TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Vayishlah

Torah Sparks
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TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Vayishlah December 14, 2019 | 16 Kislev 5780
Annual | Bereshit 32:4-36:43 (Etz Hayim p. 198-220; Hertz p. 122-134)
Triennial Bereshit 32:4-33:20 (Etz Hayim p. 198-206; Hertz p. 122-127)
Haftarah | Obadiah 1:1-21 (Etz Hayim p. 221-225; Hertz p. 137-140)

D’var Torah: Being Made Small
Gabriel Gendler, Conservative Yeshiva Alum, runs Monday Night Seder at the yeshiva as he pursues his PhD in Mathematics at the Hebrew University

Before encountering Esav, Yaakov prays to God and makes the incredible declaration: קטנתי מכל החסדים - katonti mi’kol hahasadim - “I have been made small by all of the kindnesses and by all of the truth that you have done your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan and now I have become two camps.” (Genesis 32:11)

The manuscripts disagree about the cantillation of the word katonti (the markings that indicates how a word of Torah is sung). The early 11th century Leningrad codex has an uplifting azla-geresh, whereas the 10th century Aleppo codex suggests a more downbeat revi'a. To this day, different humashim give Torah readers contradictory instructions. Discrepancies in trope such as these are rare, and often suggest differing readings of the underlying words. We often think of smallness as negative, and the verse katonti mi’kol hahasadim is read accordingly in many midrashim and targumim (translations) and eventually by Rashi:

I have been made small by all of the kindnesses - my merits have been diminished as a result of the kindnesses and the truth which you have done with me; therefore I fear that since you promised me [that you would protect me] I have been sullied by sin, and this will cause me to be delivered into the hand of Esav.

The Vilna Gaon, the 18th century scholar and foremost leader of Misnagdic (non-Hasidic) Jewry, would have had this interpretation in mind when he ruled that the correct trope for the word is indeed the minor revi'a. His rival and the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, however, encouraged his followers to use the major azla-geresh. After the death of the Vilna Gaon, opponents of Hasidism made accusations against Shneur Zalman which led to his arrest by the Russian empire on suspicion of treason (the Lubavitcher tradition argues that the accusations in the earthly courts were successful because they were concurrent with theological accusations being leveled in the heavenly court by the newly arrived Vilna Gaon). His last Shabbat in captivity was Parashat Vayishlah, and on the 19th of Kislev, he was released. When he returned he sent the following to his followers:

"I have been made small by the kindnesses..." With each hesed [kindness] that the Holy Blessed One does for a person, he should become very humble. Because "hesed is [God's] right arm", and "[God's] right arm embraces me" (Shir Hashirim 2:6) and [embracing] describes meaningful closeness to God, with greater intensity than before. And all who are close to God and thus raised up higher and higher should become humbler and humbler, as it becomes more clear that everything is as nothing before God. - The Holy Letter, Epistle 2

Schneur Zalman takes katonti to be a more positive and far more profound statement. Yaakov's response to God's overwhelming kindness is not to weigh this kindness against his own merits and to find himself undeserving. Rather, it is to give himself over completely to God, and to make himself small - to shrink his sense of self-importance and to recognize the wonder of God's presence in the world, which embraces all of us and alone is worthy of our service and devotion. No word in the humash could be more worthy of euphoric cantillation.

Yaakov's display of gratitude is the culmination of years of personal growth. After his dream at the beginning of Parshat Vayetzei, he declares a bargaining position: if God gives me food and clothing and protection, then I will give tithes. Decades later, Yaakov has realized that the hesed that God shows us cannot be reduced to a checklist, nor can its value be compensated by any wealth we acquire. God's hesed is the beginning and the end of everything, and the only response available to us is deep and life-changing gratitude.

In this month Kislev, as we recite Hallel for Hanukah, may we all merit to hold this gratitude in our minds and hearts as we sing: הודו לה׳ כי טוב, כי לעולם חסדו - Hodu la’shem ki tov, ki l’olam hasdo - Give thanks to God who is good, whose kindness is forever.

