able to come up with is this: according to the Kabbalah, there are “sparks of kedusha,” “pieces” of the Divine if you will, that are scattered around the universe and “imprisoned” within shells of material existence. The real “work” of the Jew in prayer and in performing mitzvot is to release these sparks of kedusha from their shells and raise them up to their celestial source. Ya’akov’s marriage to Rachel and Leah is an example – these two holy souls were imprisoned in Lavan’s domain, and Ya’akov was able to release and elevate them. Perhaps this is what “rectifying kedusha” means.

Perhaps the central point of the Ya’akov-Esav confrontation is not when they actually meet, but the night prior, when Ya’akov wrestles with the man/angel. Commentators have taken this angel to be Ya’akov’s own guilty conscience – feeling guilty not so much for having “stolen” the blessings as for having deceived his father. Certainly Ya’akov, whose essence is Truth, must have had to overcome his nature to pull off the deception, but he must have known that the outcome was correct, or else Yitzchak, who was a great prophet, could not have been deceived, blind or not. What seems to me a preferable interpretation is that Ya’akov was wrestling with the “angel of Esav,” a kind of projection of Esav’s consciousness. These commentators state that the “blessing” which the angel finally gives Ya’akov after their bout is an acknowledgment that indeed the birthright and the Abrahamic blessing belonged to Ya’akov. Ramchal uses the numerical value of some of the words to get another take on the wrestling match:

Ya’akov, without hesitation, sent a tribute-gift, a minchah, to his brother Esav. The minchah, whose numerical value is 103 [mem = 40, nun = 50, chet = 8, heh = 5], served to counteract the forces of impurity nourishing from 103 spiritual lights of holiness. To remove their grasp on these 103 lights, Ya’akov sent them a minchah to grab onto in place of those lights. Many times when there is a “prosecution” against the people of Israel in the heavenly realms we send a “tribute” to Satan [the prosecuting angel] in order that he should be pacified and preoccupied. This is the secret to the goat that we send out to the wilderness [i.e. “to Azazel”] on Yom Kippur. …

What is the significance of the unusual expression vay’avek [“and he wrestled”]? Our Sages teach us that the word vay’avek contains the word avak – dust – signifying that during their battle, Ya’akov and the angel kicked up dust, which rose to the Heavenly Throne. On a deeper level, the numerical value of avak is 103 [aleph = 1, bet = 2, kuf = 100], which, as we just explained, corresponds to the 103 lights of kedusha, which the forces of tumah attempt to nourish from.

Again we see that evil has no substance in and of itself – it depends on kedusha, the good and the holy, for its nourishment, even as it tries to destroy that which is good and holy. [And again, I remind everyone that we never say things like this to someone who is suffering from the evil actions of other people!] In the same way, darkness has no substance – it is merely the absence of light, and merely bringing in light will chase away the darkness.

The idea of sending a “tribute” to the Satan is actually very common in Rabbinic thought even besides the examples that Ramchal gives. The idea that the Satan can be “fooled” or “preoccupied” seems hopelessly anthropomorphic and naïve, which means it cannot be interpreted literally. I will go out on a limb here and speculate on a possible meaning to this cryptic idea. One way to describe the highest ideal of human awareness is a state in which one sees Oneness as the all-pervading reality of life, both subjective and objective. That is, we recognize ourself to be infinite, and we recognize that the same infinity lies at the basis of every object of perception. All we see and think and do is nothing other than waves on the surface of the ocean of infinity. There is no room for any limitations, any tumah, any sitra achra, any evil in such a state of consciousness. Unfortunately, there is no room for individuality either, and we, in our finite selves, would not get to enjoy this magnificent view of life. It’d just be the infinite enjoying itself! That would be a real shame, considering the long path we have to tread to get to this height. What is the answer? We make an “offering to the Satan” – we as it were reserve a little bit of individuality, a little piece of finitude, that can experience infinity but is itself not infinite. It is this little bit of individuality that allows us to be an individual experiencer, even as we know ourselves to be the universal Experiencer. I’m certainly not close enough to this level to understand this concept completely, and I invite one and all to come up with alternatives!

The confrontation between good and evil is the basic story of creation – separation of the finite from the infinite and the progression of the finite to reintegrate with the infinite. It is a struggle that is continually waged inside each of us, every day. When we study our texts and learn the mechanisms behind this struggle, we can more successfully acquit ourselves on the battlefield of life.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Vayishlach

I felt great joy in listening to Rabbi Michoel recite this parsha and I felt he was feeling similar joy.

Joy is a sign to me of teshuvah, return to the One who/which is all Joy, all Love, Total Balance, Total Integration.

There are two major events in this parshah, each one showing a type of integration of stillness and activity, of partiality and totality.

First, Jacob wrestles with a man who then seems to be an angel and perhaps is Gd, although many commentators consider the wrestling a wrestling within himself to overcome his fears, his lower human self and to rise to the level where he acts from a higher level of his personality, one that is more heavenly, more divine, more Gdly.

When Jacob wrestles with someone in the night, the Hebrew says: Genesis, XXXII, 25, that it was a man, but in Genesis XXXII, 29, the man says, (Soncino Press, Pentateuch, Rabbi Hertz translation), “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but ‘Israel”; for thou hast striven with Gd and with men, and hast prevailed”. From this, we get the higher sense: the man is in some way a representative of Gd, perhaps Gd Himself.

Personally, I feel the important point here is that we can overcome our inertia, our lower self and rise to Teshuvah, return to Oneness, Totality. However far Jacob rose in this event, commentators differ and we can differ but the event is an expression within Torah and therefore within Gd so reading it can enliven greater ability within us to live and act as Totality, not merely as an impulse of Totality.

Jacob says of this experience “I have seen Gd face-to-face and lived” though there are those who translate as “I have seen an angel of Gd face-to-face and lived.”

Jacob names the place “Peniel”: Face of Gd. “Pen” means “face” and “El” means “Gd”. So Jacob felt he wrestled with Gd, not just a man, or an angel. “Wrestling” we can interpret as “clinging”, so first Gd clings to Jacob, then Jacob clings to Gd.

This is encouraging, that however lost we feel, Gd may at any time cling to us and draw us to him, and we can cling to Him, to Totality, and go beyond loss, confusion, fear and return to Total Awareness, Love, Joy, Confidence, Nothing left out.

Intriguingly, by clinging to Jacob, Gd causes Jacob, the “quiet man who sits in tents”, to strive, to becomes an active man, “one who strives with Gd and with men,” to become like his brother Esau, a man of the fields—although perhaps at a much higher level of activity since we do not see anything in Torah that speaks about Gd speaking or clinging to Esau.

Second, when Esau and Jacob finally meet, Jacob prostrates before Esau seven times and Esau embraces him and kisses him wholeheartedly: they part on good terms. As with everything in life, and seemingly Torah too, there are those who say Esau’s kiss was not wholehearted but the succeeding conversation in which they speak to each other as loving brothers seems to support the wholehearted view.

In these two events we see integration of the opposites that Jacob and Esau are often treated as representing (although these interpretations avoid the much they have in common, as all humans must):

Jacob, representing silence, in the direction of “Be still and know that I am Gd” (Psalm 46) and Esau symbolizing striving as in a different translation of this phrase: “Cease striving and know that I am Gd”. Yet the silence bows down to the activity and the activity embraces the silence and we have two brothers, one family.

So can we all do by letting our silence bow to our activity through prayer and other good actions and letting our actions embrace our silence by pausing routinely from action to let our activity settle into silence – and eventually find that the two are one, active silence, silent activity.

Baruch HaShem