Category Archives: Vayishlach

Secret Respect

[First posted on the Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vayishlach-secret-respect/]

Netziv Genesis: Vayishlach

Secret Respect

“What is told into the ear of a man is often heard a hundred miles away.” -Chinese Proverb

Jacob fears his upcoming encounter with his estranged brother Esau. Esau is on his way to meet Jacob with a force of 400 men. Jacob sends multiple delegations carrying livestock as gifts to his dangerous brother.

They finally meet in a dramatic and emotional moment with hugging, kissing and crying. Jacob then abases himself in a manner that is almost embarrassing. He calls his brother “master” repeatedly, while referring to himself as “your servant.” Whether Jacob was sincere or not in his abnegation is open to debate, but what the Netziv on Genesis 32:5 makes clear is that Jacob was thorough and consistent in assuming the servile role.

The Netziv points out that not only is Jacob subservient in front of Esau, but also when he is out of sight he shows his brother the same level of respect. In Jacob’s private discussions with his own servants, he likewise refers to his brother as “my Master” and to himself as “his servant.” The Netziv signals that we should cultivate the habit of referring to people with their proper names, titles and with respect, both in public and in private. Others will pick up on how we speak and use the names and terms we use, for better or worse.

May we speak properly of others and in respectful terms.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Ariel Kleiner. A man for whom I have great respect, despite ideological differences.

 

 

Clean Prayer

[First posted at The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/clean-prayer/]

Ibn Ezra Genesis: Vayishlach

Clean Prayer

“Cut your morning devotions into your personal grooming. You would not go out to work with a dirty face. Why start the day with the face of your soul unwashed?” -Robert A. Cook

Through fate and circumstance, I’ve had opportunity to observe many types of groups and religions at prayer in different parts of the world. Whether it was Christians in one of the resplendent churches of the city of Ouro Preto, Brazil, Muslims in the Blue Mosque of Istanbul or Buddhists in Bangkok, there are a number of common denominators to the act of prayer.

There is typically a seriousness, an awe, a somberness, in the realization that one is confronting a higher power. It is perhaps ironic then that in Judaism, especially in a number of Orthodox Jewish synagogues, these aspects may be lacking in communal prayer. One is more likely to find disinterest, boredom, chatting and a great rush to be done with it. It would appear as more of an obligation that one needs to discharge rather than an opportunity to reach God in a place, at a time and with a group that is particularly structured for such a purpose.

Perhaps it is the burden of having such meetings so frequently. Perhaps it is the regularity of it. The predictability. The liturgy. I don’t know. However, perhaps the worst offense is when someone rushes into the synagogue with dirty clothing.

After the fracas of Jacob’s children with the Canaanite city of Shechem, Jacob orders his camp to get rid of any idols, wash up and change their clothing. Ibn Ezra (on Genesis 35:2) adds that this is the source that when one goes to a fixed place to pray, he should do so with a clean body and garments.

May we always show the appropriate attitude when praying, inside and out.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my friends and neighbors in synagogue. Let’s cut the chatter a bit.

War Games

Ohr Hachayim Genesis: Vayishlach

War Games

“Skillfullness in moving an opponent about comes through

Positioning the opponent is compelled to follow

And gifts the opponent is compelled to take.

Through the promise of gain,

An opponent is moved about

While the army lies in wait.”

– Sun-Tzu

In the confrontation between Jacob and his brother Esau, Jacob is classically depicted as the weaker party. Esau approaches with 400 warriors against Jacob’s shepherd family. Jacob debases himself in front of the formidable Esau who in the end is merciful and lets Jacob continue on his way.

But based on the Ohr Hachayim, I see Jacob as a master strategist that was ready to pounce on Esau if the war-like brother decided to attack.

I was always confused by the explanation that Jacob split his camp into two, so that one of the camps might “flee” if the other was attacked. The Ohr Hachayim (Genesis 32:8) explains that the second camp wasn’t prepared to flee, but rather to attack. The first camp was a “front,” a peaceful guise to keep matters calm.

If Esau could keep the peace, that was preferable, but if not, Jacob was ready for war. He was ready, but not hopeless or even desperate as we might have imagined. Jacob performs a dangerous covert overnight mission of the night-crossing of the Yabok River. He places his forces at the location of his choosing. He leads Esau’s force with his “gifts” to his preferred location. He meets Esau with a “peaceful” camp, while a fully armed and ready force is waiting in the wings for Jacob’s signal.

