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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


I have sojourned with Lavan and have lingered until now. (32:5)

Yaakov Avinu's opening statement to his wicked brother Eisav was, "I lived with Lavan." As Rashi explains, this intimates "I did not learn from his evil ways." Despite living in close proximity to this despicable character, Lavan had no influence on the Patriarch. Eisav was hoping that Yaakov would submit to Lavan's perverted influence, because he knew that his father's blessing to him was contingent upon Yaakov's spiritual downfall. His rise would coincide with his brother's fall. Yaakov's message to him was: Sorry, it did not happen. I am the same as I was when I left home. Let us attempt to delve deeper into the phenomenon of Yaakov's ability to resist learning from Lavan.

Horav Matisyahu Solomon, Shlita, cites the Navi Ovadiah who begins his prophecy, "So says Hashem to Edom." (Ovadiah 1:1) The Talmud Sanhedrin 39b questions why Ovadiah prophesied to Edom, which is Eisav's nation. Chazal explain that Ovadiah, who lived in close proximity to two reshaim, wicked people, Achav and Izevel, but was not influenced by them, should prophecy to Eisav, who lived with two tzadikim, righteous people, such as Yitzchak and Rivkah, but did not learn from them.

In the beginning of Perek 6 of Hilchos Deos, the Rambam writes: "In his natural state, man is influenced by his friends, neighbors and members of his community. Therefore, one should see to it that he establishes his relationships with righteous people, doing everything possible to distance himself from those who are wicked." What we understand from the Rambam is that it is natural to gravitate to-- and be influenced by-- one's surrounding environment.

We can now appreciate Ovadiah's uniqueness. He had to transcend his natural proclivity to gravitate to Achav and Izevel, so that he not be influenced by their evil actions. Can we imagine how much yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, this required? It took extreme effort to overcome this pressure. He had to reach out to Hashem in prayer and do everything within his ability to triumph over their hold on him.

We also see now what Eisav had to do in order not to be influenced by Yitzchak and Rivkah. We must acknowledge that we have no idea of the extent of their greatness. We shudder-- or at least we should-- when we are in the presence of a gadol, Torah giant. Yet, the greatest Torah luminary is nothing in comparison to our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Can we imagine how vile Eisav must have been; how much effort he put forth to counteract their positive influence on him? Yet, he did so, because he was that wicked. He was so committed to being wicked that he was able to transcend his natural tendency. Ovadiah was the perfect individual to prophecy to Eisav's nation. They had something in common: they used superhuman strength to overcome the effects of their environment. Yaakov and Eisav both inherited this incredible ability from none other than their mother, Rivkah Imeinu. She was the daughter of Besuel, sister of Lavan, and lived in an environment that was totally evil; yet, she managed to remain pure and righteous. She succeeded in transmitting her uncanny ability to her twin sons. Regrettably, only one used it in pursuit of a constructive good.

How does one do it today? How are we able to overcome the challenges endemic to the environment in which we live? What are those people who must go out into the world and navigate its spiritual climate-- in a society that is morally bankrupt and spiritually deficient-- to do? Who is able to transcend his natural instincts? I think that one is affected by the environment only when he feels he has a common bond with the people around him. When one feels that he is like them, he will be affected by them. If we can just elevate ourselves to the point that we realize that "we" and "they" are not the same: We are Torah Jews. We, thus, have an allegiance to Hashem and a mission in life that runs counter to anything they might impress upon us, so that we will not be influenced by them. The influence can occur only when the individual allows himself to be vulnerable to the environmental stimuli.

And his eleven children. (32:23)

Yaakov Avinu had one more child that should have been present. Dinah, his daughter, was apparently nowhere to be found. Chazal explain that the Patriarch hid her in a box, so that Eisav would not notice her. Because Eisav was an individual whose entire life was controlled by his base desires, he would want her for himself. Chazal add that Yaakov was criticized for suppressing chesed, kindness, from his brother. Because he refused to allow his daughter to enter into a relationship legally, he was punished with the violation of Shechem, in which she was forcibly and inappropriately taken into a relationship. Clearly, Yaakov was acting on behalf of his daughter. How could he even think of allowing Eisav to see her? The possibility of losing her to Eisav was a disastrous thought. Why was he so gravely punished? I would think that he acted appropriately on behalf of his daughter in a manner not unlike the way any respectable, decent father would have acted.

