SALT - Parashat Vayishlach 5781 / 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
Motzaei Shabbat
            In the beginning of Parashat Vayishlach, we read of Yaakov’s preparations for his dreaded reunion with his brother, Eisav.  These included the presentation of a very large gift.  The Torah writes, “Va-yikach min ha-ba be-yado” – “He took some of what he had in his possession” and sent it to Eisav (32:14).  This gift, as the Torah describes in detail, included large numbers of several different kinds of animals.
            Rashi brings a number of different interpretations of the phrase, “ha-ba be-yado” – “what he had in his possession.”  One interpretation, cited from the Midrash Lekach Tov, is that Yaakov gave his brother animals “min ha-chulin,” from his “mundane” herds.  Rashi explains that Yaakov had ensured to first tithe his animals, as he had promised (28:22), thus ensuring that the groups of animals given to Eisav were entirely “chulin,” without containing any animals which were declared sacred.  According to the Midrash, this is the meaning of the expression “ha-ba be-yado” – that they were permissible for use, and not made hallowed.
            Rav Menachem Bentzion Sacks, in his Menachem Tziyon, suggests a symbolic understanding of this Midrashic reading of the verse.  The image of Eisav has often been viewed as a symbol of hostile nations and harmful forces which threaten us, either by seeking to inflict bodily harm or by denying us the ability to devote ourselves to God.  The story of Yaakov’s confrontation with Eisav thus represents the tense relationship that our nation has often had with our adversaries.  Just as Yaakov felt compelled to send a lavish gift to Eisav in an attempt to assuage his hostility, the Jewish People, too, must at times give of themselves to other nations in the interest of maintaining or achieving peaceful relations.  The Midrash warns, however, that we should be prepared to sacrifice only “chulin” – our “mundane” commodities, such as money and property, for the sake of securing the goodwill of other peoples.  But our sacred possessions – our values, our ideals, our principles, and our lifestyle – must never be compromised for this purpose.  We should be ready, as Yaakov was, to part with “chulin,” our material blessings, but our sacred property must always remain off-limits.  Our religious heritage and teachings are more precious than any material possessions, and may never be sacrificed for any purpose, even in our ongoing struggle against “Eisav” in all his various manifestations.
            The Torah in Parashat Vayishlach (33:18) tells that after Yaakov’s meeting with Eisav, “va-yavo Yaakov shaleim ir Shekhem.”  The Rashbam (see also Chizkuni) explains this verse to mean that Yaakov arrived in a city called Shaleim, which was under the control of a person named Shekhem.  As we read in the next section, Shekhem – the son of the local governor – abducted and violated Yaakov’s daughter, Dina, prompting two of Dina’s brothers to launch a deadly assault on the city.  According to the Rashbam, the name of this city was Shaleim, which was under the control of Shekhem, the prince of the region. 
Most commentators, however, understand this verse differently, explaining that Yaakov arrived “shaleim” – peacefully (Ibn Ezra), or “whole” (Rashi, Radak, Ramban) – in the city called Shekhem, whose prince bore the same name.  The word “shaleim,” according to these commentators, is not the name of a geographical location, but rather an adjective describing Yaakov’s condition.  After spending many years abroad, and after his dreaded reunion with his brother, Yaakov arrived peacefully in the outskirts of Shekhem.
            This interpretation of the verse appears also in the Gemara, in Masekhet Shabbat (33b), where the Gemara explains that Yaakov was “whole” in the three ways: physically (“be-gufo”), financially (“be-mamono”), and spiritually (“be-Torato”).  Rashi, in his commentary to this verse, writes that Yaakov was financially “whole” in the sense that “lo chaseir kelum mi-kol oto doron” – “he lacked nothing as a result of that gift.”  Yaakov had sent an enormous gift to Eisav, consisting of hundreds of animals, in an attempt to assuage his anger, but God saw to it that Yaakov did not suffer any financial harm as a result of this expenditure.
            Rashi’s comments become especially meaningful in light of his remark earlier (32:22), citing the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 76:8), that after Yaakov sent the gift to Eisav, “he was in a state of anger that he needed to do all this.”  The Midrash depicts Yaakov as frustrated and resentful that he needed to resort to sending large herds of valuable cattle to Eisav in an attempt to pacify his rage.  It upset him that an unfortunate sequence of events led to this.
            In the end, however, Yaakov emerged “shaleim be-mamono,” financially “complete,” having lost nothing as a result of the expensive bribe given to his brother.  Yaakov felt upset over incurring this cost, but in the end, it did not matter.  So often in life, we allow ourselves to feel upset and aggravated over something which, in the grand scheme of things, ends up having little or no effect on us.  Yaakov was unsettled by the cost he incurred to appease his brother, but ultimately, this made no difference, because he emerged from the experience “shaleim be-mamono.”  Rashi’s two comments remind us to try to maintain a healthy perspective, to avoid feelings of frustration and angst when life does not proceed the way we want it to, and to trust that somehow, we will emerge from the undesirable situation “shaleim” – complete and whole in every way.
