Vayishlach 5759

June 23, 2009

17 min read


Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

"Friendship is one heart in two bodies."
Ibn Ezra (Torah commentator)

I will always remember that night. It was bitterly cold. The front door of our house came crashing down. Three Nazi storm-troopers moved through like hounds chasing a fox. They ordered my family into the waiting truck. My grandmother couldn't walk well, so I tried to help her. One of the soldiers raised his rifle and thrust her aside. I bent down to help and - thump! I was dazed. My father tried to stop the soldier and - bang! I saw him fall by my side. In all the commotion I was able to pick myself up and get away. From behind, I could hear my mother shout, "Run! Run!"

I crawled into a hiding place in the garden. I heard one of the soldiers tell my mother to find me or he would shoot the whole family. I don't know whether she didn't know where I was, or whether she just pretended not to find me. I didn't know what to do. At five years old, I was scared. I stayed put... and then I heard the machine gun fire.

Fifty years later, I met a man named Jack. We started talking about our lives and he mentioned that he'd changed his last name, as I had, from an unpronounceable Polish. But never did I think it was my older brother Jack! When we realized the tears started to pour... Instinctively we hugged... The last time we saw each other was that terror filled night, 50 years ago...

"How did you escape?" I asked.

"They shot me and I fell down." Jack showed me his false arm. "I don't know what happened after that, but they must have left me for dead. All I remember is waking up in our neighbor's house. They hid me until the end of the war."

"But what of you," Jack said to me. "You have become a very hardened man. These last few days, before I realized you were my brother, you treated me very coldly."

"I don't like people, Jack...After the war I turned against people and mankind. But you are my brother, Jack. I can trust you."

" I don't understand," Jack said, "I am the same man you knew yesterday. Does the commonality of our blood make me a better a person today than yesterday?"

I sat motionless and cried. The world stood still for a moment, a moment that seemed like all eternity. If only I could look at every human being as my long lost brother...


"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
when brothers dwell together in unity."
--  Psalms 133:1

Division from others is a bitter, devastating and often unnecessary self-affliction. It saps our strength as a nation and divides us as individuals. The many battles we wage are unnecessary, for neither side benefits. Yet, we keep on with this needless crusade.

If you're slicing something and accidentally cut your finger, do you take the knife and cut your other hand in revenge? Of course not. Why? Because your other hand is part of you, too.

When we appreciate that we are all one people, then hurting the other guy - paying him back - is as ridiculous as hurting yourself. That's why the Torah says: Love your neighbor "as yourself." If I realize that me and the other person are part of the same unit, then hurting another person is as silly as cutting my other hand with the knife.


Before Jacob dies he gives Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, a blessing. Jacob says, "The Jewish people will use you as a blessing. They will say, 'May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe'" (Genesis 48:20). Until today, it is the custom every Friday night to bless our sons with this blessing.

But who were Ephraim and Menashe that they received such an honor above Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, King David, etc?

The answer is revealed in how Jacob blesses Ephraim and Menashe. He places the younger before the older. Joseph is dismayed, concerned this will cause sibling rivalry. After all, Joseph was well aware of the need to show equality to all; years earlier he'd been sold into slavery because of sibling rivalry.

This is precisely the intent of Jacob's blessing. He was testing Ephraim and Menashe, to see if their father appreciated this lesson and could pass it on. The result? The two boys show no enmity after this change of natural order. They accept it as an honest evaluation of who they are.

Jacob thus says: It is this that all parents will wish for their children. Unity amongst siblings gladdens the heart and bringing joy to a parent's eyes. More than money, wisdom or health, the wish is that that they should be unified, without suspicion or jealousy. All else are steps on this ladder, and all else becomes tarnished by the brush of disunity.

On a deeper level, this is the Almighty's wish for his children, humanity.


We are willing to be brothers with everyone if everyone would only agree with us. "If only they would listen to me, then world peace could surely be achieved."

We all think it's the other guy's fault. "It is they who cannot be trusted... If only people were as honest as I." This is actually an excuse because we don't really want to try!

If this was truly our long lost brother, we would try. We would be open, we would give our time, we would listen. We would even withhold accusations and admonishments when he was wrong! Look at the times you stood up for someone you liked even in the face of obvious indiscretions. Yet lesser faults bring torrents of scorn for those that we deem unfit for our grace. Why?

Because when we want it to work, we control our inclinations.

It's a lonely world. If we don't put in the effort, relationships soon wither and die. But how often do we let them die when our mood swings from a different breeze. Long, close and meaningful friends are a rare breed. Try treating all people as our long lost brothers - to endear them to us, and us to them.

You might say: "But maybe he will cheat me as brothers do sometimes." So if it's your long lost brother, it's worth it, you'll take the risk. You will try and work it out when he does something you don't like; you will try and make him more honest.


Part of the Jewish concept of a friend is that he's part of you. You will do almost anything for each other.

