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 VaYishlach: Meeting the Jew who I am

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daniel eliezer

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Join date : 2011-12-01
Location : Beit El, Israel

PostSubject: VaYishlach: Meeting the Jew who I am   Fri Nov 15, 2013 7:14 am

For those who have difficulty with the transliterated Hebrew and who don’t have access
to Jewish libraries, most transliterated Hebrew can probably be found through Google.
If the word is critical to what I’m saying, then it is explained.

*         *         *
Meeting the Jew who I am today

In the world of Chassidim, among the early Masters was Menachem Mendel Kalish – Rebbe Mendel – of Vorker. All of the Chassidic Masters had their own unique paths to the Divine, and to Mendel Vorker it was silence. It wasn’t the silence of not having anything to say or from not knowing anything; it was the silence of listening intently and deeply to the Divine. Apparently, members here are all Hasidim (followers) of Mendel Vorker. That’s impressive.

Because I’ve been living in Eretz Yisrael thirty-four years, because those thirty-four years have meant that I’ve been living in a more or less totally Jewish environment, and because it is so quiet here, I thought to share a little from my experiences. Listeners must have something to ‘listen to’, no?

One of the things that is found in Jewish tradition is the concept that the neshamot – the souls – of all converts were present at Mt. Sinai during the giving and receiving of the Torah. Whatever that means, one thing is certain and that is that the Torah that was given on Mt. Sinai also belongs to us. Because this is true, it’s imperative that we at least have some familiarity with it, which means we should, if not study it in depth, at least schedule some time in our daily life to read it. It can be surprising how much just increasing our familiarity with the Torah also increases our understanding of Judaism and even life itself.

I was browsing some files and rediscovered something that I had written, a personal story that I was able to incorporate into the Torah’s teachings. Because the story and teaching relate to this week’s Torah reading, ‘VaYishlach’ – ‘And he [Ya’akov] sent’, I’m hoping that maybe it will have meaning for us silent types.

To reiterate what I’ve mentioned in other postings, don’t be intimidated if you don’t follow all of the technical Torah learning terminology and methodology. The substance can be understood even without thorough command or even familiarity of both (although a cursory knowledge of the Torah is definitely advantageous). It’s just that in having both it allows greater access to the Torah and to life itself.

*       *       *
“Albert”

Twenty-three years go, at the age of thirty-five, I did four months of infantry combat training in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). My training was part of the then policy to incorporate olim hadashim - new immigrants - into the army. In general we were men from the early 20’s to mid 30’s in age, and most of us were married but without children (although I already had 2 ½). Most importantly, we came from everywhere. Out of some 50 men, we came from thirteen countries, and spoke even more languages than that. The training was real infantry training, and the only thing that differentiated us from the regular army was that after four months of training, we went home, prepared for reserve duty, instead of onward to further deployment.

Very early in the training, we had a session where we taught all the weapons and equipment that are issued to the private soldier. Among these was the light machinegun, a weapon whose statistics impressed the majority of those present. After verbal instruction, we were taken outside to where everything that had been discussed was laid out on tables for display.

Almost immediately everyone ganged up on the machinegun, oohing and awwwing over it, except, that is, for Albert and myself who brought up the rear. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. “They’re crazy! Who the hell wants to lug that tonnage around with him? Give us an assault rifle and let us be mobile.” Albert is from South Africa, and he had served a lot of time in the bush with the police forces, so he knew his weaponry. I’m a Yankee and not unknowledgeable about firearms and warfare, so I knew what was at stake, also.

The machinegun is the most powerful weapon carried by ground troops (aside from special weapons), and its firepower can be decisive. Because of this, it is usually assigned to strong, reliable people and receiving it is considered an honor, but Albert and I were very happily willing to forgo such distinction. Of course, when the day came to assign the machineguns, Albert and Daniel were called aside and told to report to the armory. Well…we became ‘men to be envied’; with privilege comes pride!

Being a machine-gunner, however, doesn’t make you a man, but being assigned it does mean that you’re not the runt of the litter. In truth, just schlepping it day-in-and-day-out is a lot, even without accepting any other additional responsibilities. There are these and there are those, but each earns his keep.

At some point, when we’d already survived some three months of intense living together, there was some foul-up that left us confined to barracks with a large block of time and nothing to do. After trying different kinds of entertainment and diversions, someone suggested arm wrestling, and so it was. For awhile it was just plain fun, but then some people decided it should get more serious. Since it was a contest of strength, who else but the ‘machine-gunners’, Albert and Daniel, should be pitted against each other?