            The Torah in Parashat Vayishlach tells the mysterious story of the assailant who attacked Yaakov as he stood alone on the riverbank at one point during his journey back to the Land of Israel.  After a nightlong wrestle, Yaakov ultimately prevailed and subdued his attacker, who then begged Yaakov to set him free.  Yaakov replied, “I will not release you until you bless me” (32:27).  The attacker – who is commonly identified as an angel – agreed, and he proclaimed that Yaakov’s name would now be “Yisrael,” signifying his having triumphed (“sarita”) over his adversaries.
            The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 78:2) relates that the angel initially refused to grant Yaakov a blessing, giving several different excuses, but Yaakov nevertheless insisted.  At one point in this exchange related by the Midrash, Yaakov drew the angel’s attention to the story of the angels who visited Avraham, and who granted him a blessing before they left.  Yaakov thus demanded that he be treated the same way, and that the angel give him a blessing.  The angel responded, “Those were sent for this purpose, but I was not sent for this purpose.”  Yaakov nevertheless insisted.
            Many have pointed to Yaakov’s confrontation with the angel as representing our struggles and confrontations with evils of all different kinds.  Yaakov’s triumph over the angel after a long, difficult battle signifies our ability to overcome adversity and challenges, while highlighting the need for patience, courage and persistence.  And just as Yaakov demanded that the angel bless him before leaving, so must we seek to secure a “blessing” from every challenge and hardship which we face in life.  Our goal must be not just to triumph over adversity, but to transform every difficult situation into a “blessing,” into a source of growth, something from which we gain. 
If so, then we may perhaps suggest an explanation for the angel’s excuse – “Those were sent for this purpose, but I was not sent for this purpose.”  We tend to view everything in life as either a “blessing” or a “curse,” as either positive or negative.  We label some “angels” that come into our lives as having been sent to “bless” us, to benefit us, like the angels who visited Avraham, and others as having been sent only to “wrestle” with us, to challenge us, to cause us pain and anguish, like the angel who assailed Yaakov.  The Midrash teaches that we should insist on forcing all the “angels” who come our way to bless us, even when it appears that they were not sent for this purpose.  We should strive to have the strength to turn all our “angels” into blessings – even those circumstances which, like Yaakov’s assailant, cause us pain and struggle.  Yaakov ignored the angel’s claim that he was sent only to challenge him and not to bless him – showing us that everything that happens in life can be a source of blessing, if we have the strength, fortitude and wisdom to perceive it as such.
            We read in Parashat Vayishlach of the pilgrimage which Yaakov made together with his family to Beit-El, fulfilling the vow he had made at that site twenty years earlier, that he would establish there a “house of God” (28:22) upon his return to his homeland.  In preparation for this pilgrimage, Yaakov instructed his family and servants to eliminate “the foreign gods which are in your midst” (35:2), which most commentators understand as a reference to religious articles which Yaakov’s sons had seized from the city of Shekhem.  As we read earlier (34:27-29), after Shimon and Levi’s assault on Shekhem, they seized the city’s property, and these spoils, apparently, included a number of religious articles.  Yaakov felt it was necessary for the family to rid themselves of these items before going to serve God in Beit-El.  The Torah relates that the family and servants gave to Yaakov “all the foreign gods which were in their possession, and the rings which were in their ears,” and Yaakov buried them in the ground (35:4).
            As Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes in his Torah commentary, it seems unclear why the Torah specifically mentions the earrings as having been eliminated together with the articles of worship.  Rav Hirsch speculates that the earrings taken from Shekhem may have had images of pagan deities engraved on them, and he notes that Onkelos translates “nezamim” (“rings”) in this verse as “kedashaya,” which seems to denote some religious function.  Indeed, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel writes that these rings had been worn by the people of Shekhem and had on them graven images, establishing a Midrashic source for Rav Hirsch’s speculation.
            A different approach is taken by Malbim and by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala.  They explain that these rings were not worn by people, but rather by the statues in Shekhem.  These “nezamim” were decorations for the idols, and thus Yaakov wanted them to be eliminated along with the idols themselves.