The Mesillas Yesharim derives from here how intense is the omek ha'din, depth of judgment. Yaakov was held responsible for not performing a chesed for the evil Eisav. Perhaps Dinah would have had a positive influence on him, inspiring him to repent his ways and return to Hashem. Now, it was too late. Eisav's chance dissipated.

Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, would often use this episode as an example of an individual's need to introspect, never allowing an opportunity for performing chesed to dwindle. We are all availed opportunities to act with kindness to others. Yet, we often allow these favorable circumstances to wane, to fade away, without taking advantage of them. In the end, we are diminished and the one whom we could have helped also loses out. We might be able to justify our intentions, but ultimately Hashem will not. Our excuses do not help the individual in need.

Rav Shach practiced what he preached. Once during his twilight years, at the old age of ninety-seven, when he was weak and frail, he demonstrated the significance of never allowing an opportunity to act kindly pass by without acting upon it. It was eleven o'clock in the morning, and he was alone in his apartment. He was laying down to rest, when he heard knocking at his door. At first, he ignored it, due to the difficulty involved in his rising from bed and trudging over to the door. When the knocking persisted, the Rosh Yeshivah overcame his weakness, arose from the bed, and plodded toward the door. Meanwhile, the knocking continued unabated.

The gadol ha'dor, preeminent leader of the generation, opened the door with a smile to greet a teenage girl.

"I hope I did not disturb the Rosh Yeshivah," the girl said.

"No, no disturbance. How can I help you?" he asked.

"Rebbe, today my brother is becoming a chassan. I came to ask for a brachah, blessing, that his match should work out and that the couple should be blessed with longevity and happiness," the girl replied.

Anybody else would have responded, "For this you have disturbed me?" but not Rav Shach, who viewed every opportunity to perform chesed as an investment in eternity. He immediately smiled and gave his heartfelt blessing.

Shortly afterward, one of his grandsons arrived. Rav Shach told him, "It was good that you were not here before. For if you had been, you would not have opened the door and I would have been deprived of an opportunity to perform a chesed."

This is an incredible story about a legendary individual. What amazes me is that this young girl had no qualms about knocking repeatedly on the Rosh Yeshivah's door; he was so accessible to everyone. Indeed, every Jew felt as if he were his or her personal father, rebbe, mentor. This is true gadlus.

And Yaakov was left alone. (32:25)

Chazal tell us that Yaakov Avinu's family had left him alone when he returned for some pachim ketanim, small jars. It was at that point that Eisav's angel attacked our Patriarch. Understandably, this statement has been the basis for much homiletic exegesis, focusing on the small jars; their intrinsic value to Yaakov; the fact that he was alone during the night; and specifically, that at this time of solitude and weakness, the angel made his move. Another approach focuses on the small jars, representing the small picture, which Horav Sholom Yosef Elyashiv, Shlita, feels is of great significance, particularly in contemporary times.

There are people whose focal point of religious observance centers around the pachim ketanim, the small-- not necessarily essential-- minhagim, customs. They are careful not to ignore these small traditions, customs, practices while simultaneously paying nothing more than lip service to the "large" jars, such as halachah, Jewish law, its essentials and prerequisites. They have no qualms about spending whatever it takes to use a white hen for Kapparos, atonement, on Erev Yom Kippur, after they have immersed themselves in the mikveh at daybreak. When it concerns other forms of kapparah, atonement, however, they are suddenly clueless.

When Yaakov was left alone, devoid of his family, Eisav's angel attacked. He knew that this was a propitious time, for Yaakov did not have the support of his family. Chazal say that the angel was able to leave an infirmity when he struck Yaakov's side. The defect was in the yotzei yereicho, the offspring of his loins, his children.