Albert jumped at the chance, but my heart wasn’t 100% into it - but it also wasn’t a 100% not, so I took a seat. Squaring off and locking hands, on the ‘go’ signal we launched ourselves into combat. And combat it was! There’s no getting around that. When it comes to feats of strength no man wants to be bested, and here there was even more to it. So we pulled with arms and guts and hearts and souls and whatever else we could summon.

Physically, we were more or less matched. Albert was about 5’ 10”, 185 lbs., and built like the proverbial brick outhouse, and I was 6’ 0”, 160 lbs., and lanky to lean. Albert came from the South African police force with all their machismo and black-and-white outlook on life. He shlepped his machinegun but little more.

My black-and-white outlook on life was a little different than Albert’s in that it didn’t include the Alberts of the world. Besides, to me the machinegun was only an obstacle to overcome in handling all the other responsibilities I voluntarily shouldered. We were very much different, and sometimes it seemed to me that the only thing, besides speaking English, that united Albert and me in the unit was those machineguns.

So there we were, locked in mortal combat. Make no mistake about it. Neither of us wanted to lose that contest, and we had plenty of people lined up on either side pulling for each of us. Whatever they could see on the surface though, it was only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath it a lot was going on.

For a while it went this way and for awhile it went that way, with no one having any decided advantage, but each of us felt that there was a moment or two when he might…….

In truth, we finally exhausted ourselves into a deadlock, when apparently no one was going to win, but, then, just at that moment of exhaustion I knew that victory was mine. With the slightest of additional effort that I pulled from the bottom of my being, I knew that I was going to bury Albert’s hand in the tabletop. It was as true to me as my being alive was.

So I gathered my strength to do him in once and for all…when suddenly I jumped up, grabbed Albert’s hands, and with great enthusiasm shouted, “What a contest! What a way to end it! A dead tie! Great!”

Albert was stunned, he didn’t have a clue what’d happened, and he stood up uncomprehendingly and in total confusion. No one looking on could even begin to guess at what I’d done, and to this day not a single one of them has the inkling of a clue. (Whenever it was mentioned afterward, I was always complimenting Albert’s exceptional strength, etc. and playing it down.)

Why’d I do it? By rights, I should have conquered him, after all ‘I was the strongest man’, and had it only been a ‘mere arm wresting match’ I would have.

First, I didn’t need to win. For me the goal was only not to lose, especially to Albert. Albert, though, because of who and what he was, needed to win, to win in the worst way. However, because he needed to win so terribly, had I defeated him it would have been devastating. My victory would have crushed him more than this mere contest would seem to indicate or merit.

Second, as much as I disagreed with so much of what Albert was and believed and as much as we didn’t see eye-to-eye on most things, I could live with him. He was reliable and steadfast, and if things would get tough I know that he’d be there for me as much, I hope, as I would be there for him. So we weren’t bosom buddies. We could work together. An Albert intact was worth far more than all the bragging rights in the world.

*       *       *
This was the story; now for the Torah. Please remember that this is Torah as seen through my eyes, i.e. as seen through whatever portion of Divine light that is given to me. In this being so, it is Torah that is seen from my perspective, and neither is it complete nor the entire picture nor meant to be.

Ya’akov [Jacob], our forefather, also struggled, although his struggle was with an anonymous adversary in an un-witnessed battle in the middle of nowhere. He fought against a relentless, unforgiving adversary, who even drew upon Heavenly powers in his attempt to overcome, defeat, and destroy him. Even with his greatest efforts, however, this adversary could do nothing more than wound Ya’akov; he was incapable of emerging victorious. “VaYar ki lo y’col lo” - “and he saw that he wasn’t able [to overcome] him.” Ya’akov’s antagonist couldn’t defeat him.

But what about Ya’akov? We only know that he fought his opponent to a standstill. How do we know that Ya’akov wasn’t capable of defeating him? How do we know that Ya’akov couldn’t have ‘put Esav away for good’? He certainly had good reason to, as their history teaches us.