Parashah Study: Esav’s Greeting
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

In the last parashah Yaakov is instructed by God to head back towards Canaan. Now comes the inevitable meeting Yaakov has been dreading for twenty years: The meeting with Esav whose blessing he took deceitfully.

TEXT - Bereshit 32:4-9 Yaakov sent messengers ahead to his brother Esav… He instructed them saying: “Thus shall you say to my lord Esav, thus says your servant Yaakov: I stayed with Laban…I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep and male and female slaves; and I sent this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor.” The messengers returned saying “we came to your brother to Esav, and he is coming towards you, and four hundred men are with him.” Yaakov was greatly frightened and distressed…

  • How does Yaakov speak about Esav to his messengers (presumably so that they forward that message when they meet Esav)?
  • How do the messengers speak about Esav when they return to Yaakov? What might the difference indicate?
  • How does Yaakov interpret the words of the messengers? What do you think led him to this understanding of the situation? Was it justified?

COMMENTARY - Radak on Bereshit 32:7 They returned…to you brother to Esav – they said ‘Esav’ after they said ‘your brother’, meaning he is still as he was in his animosity. And he is coming towards you - and he is showing his animosity for he is coming towards you having heard that you are coming. And four hundred men are with him – he is not coming towards you for peace but rather for war; as he is coming with four hundred men, it seems that he is coming to fight with you.

COMMENTARY - Hizkuni on Bereshit 32:7 And he is coming towards you – to greet you with joy. And four hundred men are with him – to honor you.

  • What in the text pointed each of these commentators in the direction of the reading they chose?
  • Which reading seems closer to the meaning of the Torah text? Which is closer to your understanding of Esav at this point?
  • How should Yaakov proceed at this point according to each of the scenarios presented by the commentaries?

D’var Haftarah: Israel & Edom
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

People often ask how Esav came to be characterized as evil. While it is clear that Yaakov and Esav were adversaries, the Torah’s storyline does not leave us with this impression. Only later in biblical and post-biblical literature does this picture emerge. Its roots are in historical experience. Esav, or Edom, was seen as the progenitor of the Edomites, a nation which dwelled on the other side of Yam Hamelah (the Dead Sea). During the Babylonian conquest of Judea and Jerusalem in 586 BCE, the Edomites allied themselves with the Babylonian enemy, who they aided and abetted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. From the vantage point of the Judeans, the Edomites prospered on their account. The book of Obadiah, a prophecy of a single chapter, reflects the Judeans’ pent up animosity over this betrayal.

Ironically, during the period of the Hasmoneans, the Edomites were driven into the Negev and eventually absorbed into the Jewish people. With the demise of the actual Edomites, the negative imagery associated with Esav and Edom became associated with Rome, who, towards the beginning of the Common Era, conquered the land of Israel. The upshot of this was that the book of Obadiah in rabbinic times became associated with Jewish bitterness over Roman oppression. Hence, the verse: “For the violence (me-hamas) done to your brother Yaakov, disgrace shall engulf you (Edom) and you shall perish forever” (1:10) never lost its bite.

What object lesson should we tease from this pent-up bitterness? In one midrash, the sages took a counterintuitive approach. Instead of focusing on their anger, they expressed their concern that the oppressed people might seek to emulate the “successful” behavior of their Roman oppressors: “And so said the Holy Spirit through Solomon - ‘Do not envy the man of violence (Esav/Rome) and choose none of his ways’ (Proverbs 3:31) ‘Do not envy’ the peace which Esav (Rome) enjoys and ‘do not choose its ways’, namely, do not imitate their deeds. Why? Look to the end of the matter. For a day will come when God will scorn those who scoff at His commandments, as it is written: ‘The Lord abhors the man of blood and deceit’ (Psalms 5:7).” (adapted from Bemidbar Rabbah 11:1)

The sages who composed this midrash expressed a fear that people might see oppression as a means for attaining their ends and it frightened them. Their answer is definitive: God will not abide such an idea.

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