We don’t know what might have been if the brothers would have conducted open warfare. I would have put money on Jacob (with God’s assistance) having the superior tactical advantage and besting his brother Esau.

May we be spared the harms of war, but be prepared to fight when we must.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my son, Eitan, on signing up with the IDF this month.

Flatterer’s Folly

Kli Yakar Genesis: Vayishlach

 

Flatterer’s Folly

“’Tis an old maxim in the schools,

That flattery’s the food of fools;

Yet now and then your men of wit,

Will condescend to take a bit”

Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745

“Flattery is all right if you don’t inhale.”

Adlai E. Stevenson, 1900-1965

“Flattery looks like friendship, just like a wolf looks like a dog.”

“When the flatterer pipes, then the devil dances.”

Thomas Fuller, 1732

“A flatterer is one who says things to your face that he wouldn’t say behind your back.”

I couldn’t decide which quote to pick, so I used them all.

Jacob sends word ahead to his brother Esau, calling himself his brother’s servant. After that it says Jacob was very fearful (Genesis 32:7).

The Kli Yakar explains that the source of Jacob’s great fear was because of the implied flattery. The Kli Yakar then quotes the Talmudic dictum:

Rabbi Elazar says: whoever flatters his friend, in the end will fall in his hands.

Tractate Sotah 41b.

So apparently Jacob had much to fear in his encounter with Esau. Thankfully he came away relatively unscathed from the encounter, though subsequent encounters between the Children of Israel and the descendants of Esau have often been less than pleasant.

While it is nice to say a kind word we should make sure not to confuse it with unwarranted flattery.

May we be spared from undue flattery and likewise spare others the same.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To all of my non-flattering friends. Especially those who go out of their way to do the opposite. The insults are sweeter than any flattery could be.

Death Pangs

Genesis: Vayishlach

Death Pangs

“Push!” Yimeh, the midwife urged, “I can see the baby’s head.”

“There is no more strength in me;” Rachel breathed heavily, “this child has drained my life.”

Rachel was in birthing position on the bed in her tent. Bilhah and Zilpah held Rachel’s arms on either side, while Yimeh was squatting at the foot of the bed, ready to catch the newborn should it succeed in exiting Rachel’s swollen womb. Leah was running back and forth, preparing hot water, getting fresh cloths and doing anything to keep busy. Leah could not bring herself to be in direct contact with her dying sister.

Yes. Rachel was undoubtedly dying. Leah had seen the signs at the birthing-deaths of other women. Rachel’s loss of blood during labor was severe. It was a miracle she had not died already, and that the baby was not stillborn. There was only hope for the baby now, though that too was diminishing quickly.

“Save your breath,” Yimeh said more urgently to Rachel, “the only thing you need do in this world now is push.

“Call Jacob,” Rachel pleaded weakly, “I must see him one last time before I die.”

“I said stop talking!” Yimeh clamped the palm of her hand over Rachel’s mouth, “Push! Do not speak! Push! Push! Push!”

Rachel was shocked by Yimeh’s vehemence and awoke from her stupor. With renewed energy and concentration she started to push.

“That is it.” Yimeh encouraged, “Push in time with the urge.”

Leah in the meantime exited the tent to look for Jacob and at least fulfill her sister’s dying wish.

“You are doing it,” Yimeh reported, “the head is starting to descend.”

“Aaargh!” Rachel screamed, “it is killing me!”

“Do not talk!” Yimeh clamped Rachel’s mouth again, “Do not even scream. Use the pain to push. It is all about pushing now. There is nothing else in the world. Not pain, not limbs, not a baby, not even yourself. You must become a pushing machine, a pushing entity, for the next few moments. Push!”

Yimeh kept her hand on Rachel’s mouth, stifling the next scream.

“I can see the head!” Yimeh exclaimed, “That is very good. Now is the critical part. Listen, Rachel. With the next urge, you must push with all your might. As if the entire world depended on it. I am taking my hand off now. Do not speak. Take a deep breath. Do not do anything else but push at the next urge with your entire being.”

Rachel nodded her understanding. She took a deep breath. Her eyes focused on nothing. Then gritting her teeth, clenching the arms of Bilhah on her right and Zilpah on her left, she pushed.

“Yes! Now! Push!!” Yimeh yelled.

