Category Archives: Vayishlach

Blessings of the blessed (Vayishlach)

Blessings of the blessed (Vayishlach)

Not in rewards, but in the strength to strive, the blessing lies. -J. T. Towbridge

It is one of the more surreal scenes from the Torah; one that has fired the imagination of centuries of artists. Jacob has safely escaped from his duplicitous father-in-law Laban and prepares to confront his potentially murderous brother Esau (talk about a dysfunctional family). Jacob is attacked by an angel. Jacob and the angel wrestle the entire night until the break of dawn. At that point the angel smashes Jacob on the hip and begs Jacob to let him go “for the dawn is breaking.”

Jacob answers: “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

Angel: “What’s your name?”

Jacob: “Jacob.”

Angel: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” [Note: the root of the Hebrew word “strive” is the same as the word “Israel.” – so the naming works in Hebrew.]

Jacob responds: “Tell me your name.”

Angel: “Why do you ask for my name?”

And then the angel disappears.

The Meshech Chochma on Genesis 32:30 tries to answer at least the mystery of the need or lack of need for names regarding blessings.

He explains that typically, in order to bless someone, you need to know who they are, and preferably you need to know their name. Hence, the angel’s perfectly logical request to confirm the name of the person he’s about to bless.

However, the angel also must have known that there was a special power to Jacob (and his progeny) that was conveyed by his father Isaac, that was transmitted from his grandfather Abraham. Isaac bestowed upon Jacob the characteristic that “whoever blesses you shall be blessed.”

The angel knew that by blessing Jacob, he had become blessed and therefore there was no further need for Jacob to bless him or even to know his name.

May we be receivers and suppliers of blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the victims of the Jersey City shooting.

Two Levels of Communication (Vayishlach)

Two Levels of Communication (Vayishlach)

It is not what we learn in conversation that enriches us. It is the elation that comes of swift contact with tingling currents of thought. -Agnes Repplier

Jacob crosses the river, leaving the duplicitous Lavan behind and getting ready to face his dangerous brother Esau. He is then attacked by an angel. They struggle throughout the night, but the angel can’t overcome Jacob. In an unexpected blessing that will define the character and purpose of the Jewish people, Jacob is told by the angel that he will no longer be called Jacob, but rather Israel, the name that we, the descendants of Jacob, bear to this day.

The Berdichiver analyzes that change of name, the duality of the names “Jacob” and “Israel” and explains that each name signifies a different level in our attachment to God, which can be perceived by two different levels and capabilities in our communications, and specifically our communications with God.

The first level of communication with God is our attunement to Him during our service of God, our studying of the Torah and our performance of His commandments. It is to be expected that when we are directly involved in His precepts, in a holy task, that our minds and our internal communications, our inner conversation be directed to God. That is related to the name Jacob (Yaakov in Hebrew).

The second, higher level of communication, is that even in the more mundane and non-ritual or secular aspects of our lives, we remain in contact with God. That even during our conversation with another person, at some level, we still have the ability to think about God, to remain connected to God, to direct some aspect of our thoughts, our consciousness, our inner conversation to God.

That was the level that Jacob reached when he was given the name Israel. He was able to keep God in his mind even while he struggled with another. That is the root of the word Israel: that he was able to struggle with God and with man and persevere.

And that is ultimately the purpose of the plethora of commandments Jews have been given. It is to create an ongoing, all-encompassing God-consciousness. Every aspect of our lives, every act, eating, talking, working, sleeping, can be infused with divine service. God is and becomes a tangible part of every moment of our lives. When we reach that level of thought, of communication, of living, then even the angels will be impressed.

May our conversations and our actions always aspire to merit reaching God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Stanley Leiber (Stan Lee). His vision, his imagination, his creativity and his humanity entertained, educated, inspired and ennobled decades of fans. In the end, he had great power, and proved himself responsible…

Talmudic Risk-Diversification

Talmudic Risk-Diversification

Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible. -Cadet Maxim

The Torah is filled with stories of people who risked it all, put their faith in God and beat the odds. Perhaps the most famous is Moses, the humble shepherd with a speech impediment, who listened to God and challenged mighty Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire. Moses went on to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, leaving Egypt decimated and in ruins.

However, for those that haven’t heard the voice of God, our sages suggest a more nuanced approach to risk.

Our patriarch Jacob faced the possibility of war against his brother Esau; therefore, he spread out his risk in preparation for the potential battle, splitting his forces into two. Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 32:9 (Vayishlach) connects the strategy of spreading or diversifying risk to an important Talmudic teaching related to financial risk management:

“A person should always split his capital into three: one third should go into land, one third should go into business and one third should be readily available.”

The logic behind the Talmudic dictum is both reasonable and fiscally sound. To have one third of one’s capital in land (back then it wasn’t as volatile as today) was a stable long-term investment. One third in business was where one could earn a greater return on investment, with its accompanying level of risk. To keep one third liquid allowed the possibility for fast reaction to opportunities in the market, emergencies, or as became common in later centuries, rapid escape. Included in this mix is the other financial command of setting aside one tenth of one’s income to charity.

A modern-day portfolio according to Talmudic financial advice would then consist of the following:

  • 30% in stable, long-term investments,
  • 30% in higher risk, higher reward entities,
  • 30% in cash or highly liquid instruments, and
  • 10% for charity.

