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TorahAnytimes Newsletter Vayishlach

Parshat Vayishlach

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik


"The TorahAnyTimes" Newsletter

Parashat Vayishlach                                                               Print Version 
16th of Kislev, 5782 | November 20, 2021

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik

Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair
Illusions of Life

Sir Richard Branson has successfully reached the edge of space on board his Virgin Galactic rocket plane. The UK entrepreneur flew high above New Mexico in the US and the vehicle that his company has been developing for the last 17 years. The trip was, he said, the experience of a lifetime. It's easy to think of life as a trip through a treasure house of experiences: climbing Everest, flying around the world in 80 days or to the edge of space.

This belief sees life as a compendium of possibilities, and he who dies with the most toys or the most trophies wins. According to this view, someone who lives his life without tasting any of life's myriad experiences hasn't really lived. The eulogy “He had a good life” means that the person maximized his experiences in this world.

Judaism's view of this world is the total opposite. Life experiences are like Cinderella. They last by definition for as long as one experience them, however sweet and however exciting they may be. Then comes the moment when the gilded coach turns back into a pumpkin. Every moment of our life is constantly passing and vanishing and dying forever. As soon as the taste of one moment has expired, we've got to seek a new taste, a new experience. If life is only the sum total of our experiences, then life is really a series of small deaths, never being able to possess that moment itself. And all those small deaths lead to a big death at the end.

The truth is that all the pleasures of this world, all the experiences of this world are given to us for one reason only: that we might sense, to the smallest degree, the taste of life itself. Imagine standing in front of a firing squad, staring down the long black barrel of a rifle and just in that second, the messenger runs into the town square. “Stop the execution! The prisoner is free to go!” Imagine how you would feel at that moment. The euphoria when we're saved from a certain death experience is the perception of life itself.

There is, however, another less drastic and certainly more elevating way to experience the taste of life. It's called Shabbat. The Talmud teaches us that the world as we know it will last for 6000 years, and in the seventh millennium, about 230 years from now, the world will undergo a fundamental change. At that time, all activity will cease. It's difficult for us to understand, but the world as we know it will come to an end and the world that will exist then is known as Olam Haba, literally, the World to Come. If one were to try and imagine that future world, it would be like Shabbat every day. Shabbat is a hint to the future world, the faintest whisper of that reality. On Shabbat, we make contact with something that's beyond this world. We experience life itself.

Some 600 people have already paid Virgin deposits for tickets that will cost them up to $250,000 to fly to the edge of space. And such a flight should also afford them about five minutes of weightlessness, during which they'll float around the cabin. Shabbat gives you more than 24 hours of weightlessness and costs considerably less than a quarter of a million dollars.

All this leads to a rather powerful, perhaps new perspective about life and how we view its purpose and our place within.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, business in the United States of America was largely an East Coast affair. The movies changed that. Movie making was a new business and it was as wide open as the Wild West. The owners of the first New York movie theaters were almost exclusively Jewish. Now those movie theaters were hungry beasts, and they needed a constant and varied diet to keep them full. So those theater owners looked around for a place with year-round sunshine to film in low rents and plenty of cheap labor. And they found some sleepy orange groves a few miles outside the city of Los Angeles. The place had a rather bland name. It was called Hollywood. From a few oranges, a legend was born. If a lot was new about Hollywood, some things were not. Hollywood was really the latest chapter of a two thousand five hundred year old dialogue, a dialogue about how you get beneath the surface of things, about how you get to the truth. The dialogue between Jerusalem and Athens.

You might have thought that the story of Hanukkah was about how a small group of Torah loyal Jews challenged against the armies of the Greek empire. In fact, it's a story about how the Torah beat out Hollywood, its Second Century B.C.E. equivalent. Because more of a threat to Judaism than the Greeks themselves were those nice Jews who wanted to be more Greek than the Greeks. The Hellenists adopted Greek names and they patronized the theater, which the Greeks conceived of as religious worship. And to compete in athletic competitions, they removed the evidence of Brit Milah, circumcision, the mark of the Eternal between God and the Jewish people. Why did these Jews abandon their faith?

Look up to the sky on the cloudy day. You can see the clouds. It says in the Book of Iyov, Job, “By His breath, the heavens are spread.” The word in Hebrew for “spread aside” is Shifa. God spreads aside the curtain of cloud to reveal what is beyond. Shifa has the same roots as shapir, which means beautifying. In Jewish thought, beauty comes only from the revealing of the essence of something. Art for art's sake is a contradiction in terms because something that reveals nothing but itself can never be beautiful. Beauty can never be skin deep. The Greeks and their ideological heirs believe that art has the power to take you beyond, to connect you to that which is above and through art and artifice, you can get to the truth.

Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that, “Poetry should bear a semblance of truth sufficient to procure that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” Now, this willing suspension of disbelief is at the heart of all theater and film. When we watch a play, we know that the person who just died so messily over the stage will be doing exactly the same thing at the 3:15 matinee tomorrow afternoon. And in the movie, we all know that the depicted character is no more than a few billion pixels generated by a computer whiz in an air conditioned Hollywood special effects factory. And yet, those illusions move us. How often do we find ourselves in tears when watching a movie? Why? It's just a dream, isn't it? And yet the heart is moved, moved by illusion.

