Five Rashis a Week, Parshat Vayishlach: Identifying Ourselves

The five Rashis that jumped out at me this week invite us to think about how we choose with whom we interact, and what that does to our ability to direct our efforts in life in the best possible ways.

Ya’akov Walks with the Angels

In the first verse of this week’s parsha, Ya’akov sends מלאכים to his brother Esav. That Hebrew word can mean messengers, but it usually refers to angels, which is how Rashi takes it, commenting מלאכים ממש, literal angels.  In 32;25, he notes Chazal’s tradition that the “man” with whom Ya’akov wrestled was the angel assigned to watch over Esav.

This continues a trend of Ya’akov’s life we saw more explicitly in Vayetsei, that Ya’akov has frequent interactions with angels. When he left Canaan, he had the famous ladder dream, watching angels go up and down; in his version of events, an angel helped him with the breeding of Lavan’s livestock so that he would get his just share of them; in the last two verses of that parsha, Ya’akov meets a camp of angels (Rashi says the angels of the Land of Israel, returning to protect him).

In addition to his ordinary human life, the Torah and Rashi present Ya’akov as also functioning on an angelic plane. He sees and interacts with them seamlessly, as if it were no different than his interactions with his wives, children, friends, and adversaries.  The Torah doesn’t tell us much about how he manages it, but it implies that the line between the human and angelic is not so impervious or impenetrable as we might think. (This is true of Moshe Rabbenu as well, but we’re not up to him yet).

We can be ordinary human beings, working at our jobs, raising our families, meeting adversaries on their terms and defeat them, while also being someone whose awareness of Hashem and the angelic is sufficient to be part of that realm as well.

It’s not easy, and Ya’akov Avinu tells Par’oh, later in life, that he’s had a rough go of it. But perhaps, in performing on a level most of us have a hard time imagining, Ya’akov carried the reminders of the bruises he got along the way, without seeing how remarkable he had been.

The Hatred of the Nations

33;4 tells us that Esav ran towards Ya’akov, hugged and kissed him. Rashi notes that in Torah scrolls, there are dots over the word וישקהו, and he kissed him.  He records the debate in Sifrei Beha’alotcha 69, as to whether the dots show this kiss was insincere or, R. Shimon b. Yochai’s view, that the dots show that, in contrast to his usual feelings, at that moment Esav kissed his brother with all his heart.

Before he says that, R. Shimon b. Yochai says הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב, it is a well-known rule that Esav hates Ya’akov; this was an exceptional moment. Both opinions, in other words, assume a general hatred by Esav towards Ya’akov. The question is only whether in this instance, something had changed.

In 36;35, the Torah notes that Hadad b. Bedad, one of the kings of Edom, struck Midian in the fields of Moav. For Rashi, that shows a longstanding enmity between the two nations, but their desire to battle the Jews let them unite to work with Bilam on that.

In my lifetime, people have claimed Anti-Semitism was disappearing, and that anti-Israel sentiment was based solely on the objective facts of the situation. Rashi’s comments suggest another view for us to consider, that some nations’ hatreds may be inherent, independent of what we do, although that hatred can perhaps be overcome in moments of especial comity.

Aside from those nations, there are those who hate us enough to put aside their existing hatred for each other, maybe because they feel threatened by us (as Midian and Moav clearly did, even though we weren’t slated to take their land).

That does not have to be true in our times, but we also should not be too quick to be certain that times have changed. Rashi’s suggesting that we examine each of those assumptions carefully before we sign on to them because, as Kohelet says, there are times when we see something and say it’s new, when actually it’s very old.

What’s Your Number?

Years ago, I read an article that suggested that many wealthy people have a “number,” the amount of money they could make that would lead them to walk away and live a life of leisure (or, often, philanthropy, since that’s where studies suggest the extremely rich eventually find themselves, since nothing else provides satisfaction).