This means that if we are to have a significant influence on our children, we must see to it that they observe us spotlighting Torah and mitzvos, caring about the entire corpus of halachah- not simply observing the pachim ketanim, while ignoring the rest of halachah. They must see achdus, unity, in the Orthodox camp, not levado, everyone choosing to be alone, divided, elitist and aloof, such that anyone who does not dress or act exactly like us, is excluded from our frame of observance and, consequently, respect. When Eisav attacks us, the greatest victims are our children. They see the bickering; they are acutely aware of the infighting; they are sensitive to the politics. They often respond with a negativity that extends beyond the issues, spinning off to their core observance, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

And it came to pass as her soul was departing…that she called his name Ben Oni, but his father called him Binyamin. (35:18) There is probably no more slandered figure in secular Jewish lore than the Jewish mother. For years she has been the target of many of our own self-loathing secular-minded co-religionists, whose upbringing in a non- Torah-oriented society leaves much to be desired. It is, therefore, significant to relate what Horav Sholom Yosef Elyashiv, Shlita, perceives as Rochel Imeinu's primary concern as she lay on her deathbed. Our Matriarch was very anxious as she lay dying. Her anxiety, however, was not about herself, but about her soon-to-be-born son. She knew how much work had gone into raising the Shivtei Kah, tribes, who comprised the foundation of the Jewish nation. Her angst was concerning this infant: Who would raise him? Who would inspire him to be G-d-fearing, ethical and pious? Who would educate him? Would he be a source of nachas, satisfaction and pleasure, or would he be a source of eternal shame?

The name that Rachel chose expressed her fears and anxiety. Ben Oni, the son of my mourning. Who knows whether this son will cause me to mourn in the Olam HaEmes, eternal World of Truth? There was a precedent in her family which gave her substantive reason to be distressed. Previously (ibid.35:8) the Torah writes, "Devorah, the wet nurse of Rivkah, died and was buried below Beth-El…and he named it Allon bachus." Rashi cites the Midrash that says that this pasuk, which mentions only the death of Devorah, is an allusion to the death of Rivkah Imeinu. Allon-bachus is perceived by the Midrash to mean place of double weeping - weeping for Devorah and Rivkah.

Why was Rivkah's passing mentioned in such a surreptitious manner? As the wife of Yitzchak Avinu, the mother of Yaakov Avinu, her death should have been noted with a considerable "obituary." Chazal explain that she did not have the sort of burial that a woman of her stature deserved. People were concerned because Avraham Avinu was gone, Yitzchak was homebound, unable to see, and Yaakov had left for Padan Aram. The only one available to represent her family was her wicked son, Eisav. This would not speak well of her. People might speak disrespectfully of her for having given birth to such an evil person. They decided to circumvent this reaction by keeping her death quiet and burying her at night. When Rachel heard what had happened to Rivkah, she was afraid that she, too, might one day be cursed for being the mother of a child that was an embarrassment.

The midwife told her not to worry. Yaakov reassured her that he would be father and mother to the child. He named him Binyamin, a name that denotes strength, aware that it would serve as a positive portent for this child's spiritual future. She was reassured as she left this world. That is how a Jewish mother acts. That is what she thinks about at the most critical final moments of her life. Those who revile the image of a Jewish mother probably did not have much of a Jewish experience when they were growing up.

Many great gedolim, Torah giants, received their earliest inspiration from their mothers, a phenomenon which has been totally normal throughout Jewish history. The mother is a child's earliest mentor and, as such, leaves an indelible imprint upon his or her psyche. Those who denigrate this lofty concept probably have never experienced this unique measure of love. Recognizing that they are missing something in their lives, they choose to revile the idea, rather than to accept their own deficiency.

Horav Yechezkel Levenstein, zl, the venerable Mashgiach of Mir and Ponevez, was a legend in his own time. His wisdom, spiritual intensity, piety and utter devotion to Hashem served as an inspiration to a generation of yeshivah students during the Holocaust and afterwards in rebuilding Torah following the cataclysmic decimation of European Jewry. He became an orphan at the age of five when his mother, Zlata Malka, a scion of chassidic heritage which included the Tosfos Yom Tov, died. Her final words to him as she lay on her death bed proved to be the directive that not only changed his life, but helped to preserve Torah for generations to come. As she lay there, she instructed her young son to dedicate his life to Torah: Du zolst zehn bleiben beim lernen! "See to it that you always remain with Torah!" With her dying breath, she implored him to never forsake Torah study. With these words, she planted the seed in his heart that germinated, blossomed and spread its fragrance and nourishment for others to emulate. Yes- all because of a Jewish mother.