Illusion is also a kind of truth, says the Greek. If the emotion is true, does it matter that it's a fiction? The heart of the debate between Athens and Jerusalem is that the Greek believes that celebrating the surface can take you beyond the surface, beneath the surface. That illusion can lead you to truth. The Jewish view is there is illusion or truth. And illusion only takes you to greater illusion. In those Hollywood dream factories, you'll find so many talented Jews who can't resist the challenge to light up the world. Neither could Chagall, Rothko, Modigliani, Pollock, Marla, Kafka, Mendelssohn, Marx, Trotsky, Freud or Einstein. Some fifteen percent of all Nobel Prize nominees have been Jewish. We want to light up the world. There's no brighter light in the world than the Torah.

Rebbetzin Chaya Sora Gertzulin
What Difference Does it Make?

Parshas Vayishlach opens with Yaakov Avinu and his family leaving the house of Lavan, ready to embark on a return journey home. The Torah tells us, “Yaakov was greatly afraid and distressed.” (Bereishis 32:8)

Yaakov knows that he will cross paths with his brother, Eisav, and as head of the household, his heart is full of worry and concern for his family. Will they be in harm’s way, are their lives in danger because of his past conflicts with Eisav?

The Ramban, in his opening commentary on Vayishlach, writes regarding Yaakov’s meeting with Eisav: “There is a message for future generations that everything that happened to our forefather Yaakov with Eisav, will continually occur to us with Eisav’s descendants”. Earlier in Bereishis, the Ramban writes, “Ma’aseh Ovos, siman l’bonim, everything that occurred to the Patriarchs is a sign for the children”. The lives of our avos are one with ours.

Yaakov readies himself for his encounter with Eisav in three ways: (1) He prepares for the worst and divides his family into two camps. This way, if one group would be attacked, the second group would be able to escape. (2) He sends gifts to Eisav, hoping to placate him. (3) He cries out to HaShem with prayers.

Yaakov’s response to his conflict with Eisav is a lesson for all of us on how to deal with our adversaries. Be prepared for all eventualities. Gifts help. And, of course, daven. “Kotonti mikol hachassodim…. Ki v’makli ovarti es haYardein… - I am not worthy of all the kindness and of all the truth You have done for Your servant; for with my rod I crossed the River Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please rescue me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav.” (Bereishis 32:11-12)

Yaakov’s tefillah is poignant. His words heartrending. His prayer is the story of our lives. Like Yaakov, our people have “crossed many rivers”. We have been coerced to abandon our homes. We have been expelled from many countries, and forced to begin anew.

Upon reading Yaakov’s prayer, I thought of my own family. My grandparents, my mother and her siblings, and so many other survivors, who like Yaakov before them, left their homeland empty-handed, arriving “only with the rod in their hand.” Upon arriving to this country, they started to rebuild, establishing shuls, yeshivos, and an entire infrastructure for future generations. They continued on with their holy work.

My father, z”l, arrived to this country alone. A true war orphan. Without parents or siblings. He became a teacher and a rov. He married and built a family.

I often wondered, how did they do it? How were they able to rebuild their own “camps” – their own families? How did the generation of Holocaust survivors have the fortitude to succeed in reestablishing new and flourishing communities?

The answer is quite simple. We are the children of Yaakov. We carry his spiritual DNA. The DNA that gives us the wherewithal to survive the exile. To survive the wrath of Eisav and start anew.

The parshah continues, and tells us about Yaakov’s meeting with the angel of Eisav. “And Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” (Bereishis 32:25).

Yaakov was left alone. History repeats itself. We are an am l’vodod yishkon, a nation that dwells alone.

As the angel of Eisav wrestled with Yaakov, so too, the descendants of Eisav are battling with us, time and time again. And through it all, we stand as a nation alone. Just as in the battle between Yaakov and Eisav, our battle will also continue until “the break of dawn”, until the arrival of the true light, with the coming of Moshiach.

The Torah’s recounting of the confrontation between Yaakov and Eisav concludes with Yaakov asking the angel for his name. To which the angel responds, “Lamah zeh tishal?, why do you ask,” – what difference does it make? This question haunts the Jewish people to this very day. Eisav appears and reappears with different names, different languages, and in different guises. Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Cossacks, Communists, Nazis, – the name is always changing, but the goal remains the same. To break us, to destroy us.

We recite at the Pesach Seder, “B’chol dor vodor omdim oleiunu l’chaloseinu – In each and every generation, there are those who rise up to destroy us, V’HaKodosh Boruch Hu matzileinu miyodom – But HaShem saves us from their hands.”

We, the Jewish people, take a page from the story of Yaakov. Yaakov was injured during his confrontation, and walked away limping, yet resilient in spirit, and strong with his faith. So too, we have been oppressed at the hands of tyrants and dictators. We have sustained many bumps and bruises. We have endured unimaginable pain, suffering, and even death. But it has never broken us. And it never will. Our oppressors through the ages are gone. But we are here. Am Yisroel Chai! Our commitment to HaShem’s Torah and mitzvos and chesed has kept the flame of yiddishkeit alive. It is our sacred obligation to continue this dedication, and to transmit these eternal values to our children and grandchildren.

B’ezras HaShem, may we all merit to see in our own time, the “Break of dawn”, the light of Moshiach.

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