The article noted that for many people this number (quick: what’s yours? What’s the number that you would retire and live off of what you have, devoting your time to whatever interested you?) rose as they came close to it—seeing that they were about to get to x millions, they realized they needed y millions. (I know a man who was making millions of dollars a year and switched professions, because his peers were making tens of millions).

I mention that because in 33;11, Rashi contrasts Ya’akov’s saying that Hashem had dealt favorably him, such that he had “all,” with Esav’s having said, two verses earlier, that he had “much.” Rashi reads Ya’akov as saying he had all that he needed, whereas Esav said he had much more than he needed. Rashi terms Esav’s comment as לשון גאוה, haughty language, I think because Esav makes it clear that he has moved from gathering wealth to meet his needs to gathering wealth for its own ends.

It’s the kind of trouble many of us might wish we had, but Rashi is presenting it as an important test of our humility/arrogance. There are many definitions of “need,” and some people can feel they have not met all their needs at a level that others would accept as complete. But if we reach our level, whatever it is, why then do we seek more?

I know people who seek more so they can give more. One man I knew was already very charitable, but wanted to be one of those people who gives tens or hundreds of millions to causes, not just tens or hundreds of thousands. He recognized that he, like Ya’akov, had כל, all he needed. The rest was for a different cause.

Having a lot of money can enable us to do even greater deeds for the world, and there are too many examples of such people to mention (Andrew Carnegie, Moses Montefiore, Joseph Gruss, to pick a few who are no longer living). Or it can addict us to the arrogant search for more and more, to luxuriate in our wealth to no other purpose than conspicuous consumption.

Earning our Identifications

In 34;25, when Shimon and Levi are about to destroy Shechem, the verse speaks of “the two sons of Ya’akov, Shimon and Levi, the brothers of Dinah.” For Rashi, that’s saying that while they were the sons of Ya’akov, they didn’t act like it. I might have thought that would be in terms of their actions showing they had not absorbed Ya’akov’s view of right and wrong, but Rashi’s idea is more subtle and enlightening.

He says they didn’t act as Ya’akov’s sons because they didn’t take counsel from him.  To identify as a son of Ya’akov is to seek his guidance before taking such a major action. I think this struck me because consulting with a wise advisor is today somewhat of a lost art. Knowing when to ask and when there’s no need to, and knowing how to accept the guidance of those who might have more insight than us, is not so common even in segments of our community that espouse that value. But to identify with someone, Rashi’s telling us, is at least to check to know that person’s views and opinions.

Unity and Diversity

When Hashem appears to Ya’akov in 35;11, Hashem tells him to be fruitful and multiply, because a nation and a community of nations will come from him, that kings will issue from his loins. I would have had no problem reading this as referring to Ya’akov’s existing children, who would then have many other children.

Rashi records Chazal’s tradition that גוי, a nation, refers to Binyamin and his line (Shaul and Ish Boshet are the two kings who came from Binyamin). That reading of the verse (and of how Ya’akov reports the incident to Yosef in 48;4) has halachic ramifications according to some tannaim, who treat each tribe as a separate unit for the purposes of certain sacrifices (such asפר העלם דבר של צבור, the sacrifice brought when a court rules incorrectly on a serious matter and a majority of the congregation act on that ruling).

Technicalities aside, I see it as a comment about the kind of unity tradition promoted. While there is a whole nation of Israel, which we hope comes together for good purposes, Chazal saw the ideal as being that within that nation, there were sub-nations, each with their own views of how to channel their positive energies, and each with their own standing before Hashem.

Another example comes in Rambam’s commentary to Avot 5;3, where he lists the ten miracles performed at the Splitting of the Sea. One of them was that the sea split into twelve, so that each tribe went through on its own (in these contexts, Menasseh and Efrayim combine into one, since Levi has to count as a tribe).

Why see it that way? Because we never claimed to be one undifferentiated nation. We are a nation that seeks and achieves unity in its broadest terms, leaving ample room for diversity, for each tribe (and family clan within those tribes) to seek and find its own ways to contribute to the larger project of the Jewish people, being Hashem’s representatives on earth.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.