Consider this hypothetical situation: How many people do you know who would help you out if you phoned them and said, "I got in big trouble and I really need your help now." Consider this carefully to see who is a true friend.

Start treating others with greater care and respect. Think of three things you would do if you found out your neighbor was really your long lost brother. Play it out. You will see that looking at people in this way and treating them differently opens you up to a new world of real people. Try it!


Question 1:
What is your definition of a friend? Ask you friends this question and try to reach a consensus.

Question 2: According to your definition, how many friends do you actually have?

Question 3: Are you involved in any ongoing dispute with friends or relatives? How could you resolve this?

But if God had created such a complete human being, why the later separation into two parts, into Adam and Eve?

The answer given is that God did not want this first human creation to be alone, for it would then possess an illusion of self-sufficiency. Note that there is no word for "independence" in classical Hebrew. (What we use now, atzma'ut, is of modern vintage.) The concept of independence doesn't exist in Jewish tradition. Aside from God, nothing and no one is really independent. Since we are supposed to ingrain into ourselves that God is the source of everything, self-sufficiency would have been a spiritual defeat.

God wanted to fashion the human being into two separate people in order to create a healthy situation of dependence, yearning, and mutual giving. Human beings are not meant to be alone because then they would have no one to give to, no one to grow with, and nothing to strive for. To actualize oneself spiritually, a human being cannot be alone.



But why, then, didn't God create two identical beings? The answer is that in order to maximize giving, the recipient must be different from the giver. If the two are identical, giving can occur, but it is limited. One would give based on his or her own needs, since the receiver would have the exact same needs. To truly be a giver, the person must take into account what the receiver needs and not only what the giver wants. By giving to someone with different needs, a person is trained to think and give on terms other than his or her own.


We see, then, that the separation had to be into two different beings, in order for us to learn to appreciate, love, give, and care for those unlike ourselves.

This is fundamental to all moral and spiritual growth. We can also understand why God didn't just create two beings from the start: by starting as one, we can know and feel that our life partners are our true complement, that we need them and their differences just as they need us and ours.



The Torah is a path to self-actualization to spiritual growth. We have seen that in order to grow, a person cannot be alone. Therefore two beings were created. To maximize growth, the beings need to be different, and so men and women were created as different beings. But what are these differences?


In the creation story told in the Book of Genesis, the way in which God separates man and woman provides us with an insightful look at gender differences. We will briefly discuss here some of the most powerful of these. Note that the feminine-masculine polarities we will discuss do not apply exactly the same way to each man and woman -- we were all created as unique individuals. However, what the Torah describes does exist for everyone to some degree.

I'm not against a room at the Ritz. I'd love a room at the Ritz. But we need to separate the icing from the cake. The externals are the icing. We don't want a fancy icing over a cake that spoils too quickly.

And of course, you need chemistry. It's vital to the life of your relationship, but it's neither the first nor the determinative factor.

Life throws us many wrinkles. A marriage based on chemistry and romance won't meet the challenge. But a relationship based on shared goals and values, on good character and deep sincere caring can weather any storm.

So go ahead. Do something for your spouse on February 14th -- give a gift, a card, do a special act of kindness, make breakfast, take out the garbage. But do it also on the 15th, the 16th, the 17th, the 18th, the 19th ... it's the only way to keep real love alive.

Had they understood that every single thing comes as a result of God's assistance, then they would have surely asked God for fear of Heaven, too.

This demonstrated a lack of gratitude and appreciation for all that God had done until then.

This desire to ignore God's role in our accomplishments and take credit for ourselves is what makes people say "This I can do, and this I can't." We avoid having to acknowledge that it's all a gift. We'd rather feel that we fought and accomplished on our own steam. So we say "I can't" -- when we'd rather not make the effort to do something difficult.

If we were truly grateful, if every morning we would thank the Almighty for our eyes, our hands, our brain, then we'd also thank the Almighty for insight and understanding, and we'd say, "Almighty, please give me more!" If we acknowledge that every accomplishment is from God, then we will realize there is nothing we cannot undertake... if God gives us the power.


What can one person do? One person can accomplish anything and everything -- since it's all a gift from God anyway! Now we can understand why the Torah obligates each and every one of us to change the world.

The Code of Jewish Law (O.C. 1:3) says: "It is proper for all those who fear God to constantly be in pain and worry over the destruction of the Holy Temple." But why should we be expected to feel pain over something that happened 2,000 years ago?

The Talmud says: "Any generation in which the Holy Temple is not rebuilt, is held responsible for its destruction." In other words, if we don't take responsibility for improving ourselves and changing the world, then we are just as guilty as those whose deeds caused the Temple to be destroyed.

What can we do about it? Says the Talmud (Yoma 86b): "If one person does a sincere teshuva (return to God), then the whole world merits forgiveness."