“Nnnggh!” Rachel grunted through her shut mouth.

“The head is out!” Yimeh proclaimed, as she tried to ease the baby out. “The hardest part is over Rachel. Just a few more pushes and you will be done.”

“More?” Rachel asked incredulously, dazed from her last effort.

“Yes.” Yimeh answered, focused on the baby, “Just two or three more pushes to get the rest of the body through.”

“Hah!” Rachel laughed weakly, “I am surprised the last push did not kill me. You will have to do the rest of the pushing, Yimeh.”

“You are not done yet.” Yimeh retorted.

“This body is –“ but Rachel inexorably started to push.

“Very good, Rachel,” Yimeh calmly said as she supported the baby’s head. “Save your breath and keep pushing. The first shoulder is out.”

Jacob suddenly entered the tent with Leah right behind him.

He was shocked by the large pools of blood on the bed and the floor.

He stood silently, looking at the pained and dying Rachel, whom he now understood he would lose momentarily. He then looked at the head of the baby struggling to escape the dying womb. If Rachel did not succeed, it might very well be its tomb.

“Jacob!” Rachel shouted out as soon as she noticed him.

“Quiet!” Yimeh commanded. “Do I need to clamp your mouth again? The very life of this child depends on you not speaking. You must focus on the last pushes. My lord,” Yimeh addressed Jacob, “please do not distract her. The life of your child hangs in the balance.”

Jacob moved to the back of the tent behind Rachel’s view and quietly said to Rachel:

“I am here, my love. Focus on the labor and what Yimeh instructs you. I shall not leave you. Have no fear.”

Rachel’s answer was only: “Nnngh!”

“The second shoulder is out!” Yimeh called out joyously as she delivered the baby.

“Whaaaah!” the baby wailed before Yimeh even had a chance to give it the customary slap.

Yimeh expertly wiped the baby down and clamped the umbilical cord. She then wrapped the baby in fresh cloth and gingerly handed it to the dying mother.

“Have no fear, for this one, too, is a son for you.” Yimeh said, knowing the last words Rachel would want to hear.

Rachel clasped the boy to her and cried tears of joy and of sorrow. She turned her head to look at Jacob. She thought back to their first meeting by the well. She thought of their history. She thought of all that went unsaid and undone between them. To the life that might have been. To the children she might have raised.

Clutching the boy to her chest, with tears streaming down her face, she used her last breath to name him. “He shall be called ‘Son of my Sorrow’ – Ben-oni.”

Rachel then closed her eyes for the last time, still holding the boy tightly.

The tent was as silent as a grave.

Yimeh extracted the boy from Rachel’s dead embrace and handed him to Jacob.

Jacob cradled him tenderly in his right arm, as wordless tears rolled down his beard.

“This is a day of deep sorrow for me,” Jacob finally exhaled, “and for you my son. For you shall not know your mother, the love of my life. But your existence should not be further colored by sorrow. You are the last gift of my Rachel. Oh! My beloved, Rachel!” Jacob wept.

“’Son of my Sorrow’ is not fitting for you.” Jacob continued through his tears, “Rather, you shall remain constantly by my side. You whose countenance is so much like my Rachel. You shall be named ‘Son of my Right Arm’ – Benjamin.”

“Whaah!” was Benjamin’s only answer.

* * * * * *

Sources:

“They journeyed to Bet-El and there was still a stretch of land to go to Ephrath, when Rachel went into labor and had difficulty in her childbirth. And it was when she had difficulty in her labor that the midwife said to her, “Have no fear, for this one, too, is a son for you.” And it came to pass, as her soul was departing – for she died – that she called his name Son of my Sorrow (Ben-oni), but his father called him Benjamin.” Genesis 35:16-18

The Price of Fear

Genesis: Vayishlach

The Price of Fear

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”

The Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear, “Dune”, Frank Herbert

Paul Atreides, the hero of Frank Herbert’s classic Sci-Fi epic “Dune”, overcomes his fear by reciting the Bene Gesserit Litany. If only it were always that easy.

In Jacob’s biblical struggle with the angel, he is wounded. Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) attributes the angel’s ability to wound Jacob as a result of fear.