When Rivkah was pregnant with Ya’akov and Esav, her insides were constantly exploding. “VaYitratzatzu habanim b’kirbah” - there is no exact translation but usually it comes out “the children were struggling or contesting inside her [womb]”. Rashi, in explaining, quotes Rabbinical tradition that says that when she passed an institution of Torah learning that Ya’akov struggled to get out, and when she passed an institution of idol worship that Esav struggled to get out. Then, Rashi adds his own thoughts saying, “Ya’akov and Esav were struggling over everything”.

In the Rabbi’s eyes, left to his own desires, Esav wants education and success, accomplishment, progress, and culture. He pursues award and achievement, respect and honor, wisdom, esteem, and significance. Ya’akov, left to his own desires, wants the ideals of sanctity and commitment, of introspection and perfection, of fulfillment and acceptance. He seeks the discipline of serving and the consciousness of attention to another, higher authority.

However, adds Rashi, when Ya’akov and Esav (each his respective worldview and image) meet, they become ravaging, raging vildechayas (Yid: wild beasts), the lowest of the low. Even with only his bare hands, each is literally trying to pulverize the other into nothingness and attempting to obliterate him from existence. It’s all or nothing. One wants an ‘all Esav’ world and one wants an ‘all Ya’akov world. They are united only in their belief that ‘there’s no room for the both of them’. Good riddance!

There is a beautiful sefer [book] entitled Lamed Vav, written by a woman named Tzlotana Barbara Midlo, and it is a compilation of Chassidic stories that were taught by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of saintly and blessed memory. (I can’t recommend it enough.) In the introduction, Tzlotana quotes Rabbi Carlebach, “You know, we want so much to be holy. We try to keep all the mitzvos, and to avoid the kinds of people, the kinds of places - even the kinds of thoughts - that we think will bring us down.

But sadly enough, sometimes we are blinded by our own prejudices and preconceptions. Too often we judge things only by their outsides. And then our thoughts - even about the highest ideals in the world - won’t lift us up. Just the opposite. They can mamash bring us down to the lowest levels in the world…”

Propelled by this portentous start to their lives, Ya’akov advances towards his brother and his assembled forces, knowing that the day of reckoning has arrived. Ya’akov, no longer Ya’akov but now Yisrael, is accompanied by the only forces he commands: wives and children, sheep and cattle. They are all advancing to confront Esav his brother, and for Ya’akov there is no turning back. What will be will be.

And finally the momentous encounter: brother’s hands grasping brother’s hands, brother’s arms embracing brothers’s arms, brother’s tears falling upon brother’s tears. Talking and crying, laughing and rejoicing and finally each continuing on his journey if not together, at least not alone.

Why? What changed? What happened?

The midnight to dawn struggle is what happened. Each of them came out a different person, although it was not the same struggle for both of them. Esav, Ya’akov’s adversary, only saw the black and the white, he only saw ‘either him or me’. He didn’t, couldn’t consider that ‘him and me’ was a possibility. He never considered that maybe there’d be a standoff; that maybe neither of them could or would overcome, could or would dispense with the other. With the clearing of the dust of battle in the new dawn, Esav had a different understanding.

Ya’akov’s struggle was first with himself to overcome his own black and white vision of ‘either him or me’; to accept that the two of them were brought together into this world to dwell together. And when he did overcome, then Ya’akov had the added responsibility to make Esav overcome his perception that it is ‘either him or me’. How did he do that?

Esav couldn’t conceive of using strength and force for anything else than to achieve supremacy. He couldn’t comprehend that if Ya’akov had sufficient strength and force that he would only use enough of it defend himself until they reached a standstill; that he wouldn’t use it to obliterate Esav. It wasn’t Esav, with all his Heavenly backing, who wasn’t able to overcome Ya’akov. It was Ya’akov - who could have but nevertheless wouldn’t - who didn’t overcome Esav.

Esav learned so much about his brother. Esav saw in Ya’akov’s reaching a standoff, that Ya’akov, in contending with man and God, didn’t have the need to bring them down. Ya’akov could leave all of them standing. Esav learned so much about his brother that he gave his brother his name, his true essence in this world. He called him Yisrael: he who contends with God and man [successfully] and, also, he who is straight with God.

And so, when finally they meet at that encounter predestined from before they were born, it is brother embracing brother. Brothers are so much deeper than friends. Brothers know each other in a way that they don’t even know. Brothers know each other from the inside, from the point where they join, from the point of beginning.