            A symbolic insight into this verse is suggested by Rav Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, in his Ma’or Va-shemesh.  He writes that just as Yaakov’s family removed the “rings that were in their ears,” so must we endeavor to remove the objects that obstruct our “ears,” that do not allow us to be impacted by the words of Torah and wisdom which we learn and hear.  This is done, the Ma’or Va-shemesh, writes, by removing the “elohei ha-neikhar,” the “foreign gods,” our preoccupation with physical and material indulgence.  When we overprioritize physical enjoyment and material luxury, then they in a sense become “elohei neikhar” – “foreign gods” to which we devote our lives.  The effect of this preoccupation is that our “ears” become “blocked,” incapable of absorbing and processing the teachings of the Torah.  If our minds focus inordinately on mundane matters, we will lack the headspace for more meaningful matters.  The Ma’or Va-shemesh thus urges us to reduce our preoccupation with, and indulgence in, worldly delights, to eliminate the “god” of pleasure and luxury, which will result in the opening of our “ears” and a greater ability to be impacted, uplifted and inspired by the profound wisdom of the Torah.
            We read in Parashat Vayishlach of Yaakov’s impassioned prayer to God in advance of his dreaded reunion with his brother, Eisav, whom he feared would seek to kill him and his family.  In this prayer, Yaakov avows his unworthiness of all the blessings which God had bestowed upon him: “I am undeserving of all the kindnesses and all the truth which You have done for Your servant, for I crossed this Jordan [River] with my staff, and now I have become two camps” (32:11).
            Rashi explains that Yaakov was saying, “I had with me neither silver, gold, nor cattle, but only my staff.”  Meaning, Yaakov embarked on his journey to Charan with nothing other than a walking stick, and he was now returning to Canaan with a very large family and very large herds of cattle.  Rashi then cites a startling interpretation of this verse from the Midrash: “He placed his staff in the Jordan, and the Jordan split.”  According to this reading, when Yaakov said, “be-makli avarti et ha-Yardein ha-zeh” – “I crossed this Jordan [River] with my stick,” he meant, quite literally, that he crossed with his stick, that his stick enabled him to cross the river, as it miraculously split the waters.  This description, of course, brings to mind the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds, which occurred when Moshe lifted his staff over the water (Shemot 14:27), as well as the miraculous splitting of the Jordan River when Benei Yisrael entered the Land of Israel in Yehoshua’s time (Yehoshua 3:15-16).
            How might we approach this Midrashic depiction of Yaakov splitting the Jordan River with his staff?  It is quite clear that Yaakov speaks of his state of poverty at the time he crossed the river, contrasting his possessing just a staff at that moment with the large family and large fortune that he brought with him now as he headed back home.  Why would the Midrash read into this verse an allusion to his miraculously splitting the river?
            Perhaps, the Midrash seeks to teach us never to underestimate our ability to achieve even when we feel we have only a “staff.”  Yaakov found himself destitute, with nothing but a stick, but this stick proved to be a precious commodity, capable of splitting a river.  Even when it seems we have little, we should feel blessed and try to recognize the great value of even the little we have.  Every possession we own is precious if it is utilized the right way.  This is true not only of material possessions, but also of our natural skills and talents.  Even if we feel we have only a “staff,” that we have very limited capabilities, in truth, that “staff” we have been given can be used to create, to build, to impact and to produce.  We have all been endowed with gifts which, if used properly, can “split rivers,” can make meaningful and important contributions.  We should therefore celebrate, cherish and recognize every blessing we have been given, down to our simple “staffs,” and try to use them all in the best way possible so we can achieve to the full extent of our God-given potential.
            The Torah in Parashat Vayishlach lists Eisav’s descendants, and it begins this section by naming Eisav’s three wives as Ada, a Chittite; Aholivama, a Chivite; and Bosmat, the sister of Nevayot (36:2-3).  The commentators struggle to reconcile these names with the names of Eisav’s wives given earlier, in Parashat Toldot.  There, we read the Eisav married two Chittite women – Yehudit and Bosmat (26:34), and then later married Machalat, the sister of Yishmael’s son, Nevayot (28:9).  Whereas in Parashat Toldot, Eisav is said to have married Chittite women named Yehudit and Bosmat, and Yishmael’s daughter named Machalat, here, in Parashat Vayishlach, Bosmat is the name of Yishmael’s daughter, and the two other wives have different names.  (There is also a separate question of why Eisav’s first two wives are both identified as Chittite women in Parashat Toldot, while here in Parashat Vayishlach, one of them is referred to as hailing from the Chivi tribe.)
            Rashi resolves this difficulty by explaining, based on Midrashic sources, that these women were given different names.  According to Rashi, the real names of Eisav’s first two wives were Ada and Aholivama, and his third wife’s real name was Bosmat.  The Torah refers to Ada as Bosmat, Rashi explains, to signify “she-hayeta mekateret besamim la-avoda zara” – “that she would offer fragrant spices for pagan gods.”  As for Aholivama, Rashi writes that Eisav called her “Yehudit” (“Jewish”) as part of his effort to deceive his father into thinking that she embraced the family’s monotheistic faith.  And Bosmat, Yishmael’s daughter, was called “Machalat” in the verse telling of her marriage to Eisav to teach that one’s sins are forgiven (“nimchalu”) on the day he gets married.