Jacob’s apparently bloodthirsty brother, Esau, was on his way to confront Jacob together with 400 of his men (posse anybody?). It would seem normal, if not prudent, to have some fear of the situation. Hizkuni however, is of the opinion that we should not have fear of any mortal device or intention. This requires a high level of general faith. Hizkuni seems to demand this of Jacob. Jacob is further taken to task as he had been reassured previously and directly by none other than God Himself (can’t ask for a better bodyguard):

“Behold I am with you; I will guard you wherever you go.” Genesis 28:15

Because Jacob exhibited fear –

“Jacob became very frightened, and it distressed him.” Genesis 32:8

— he became vulnerable to attack and injury. Otherwise, Hizkuni claims, he would have been impervious to attack.

In the popularized words of FDR:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945), First Inaugural Address, Mar. 4, 1933

When they are fearful, I often tell my children that fear is a healthy thing – a sign of intelligence. If we did not fear (and respect) the flame, we would get burned. The key is to establish the correct relationship to the fear.

One last quote:

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

May we succeed in conquering all our fears, and thereby prevent unnecessary injury.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the memory of Frank Herbert, the creator of what many have termed the best Science-Fiction book ever – “Dune”. Even non-Sci-Fi fans might appreciate his masterpiece.

Book Review: Jacob’s Family Dynamics

Jacob's Family Dynamics (book cover)Jacob’s Family Dynamics: Climbing the Rungs of the Ladder

Gad Dishi

Devora Publishing, 2009

Reviewed by Ben-Tzion Spitz

If you have any interest in the Bible, Rabbi Gad Dishi’s new book, “Jacob’s Family Dynamics” is a must-read. A warning is in order though. Dishi rips apart many long-held stereotypical images of the Patriarch Jacob and his relationships. He then puts them back together in often innovative, insightful and even brilliant ways.

What is beautiful and inspiring about Dishi’s work is the weaving of a mostly fragmented narrative of the stories of Jacob into a fluid, consistent and comprehensive picture. Many students of the classical commentaries will want to jump down Dishi’s throat as he repeatedly negates or contradicts centuries-old interpretations. However, they will find it a challenging battle. The strength of Dishi’s book is his extreme adherence to the text.

Dishi makes Jacob very human, contrary to the often superhuman depiction that classical commentaries portrayed him as. Dishi justifies the dichotomy in his introduction:

“The human element brings readers back to the Bible repeatedly to experience the characters’ dramatic, real-life choices, while the superhuman approach draws readers to the text to be inspired once more by the perfection of the characters’ personal attributes. Thus, from a religious perspective, both approaches have validity and can operate in parallel, each appealing to a different audience.”

The analysis is based on a laser-like focus on each phrase, word and language nuance. He builds the personas and action of the stories based on these careful readings. At the same time he keeps an eye on the big picture and the continuum of Jacob’s life, actions, fears, insecurities, needs and driving forces. The scenes that are covered in detail include (but are not limited to):

–          Jacob’s impersonation of Esau to obtain Isaac’s blessing;

–          Jacob’s arrival at Haran and his meeting of Rachel;

–          The switch of Leah for Rachel on the wedding night and Jacob’s response;

–          The competition of Leah and Rachel for Jacob’s affection;

–          Laban’s confrontation with Jacob at Gilead;

–          Jacob’s reunion/confrontation with Esau;

–          Jacob’s reaction to the rape of Dinah;

–          The burial of Rachel.

What emerges is a very human, and perhaps because of that, a very heroic (and also tragic) figure of Jacob. Dishi also presents Jacob’s family members (parents, brother, father-in-law, wives and sons) as characters that seem truer to the biblical text than what many other commentaries paint.

Just one example of Dishi’s original interpretations can be found in his analysis of Jacob’s stimulus in stealing Esau’s blessing. Dishi explains that Jacob was the initiator of the deception conspiracy as opposed to his mother, Rebecca. Furthermore, he argues that Jacob’s motivation had less to do with achieving some still unknown blessing from his father, but rather to be the recipient of fatherly love and attention via this blessing before Isaac’s death.

Dishi consistently uses a plethora of commentators both classical and modern to support his points. The pure erudition required to create this masterpiece is impressive, besides the excellence of his theories themselves.

Dishi successfully pulls off another feat. That of writing a scholarly work that will be accessible to the layman. The language is never too heavy or difficult. The prose is clear and flows. Even the extensive footnotes are fun and enlightening. It is as if one was sitting next to Dishi while he is typing and he shares yet another brilliant and related nugget of information or insight.

