SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, December 7, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            In Yaakov’s impassioned prayer to God before his feared reunion with his brother, he recalls the blessings which God had showered upon him over the last twenty years, recalling how “I crossed this Jordan River with just my stick,” and now returned to his homeland with a large family and an enormous fortune (32:11).  The Midrash, in a passage famously cited by Rashi (to 29:11), explains that Yaakov had actually left home with many possessions, but he was forced to give them all to his nephew, Elifaz.  Eisav, who had sought to kill Yaakov, sent Elifaz to chase after Yaakov and murder him, but Elifaz, who had spent time with his saintly grandfather, Yitzchak, could not bring himself to commit this criminal act.  On the other hand, he could not refuse his father’s command, and so Yaakov suggested that he take his possessions, leaving Yaakov in a state of destitution which, in a sense, resembles death.  And thus Yaakov was left with nothing but his “walking stick” when he crossed the river and journeyed to Charan.
            Kabbalistic tradition draws an intriguing association between Elifaz, Eisav’s son, and Onkelos, a member of the Roman aristocracy who converted to Judaism during the period of the Tanna’im, and emerged as a leading scholar who produced the famous Aramaic translation of the Torah.  The Gemara in Masekhet Gittin (56b) tells that Onkelos was the nephew of Titus, the Roman general who destroyed the Second Temple, and when Onkelos considered converting to Judaism, he consulted with his uncle’s spirit.  Titus told him not to convert, because he would be incapable of fulfilling the many different obligations imposed by the Torah.  But Titus ignored his uncle’s advice, and converted.  Rav Menachem Azarya de Fano (Gilgulei Neshamot, Ma’arekhet Alef, 12) writes, based on Kabbalistic teaching, that Onkelos was a “reincarnation” of Elifaz, and he corrected Elifaz’s mistake of not refusing his father’s command.  Although Elifaz conscientiously searched for a way to avoid killing Yaakov, he did not go as far as he should, refusing to cause Yaakov any harm.  This mistake was correct by Onkelos, who was told by his wicked uncle to reject Judaism, but refused, and embraced the Jewish faith, instead.
            Rav Yechiel Halprein, author of Seder Ha-dorot, cites (in the section about Onkelos) this teaching, and proceeds to note the story told in the Tosefta (Demai 6:12) of Onkelos destroying his share of his father’s inheritance.  After converting to Judaism, Onkelos refused to associate in any way with the cruel Roman government of which his family was a part, and so he took all the possessions he received as his share of the estate and threw them into the Dead Sea.  Rav Halprein explained that this, too, marked the “rectification” of Elifaz’s benefiting from his obedience to his wicked father, taking for himself Yaakov’s wealth.
            These sources contrast two opposite models of conscientious rejection of evil.  Elifaz was spineless and indecisive in his objection to his father’s plan to murder, whereas Onkelos was firm and resolute in his rejection of the cruelty of the Roman government.  Elifaz was content assuaging his conscience by lessening the degree of evil he was willing to perpetrate, whereas Onkelos was courageous and determined enough to completely sever his ties with his evil upbringing, and forge a new path, a life of piety and humble submission to God.  The connection drawn by the Kabbalists between these two figures, then, teaches of the need to extend beyond mere discomfort with evil, and to instead resoundingly reject it and fervently commit ourselves to the pursuit of good.