Albert and I are brothers, not brothers from the same womb, but brothers nevertheless. We may never be friends, if friendly, but we know that there is room in this world for both of us. On a conscious level, in my own eyes I wanted to obliterate everything that Albert is and stands for. On an unconscious level, I love Albert deeper that I even understand. How do I know? When I had the opportunity, I couldn’t, wouldn’t destroy him. So, too, Ya’akov and Esav, who really are brothers from the womb.

The Rabbis teach us that Ya’akov prepared for his confrontation with Esav with three things: “doron, t’filah, and milchamah” - ‘presents, prayer, and war preparations’. On the surface, as the story unfolds, these things are all visible. On that black night, however, when actual battle took place, where do we see them?

To make war, Ya’akov came by himself. He needed nothing more.

For prayer, there are things that we consciously, knowingly pray for, and there are things that are so deep that we don’t even know we are praying for them. Ya’akov, on that night, was praying from his deepest depths, “please don’t let me destroy my brother.”

As tribute, Ya’akov gave Esav a brother, and in giving Esav a brother, Ya’akov gave himself a brother, too.

In the heat of battle Esav and Ya’akov learned that the existence of the one doesn’t deny the existence of the other; it enhances it.

In his struggles, both inside and out, Ya’akov met himself - met ‘the Jew who I am today’. ‘Who this Jew is’ is revealed in the name that Esav gives him, ‘Yisrael’ – one who genuinely contends with and for man and with and for God: literally a ‘Prince of mankind and a Prince of Heaven’.

Shabbat Shalom,

Daniel Eliezer

*         *         *
What I write doesn’t invite comments within the topic, but I do want you to know
that all are welcome to write me should you have any questions or comments.
I can be reached at: d.e.ben.eitan@gmail.com.
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Debbie B.

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PostSubject: Re: VaYishlach: Meeting the Jew who I am   Sun Nov 17, 2013 12:09 am

When I first read this d'var Torah, it was Friday afternoon and I didn't feel that I had time to read it carefully, so I rushed through it, thinking to myself that I could read it more carefully after Shabbat. Then I didn't think about it at all until I was listening to the d'var Torah at shul this morning. The rabbi who spoke was relating how he was one of four sons who were always fighting and competing with each other. After the brothers grew up, at one reunion back at his parents' home he finally matured enough to be able to see his older brother not just as someone that resented for past actions and thus wanted to beat in competition, but as a person with his own feelings, some of which drove him to do things against his younger brother. And all of a sudden I was reminded of Daniel's story about his competition with Albert, and I realized that the key was Daniel's understanding about how much Albert needed to win and what it would do to him to make him lose. Both Daniel's and Rabbi Levy's* dvrei Torah together gave me a better understanding of Parashat Vayishlach as well as reminding me that this lesson applies to our own lives.

[*Rabbi Joel Levy is the director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He is a wonderful teacher and I especially enjoyed his shiur after the kiddush luncheon about "observing Shabbat in the desert". My "tiny" minyan was very lucky in being able to host Rabbi Levy for this Shabbat during his month visiting the US as the 2013 USCJ Midwest Region "visiting scholar". It turned out that he had a free Shabbat in his schedule and my minyan was asked if we would like to host him. On Monday, Rabbi Levy will be speaking at the synagogue where my minyan meets and our minyan could easily provide a shomer Shabbat home for him to stay nearby. (Whereas I suspect that there may not be any members of the regular synagogue congregation who are ritually observant enough to comfortably host Rabbi Levy over Shabbat---the shul is nominally Recontructionist/Conservative, the members of the congregation are not very traditional, and the current rabbi of the synagogue has a Reform ordination.) My minyan's answer was "We would love to host him, but we are a very small congregation and don't have much money for speaker's fees." So we got him for free and our only cost was to sponsor an enhanced kiddush for the whole shul so that we could all have lunch there and then Rabbi Levy could speak at the shul where members of the shul congregation could attend the lecture as well.

Before his afternoon shiur, Rabbi Levy gave a brief description of the Conservative Yeshiva. He said that his favorite student came to study at the Conservative Yeshiva when he was in his 50's and has continued to learn Talmud with Rabbi Levy remotely once a week for several years now. That certainly inspired me and my husband who are that age. We know others who have done it and we have even discussed the idea of doing that ourselves some day. We dream of studying in Jerusalem for say a month or so when both of our kids are out on their own and when our work schedules might allow for that kind of break or when we are retired.]
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