            Returning to Ada, we might wonder why, according to the Midrash, the “besamim” – the fragrant spices – receive such emphasis.  Why is it significant that she not merely worshipped idols, but offered “besamim”?
            This question might be asked also in regard to Rashi’s earlier comment (27:1), citing the Midrash Tanchuma, that Yitzchak grew blind because of the smoke produced by the pagan offerings brought by Eisav’s wives.  Here, too, the Midrash specifies the “smoke” – likely referring to the fragrant smoke produced by incense.
            Perhaps, the Midrash here seeks to alert us to the particular danger of sinful conduct that is “fragrant,” that is appealing and attractive.  While some illicit behavior is readily identifiable as such, other forms of impropriety have a pleasing “aroma” which makes them alluring.  The description of the smoke of the pagan sacrifices damaging Yitzchak’s eyes might allude to the “blinding” effect of the “besamim,” the enchanting “scent” which is sometimes emitted by forbidden conduct.  This “fragrance” has the effect of distorting our perspective, of making vice seem virtuous.  We must exercise particular care with regard to the “besamim” which are offered to foreign gods, to the values and practices which are regarded as noble and virtuous, but are, in truth, foreign to our beliefs, our values, and our way of life.  The Midrash perhaps emphasizes the incense and the fragrant smoke it produced to warn of the “blinding” effect of foreign ideas which “waft” through the air with an appealing “fragrance.”  We must ensure not to be “blinded” by this pleasing “scent” and to instead remain steadfastly committed to our cherished values and traditions.
            Yesterday, we noted the names of Eisav’s three wives given in Parashat Vayishlach, and how they differ from the names by which they are referred back in Parashat Toldot.  In Parashat Vayishlach (36:2-3), Eisav’s wives are identified as: 1) Ada, the daughter Eilon, a Chittite; 2) Aholivama, the daughter of Ana, a Chivite; 3) Bosmat, Yishmael’s daughter.  In Parashat Toldot (26:34, 28:9), by contrast, we read that Eisav first married Yehudit, the daughter of Be’eri, and Bosmat, the daughter of Eilon, both Chittites, and he later married Yishmael’s daughter Machalat.  Most commentators explain, very simply, that it was common in the ancient world for people to be known by more than one name, and this account for the discrepancies between the two accounts.  However, this does not explain why Eisav’s first two wives are both identified as Chittites in Parashat Toldot, whereas in Parashat Vayishlach, one is identified as a Chittite and the other as a Chivite.
            The Ramban offers a different – and surprisingly simple – explanation, suggesting that Eisav’s first two wives were named Yehudit and Bosmat, as the Torah says in Parashat Toldot, but they both died without children.  The Ramban notes that the Torah emphasizes that these two women were sinful (“Va-tihiyena morat ruach le-Yitzchak u-le-Rivka” – 26:35), and it is thus possible that they were punished and died young, without begetting children.  As the Torah here in Parashat Vayishlach names Eisav’s wives for the sake of recording his progeny, it makes no mention of his wives who died without producing offspring.  It therefore mentions the two wives he married later – Ada and Aholivama.  As for the daughter of Yishmael, the Ramban speculates that Eisav perhaps changed her name from “Machalat,” which resembles the inauspicious word “machala” (“illness”), and gave her the name of one of his deceased wives – “Bosmat” – which has a more pleasant association, resembling the word “besamim” (fragrant spices).
            A slightly different theory is advanced by the Rashbam, who writes that one of Eisav’s first two wives – Yehudit – died without children.  The other wives – Bosmat, the daughter of Eilon, and Machalat, the daughter of Yishmael – remained alive and produced offspring, and, for whatever reason, their names were changed to Ada and Bosmat, respectively.  Later, after Eisav settled in the region of Se’ir, he married Aholivama, whom the Torah identifies here as the daughter of Ana and the granddaughter of Tzivon.  Ana and Tzivon are mentioned towards the end of Parashat Vayishlach (36:20,24) as natives of Se’ir, and so it stands to reason that Eisav married Aholivama later in life, after he relocated in Se’ir.  The Rashbam adds that for this reason, the Torah first lists the children of Ada and Bosmat, before presenting the names of the children of Aholivama – because Eisav married Aholivama later, and thus her children were younger. 
This approach is taken also by Netziv, in his Ha’ameik Davar, where he notes that in listing Eisav’s offspring upon arriving in Se’ir (36:9-19), the Torah names the sons of Ada and Bosmat, and also their grandsons, whereas Aholivama’s sons are named, but not her grandsons.  It appears that since Aholivama married Eisav later, she had only children at that time, but not grandsons.  (We should note that Netziv, unlike the Rashbam, apparently understood that Eisav married Aholivama before he arrived in Se’ir, such that she bore him three children by the time he settled there.)