The Torah tells us of the fantastic financial success that the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob enjoyed and attributes it to divine intervention. However, it is likely that once they had their wealth they knew how to protect it and grow it intelligently, with continued divine assistance.

May both our risky and our more mundane endeavors be blessed with divine success.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the city of Scottsdale, Arizona. A wonderful place to conduct business.

The Darkness Will Pass

The Darkness Will Pass

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. -Carl Gustav Jung

pre-sunrise

After twenty years, Jacob escapes from his treacherous father-in-law, Laban, only to approach his deadly brother, Esau. The night before his fateful meeting he is accosted by an angel. They wrestle the entire night, and only with the approach of dawn does Jacob get the upper hand on his otherworldly opponent. It is at that momentous encounter that Jacob is named Israel, the name we carry to this day.

Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 32:27 explains that throughout the night, the adversary appears to be stronger. With daybreak, suddenly Jacob sets the terms to end the conflict. The single request is the recognition that Jacob is deserving of a blessing and not of persecution. Rabbi Hirsch elaborates: “…only by paying him such recognition will the nations bring blessings also upon themselves, and only thus will the promise, “and through you will all the families on earth be blessed, and through your seed” [Genesis 28:14] be fulfilled.”

The enemy fights ceaselessly throughout the night to destroy Israel. When morning approaches the enemy is ready to give up, but Jacob will not cease his struggle until he is accorded recognition by being blessed.

Rabbi Hirsch continues:

“The goal of history is not that Jacob should be forced to merge into the mass of nations, but the reverse. The nations must come to understand that precisely those principles which Jacob has championed and held aloft amidst all these struggles hold also the happiness of those nations which adopt them as their own.”

The night will pass, daybreak shall come. We will emerge stronger and victorious and will both receive and bestow blessings. It is already coming to fruition.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication 

To Bob Dylan on his Nobel Prize

Idolatry Allergy

Baal Haturim Genesis: Vayishlach

Idolatry Allergy

Whatever a man seeks, honors, or exalts more than God, this is the god of his idolatry. -William B. Ullathorne

I grew up with a variety of allergies. There were foods, substances and smells that would make me sick and specifically trigger respiratory difficulties. In my youth, during visits to a specific person’s home, I would unexpectedly start to sneeze uncontrollably. I was informed afterwards that every time I would have a sneezing attack it coincided with someone smoking marijuana in a nearby room.

But perhaps the most surprising allergy of all was not to any particular molecule that made its way into my respiratory system. In the course of my teenage travels, I had opportunity to be exposed to real live examples of idol worship: people praying, chanting, bowing down and performing religious service in front of statues. Just the sight, the approach, just to be in the same physical space or structure as the good old-fashioned idolaters made me physically uncomfortable. At the time I was not yet aware of the prohibition by Jewish law of entering a Temple of idols. Nonetheless, my body, apparently of its own volition, reacted negatively to any encounter with these structures and activities, typically with feelings of nausea.

In the Torah we see a similar but broader national effect. Jacob’s wayward brother Esau, together with his growing clan, leaves their ancestral land of Canaan. The Baal Haturim on Genesis 36:7 explains that because of the divine presence in Canaan, Esau could not stay there with his brother Jacob. He says that a similar effect occurred in the separation between the children of Israel and the Egyptians who needed to live in different areas. We cannot be in the same place as idolaters, and vice versa.

May we identify the idolatry in our lives and separate ourselves from it and from within us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my Tikvah Fund friends. It was thrilling to explore the Bible and discover excellence.

 

 

The Blessing of Necessity

 

 Necessity is the mother of attraction.  -Luke McKissack 

flock-of-sheep

Jacob has an emotional reunion with Esau, his twin brother who wanted to kill him 20 years earlier. In preparation for the potentially explosive meeting, Jacob sends multiple flocks of various domesticated animals as a gift to his estranged brother.

Esau, in an understandable display of magnanimity declines the extremely valuable and generous gifts and states “I have a lot, brother. You should keep what’s yours.” However, Jacob is not to be dissuaded and gives a long speech pressuring Esau to accept the gift, finally stating “I have all.” Esau yields and accepts the gift.

The Sfat Emet in 5634 (1874) explains that there is a significant difference between having “a lot” and having “all.” Having a lot is the trait of the wicked Esau, who has more than he needs and may even boast of his wealth. To such individuals God gives more than necessary and that is the end of further divine care or involvement in their lives. The extreme material wealth and success they have may be the extent of their reward for the meager good they have done in their lives. No more rewards or happiness will come their way, in this world, or the next.

However, the trait of the righteous Jacob is to be content with what he has. It is all he needs. It is sufficient. God continually makes sure he has everything he needs at the time and nothing more. Nothing extraneous is given until such a time as it is needed. A person who requests and just gets his current necessities on a regular basis is likened to a vessel that can continually receive God’s blessings.

Furthermore, the righteous when they request their needs do not do so out of a sense of entitlement, thinking that somehow they deserve it. They realize that these are underserved gifts from God that we request in humility. God, out of a sense of benevolence grants us our daily necessities.

When a person realizes this reality and as the Mishna in Pirket Avot states, is happy with their portion, then they are truly wealthy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Mauricio Macri on his successful election as the new President of Argentina. We hope that he is what the country and the continent needs.