There is a special treat in Chapter 7 of a pair of color maps and pictures that delightfully illustrate Dishi’s explanation of what really happened in the preparation and encounter of Jacob and Esau after their twenty year separation.

There are two minor flaws in this diamond of a book. Both can be attributed to the Herculean task of attempting to write for the two very different worlds of the layman and the biblical scholar in one volume. Dishi explains in a footnote of the first chapter that he uses the translation of Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses. He then repeatedly cites him in much of the subsequent translation in the footnotes, which is presumably the scholarly thing to do. However, it is a minor annoyance in the otherwise entertaining footnotes.

The second and perhaps more significant flaw for biblical scholars (but one that they may enjoy finding and pouncing on), are the cases where Dishi continues his theories with limited substantiation or support. From a layman’s point-of-view the theories still hold. They are compelling – even convincing at points. An analogy that comes to mind is a skater approaching a patch of thin ice. The skater takes advantage of the solid ice to forcefully propel himself as quickly as possible over the thinner section.

Because Dishi has done such a superb and persuasive job in the highly detailed and corroborated sections, one is more willing to go along for the ride and follow where Dishi leads.

It is hard to believe that there could be surprises left in a biblical narrative that is so well known to many. Dishi however keeps the suspense and the original interpretations flowing, from the first to the last chapter.

Jacob’s Family Dynamics should be part of the library of every Jewish home. It should also become required reading for any Bible/Genesis course from high school level to post-graduate degrees.

In Jacob’s Family Dynamics Dishi has set a new standard for reading of biblical text. A student of the Bible will not be able to look at Jacob or at the text the same way again.

Dishi hopes in his introduction “that Jacob’s Family Dynamics will lift the habitual blinders that have subdued the full power of the text.” In this he has succeeded admirably.

The book can be ordered directly from the publisher (discounted) at http://www.urimpublications.com/Merchant2/merchant.mv?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=UP&Product_Code=Jacob

Ben-Tzion Spitz is an engineer, Bible studies writer and lecturer. He has started a series of Biblical Fiction short stories which can be viewed at http://torah.works/category/fiction/

Stalling the Angel of Death

Stalling the Angel of Death

Jacob wrestles with an angel having murderous intentions towards him, yet not only perseveres, but walks away triumphant, though injured (Genesis 32:26 – link to English translation of the chapter http://www.mechon-mamre.org/e/et/et0132.htm ).

How does a mortal man triumph over an attack from the spiritual world?

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno hints at a related story, described in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 30a-b) (link to English summary of the page: http://www.dafyomi.co.il/shabbos/points/sh-ps-030.htm) .

King David inquired of God to disclose the day of his death. God was only willing to inform David that he would die on a Sabbath. David embarked on a strategy of continuously studying Torah from the onset of every Sabbath until its conclusion 25 hours later. The strategy is successful and the Talmud recounts the growing frustration the Angel of Death has with King David over the course of multiple Sabbaths.

Finally, one Sabbath, the Angel of Death succeeds in distracting David. The Angel of Death goes into David’s garden and causes a tremendous amount of noise to emanate from the trees. David goes out to investigate, still absorbed in words of Torah. As he walks out, one of the steps breaks underneath him. For that one instant David is distracted, and it is at that instant that the Angel of Death manages to finally claim David’s indomitable spirit.

Sforno explains that Jacob’s battle with the angel was no mere physical wrestling match, but that it was a battle conducted on multiple planes, including the spiritual one. Jacob was able to succeed, because throughout the struggle he was continuously focused on and absorbed in the underlying reality of God’s Torah. In an act of desperation, the angel tries to distract Jacob by showing to him the future sins of his descendents, the fruit of his loins. The distress of those future sins succeeds in distracting Jacob and giving the angel and opportunity to hurt him in the area of the loins.

Nonetheless, Jacob quickly regains his focus and wins the battle.

May we likewise keep our focus on the important things in life and win the multiple battles, both big and little, that continuously challenge us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Yehoshua Ze’ev Abramoff of Toronto, the father of my new sister-in-law, Nechama Spitz. Rabbi Abramoff passed away today after an extended struggle with pancreatic cancer, and had thwarted the angel of death already far longer than most people. His strength, perseverance and character were astounding and inspirational. May the Almighty comfort the Abramoff family, amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.