Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Vayishlach 5775, December 2014; Becoming a People

This week's parsha culminates so many ideas we've discussed in previous weeks. We discussed how to live among the nations. We learn here fully how to approach them, first by preparing with tefillah, then with gifts, then with preparing for war both through flattery and then clearly displaying our strengths (when Yaakov refers to possessing an ox, a donkey, sheep, menservants and maidservants, he is actually invoking Yosaif, Yissachar, the faithful Jewish people, Dovid haMelech, and Avigayil, according to Bereishis Rabbah).  For we, the Jewish people, are destined as we know to live spread out among the nations.

At the same time many suggestions for Jewish behavior are given: to lie low and remain as invisible as possible so as not to provoke the non-Jewish authorities, and to prepare for our encounters with them if there is any danger. Yet we are also taught (again, according to Bereishis Rabbah) that because Yaakov humbled himself excessively before Eisav eight times, G-d decreed that eight mighty rulers should descend from Eisav before ever a king of Israel should arise. Yaakov successfully entreated that their power over the land and over taxation should be spread out over centuries, so as not to overburden the Jewish people.

Yaakov battles with Eisav's angel. The midrash teaches the angel was sent directly by G-d to this encounter (in fact, angels are never able to use free will to do as they choose, which is why they cannot truly fulfill mitzvahs). The single man was able to counter equally the sar, the angel representing an entire nation, throughout the night. In the end, the angel succeeded in injuring Yaakov's thigh. The Ramban says this act is symbolic of the fact that in times of trouble the nations of the world will come close to destroying the entire Jewish nation, but never can. The question is asked why the other forefathers were never afflicted by an angelic battle? Avraham was G-d's pillar of kindness, Yitzchak of justice. But Yaakov was the pillar of Torah. It is Torah which is the key to Jewish survival, and so it is that which would have to be wiped out entirely to exterminate the Jewish people. In the time of Moshiach's arrival, Torah scholars and supporters (represented by the thigh) will be few. Yet their devotion will be enough, no matter how much the nations attempt to deprive the Jews of Torah study (Kovetz Igros). It is this angel, recognizing that Yaakov's support of Torah can never be extinguished, who renames him Yisroel, he who has prevailed against celestial and mortal beings.

The Jewish people has indeed become a people, a nation, and not just a family.

This is the critical point for the story of Dina, which I am actually not going to discuss in much detail here this year (another year, another thought). But suffice it to say, the massed kings of Edom determine to destroy Yaakov's family entirely for Shimon and Levi's killing of the population of Sh'chem.  The kings' advisors refused to participate and warned the rulers of the power of the Jewish people, that their G-d protects them, that he saved Avraham from multiple threats and tests, that he protected Yitzchak from Yishmael, and that Yaakov had prospered in all he had done, even surviving an attempted attack by Aisav himself backed by 400 men. The Edomi soldiers left their camps and the kings abandoned the attack (Sefer Hayashar).

So we have become a true nation among nations. Why at this moment? Just because of the battle with Sh'chem? No. Immediately after this we learn of the death of Rivka, Yaakov's mother, and then the death of Rochel his wife. It is well known that Rochel's spiritual tears at the time of the later exile brought about by Nebuchadnezzar saved the Jewish people, where no other entreaties moved G-d to promise redemption (Rebbe Kehana). The Jewish people needed to become a true nation before the deaths of the two great matriarchs, otherwise it is possible that losing the great spiritual leadership of both of them at once might have extinguished or at least damped down the flame of Torah and holiness.

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