Then Yaakov inquired, and he said, "Divulge if you please your name." And he said, "Why then do you inquire of my name?" (32:29)

Yaakov Avinu had bested Eisav's protective angel in a battle which revolved around theological dogma. He now wanted to know the angel's name. Rashi explains that since an angel exists only to perform the Divine Will, his "name" is a reflection of his mission. By asking him his name, Yaakov was inquiring about the nature of his mission. The angel replied that he had no established name, since the name of an angel changes in accordance with his mission. When one reads the text, it is clear that the angel did not give a reply to Yaakov's question. Instead, he countered with another question: "Why then do you inquire of my name?" What kind of answer is this?

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, cites his rebbe, Horav Leib Chasman, zl, who related that he saw a novel explanation by an early Kabbalist who says that, "Why do you ask my name?" was the angel's answer. This is my name! In other words: "What is your name?" "My name is - 'Why do you ask my name?'" How are we to understand this?

Rav Leib explained this using the following analogy. A citizen of a small backward village had occasion to visit the big city. This man was very primitive indeed. He had never been exposed to the electronic age - a cinema was simply something he did not understand, because he had never seen one. He was wandering through the city when he saw an advertisement for a cinema. He purchased a ticket and entered into a large, dark room. The only light was on the wall/screen which displayed people in animation, talking to one another. He had no clue concerning what was going on. Since he was so far away from the screen, he could not see well - and, after all, it was "also" dark. He took out a large match from his pocket and lit up the room, hoping that the extra light would enable him to see better.

We can imagine how this action was greeted by the movie goers. "Fool! What are you doing?" they screamed. "Put out that light, we are unable to see the show!" were some of the nicer comments that were directed at him. He could not understand why they were upset. He only wanted to see a clearer picture. What bothered him was that as soon as he lit the match, the image on the screen began to disappear. The more light, the less picture.

He was not going to permit the people to deny him his right to enjoy the cinema: "I paid for a ticket, and I plan on seeing the movie. It is too dark in here for me to see. I will continue to use my light."

After a few moments, a wise man came over to him and said, "You do not seem to understand. In this place, we see only when it is dark. When the light is shining we are unable to see." This is the message that Eisav's angel attempted to convey to our Patriarch. In this world, we see only in the darkness. We cannot handle the light.

The angel that battled with Yaakov was no ordinary angel. He doubled as the yetzer hora, evil inclination, as the Satan, the prosecuting angel who indicts us after he has convinced us to sin. Last, he functions as the Malach Ha'Maves, Angel of Death, executing the punishment which we have regrettably earned by falling under his guile. When two adversaries battle each other, the one who emerges triumphant asks the vanquished to reveal his secrets. At the moment of Yaakov's victory, he was empowered to ask the angel: "I won. Now, what is your name?" which really means, "What is your essence? What skill do you employ to ensnare people and convince them to sin? What is the secret of your success? How do you do it?"

The angel answered, "My name is, 'Why do you ask me my name?'" No questions asked, no answers given, everything is carried out in darkness, when people neither understand nor see. When it is dark, everything appears bright. It is only when the light shines through that the picture becomes distorted, and we perceive what it really is: nothing at all, just an imaginary image. When the questions are asked, and the answers are not forthcoming, the individual sees that it is all a sham. Eisav's angel said, "My name is 'Why do you ask my name?'" No questions asked, and the people follow along as simpletons, "blinded" by the darkness. The success of the yetzer hora is attained when no one bothers to ask.

Va'ani Tefillah

Tzaddik Hashem b'chol drachav, v'chasid b'chol maasav.
Righteous is Hashem in all His ways, and magnanimous in all His deeds.

Tzaddik, as explained by Chazal in the Talmud Rosh Hashanah 17b, is a reference to true judgment, that which one really deserves, while chasid denotes going beyond and above the law, extending loving-kindness to an individual more than he deserves. Avnei Shoham explains that the word tzaddik is used to describe one who acts benevolently towards people, worrying about those who are in need and seeing to it that those who are hungry are fed and those who are in need of a livelihood are sustained. Hashem sustains all creatures. Even the dog, whose sustenance is meager, always having to search for food, is sustained by Hashem in a unique manner. The Talmud Shabbos 155b relates that since Hashem knows that a dog has a difficult time finding food, He created him in a way that food remains in his system for up to three days, so that he would not be hungry. They cite the pasuk, Yodea tzaddik din dalim, "A righteous person knows the oppression of the poor." (Mishlei 29:7) The word tzaddik indicates an individual who is concerned about the needs of others. Hashem is the consummate tzaddik, as He occupies Himself solely with providing for the needs of the world's inhabitants.

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