The Jewish nation is one unit. Therefore the actions of one person can change the fate of the entire group. You -- one solitary individual -- have the power to change the entire world through teshuva. And since you have the power ... you also have the responsibility.


Marx said that "religion is the opiate of the masses." But Marx was talking about the religion that says: "Resist not evil, turn the other cheek."

Judaism, on the other hand, teaches people to stand up and take responsibility for the world. If anything, secularism is the opiate because it breeds inactivity.

Imagine asking the conquering Romans, "The Greeks are starving to death, isn't that terrible?" They'd say, "What are you talking about, that's the greatest news we've heard all week! Let's get the war machine out!"

Ask a typical college student: "Isn't it terrible that Africans are starving to death? What are you going to do about it?" He says, "What can I do about it? Who am I? I'm only one person. I can't do anything about it."

Without really believing in God, you'll just give up.

Judaism says you can do something. If you believe God's doing it all, if you see how much He's already done for you, then you know that God will help.

All you have to do is take the responsibility and make an effort. God will take care of the rest.



Have you ever seen a building under construction? The builders use cranes to pick up an entire truckload of bricks, and then one or two men put their hands under the derrick and push the truckload into the right place.

An idiot sees two guys pushing a truckload of bricks and he thinks they're as strong as Hercules. A wise man person understands it's the crane that's moving.

The Torah says explicitly that in the end of days, the Jewish people are going to return to God. And that's already happening.

The Jews have returned to Israel, which is mind-boggling. We've witnessed incredible miracles in Israel -- whether the War of Independence, the Six Day War, the Gulf War. We've lived with miracles. The Almighty is bringing us home. The crane is moving.

People sometimes say, "I'd love to make aliyah to Israel, but I don't have the money." What's the solution? I tell them, put one dollar a week into a separate bank account. They look at me like I'm crazy. "What are you talking about - that's $52 a year. In 10 years, I'll have $520. What will that do for me?!" I tell them, if you put in a dollar a week, the Almighty will see that you're sincere and He'll take care of the rest.

Those of you who've begun learning Torah or keeping Shabbos: Remember how hard it was when you first started? Now when you look back and see the progress you've made, isn't it true that you were putting one dollar in the bank? You were making the effort, and the Almighty led you to your goal.


The Midrash says the wise person and the fool are both told, "Take this Torah and learn it all." The fool looks at the Torah and says, "That's like trying to move a mountain into the sea! Even if I work all day and night, I couldn't possibly finish it " So what does he do? He fills one bucket of dirt, and then he lies down to go to sleep.

The wise person says, "I get paid by the bucket. If I make an effort, I get paid. I can't imagine how I'm going to move this mountain into the sea, but if the Almighty said do it, I might as well try." So he takes a bucket and puts it in the sea; another bucket and puts it into the sea; another bucket ...

"Hey, meshugena, what are you doing?" yells the fool.

"Listen, I'm getting paid," answers the wise person. And he keeps going. Another bucket into the sea. Until he comes to a stone. He pushes that stone which starts a landslide and the whole mountain crumbles and flows into the sea.

That's what we're doing. One dollar a week. The mountain will go into the sea.

God is your father, creator of this universe. He wants to give you everything. By making the effort, you're allowing Him to do it. You're accepting it. See how much He's done for you until now. He wants to do much more. Just keep on putting that bucket into the sea; one dollar a week in the bank. The rewards are waiting.


The Torah says that accomplishing all of Torah is near to us, very much within our reach (Deut. 30:14).

Our problem is that we don't want to try. We don't make the effort.

If you heard about a business opportunity that would bring you millions, is there any limit to how far you'd go to make it work? If I said I'd give you a million dollars if you'll memorize one page of the phone book by next week, could you do it?

Realize that the reward for even one mitzvah is worth more than anything you can earn in this world. So don't look at the effort as a pain; look at it as an opportunity. You have the ability to be great, and there's nothing better you can do with your energy.

The Midrash (Tanna d'Bei Eliyahu) tells the story of Elijah the Prophet meeting up with a fisherman. "Do you study Torah?" Elijah asked. "No," replied the fisherman, "I'm just a simple man. I am not endowed with any measure of talent or intelligence."

"Tell me," said Elijah, "how do you prepare your fishing net?" "Well," said the man, "It's actually quite complicated. First I have to select the proper gauge rope, and then I have to weave the net in a particular pattern to ensure that it has the proper balance of strength and flexibility."

"How do you go about actually catching the fish?" inquired Elijah. "Oh," said the man, "that, too, is quite complex. There are many factors involved -- including season of the year, time of day, type of fish, water depth, temperature, and speed of the current."

"When you get to heaven," said Elijah, "you will testify that you didn't study Torah study because you're just a simple man, not endowed with any talent or intelligence? But do you think He gave you the brains to be a fisherman -- but not the brains to learn Torah?!"

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