‘Fixing the Transmission’ Parashat Vayishlach 5780

Out of the 613 commandments in the Torah, only three of them are found in the Book of Bereishit. The first commandment is [Bereishit 1:28] “Be fruitful and multiply”. This commandment is given to mankind as a whole and not to any particular individual. The next commandment, circumcision, is given specifically to Abraham [Bereishit 17:12]: “Throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.” The third commandment is given to Jacob after he defeats an unidentified assailant. Realizing that he is losing the battle, Jacob’s assailant takes a cheap shot at Jacob’s hip, injuring him in the process [Bereishit 32:33]: “That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle (gid ha’nasheh)[1] that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.”

At first glance, it seems that these three commandments are arbitrary and have no common theme. When viewed from a different angle, however, striking similarities come into view. First we need a little background. While Abraham was considered the first Jew, he was by no means the first monotheist. The Rambam begins his Laws of Idolatry with a short history of monotheism: Since the dawn of time, there had been people who had spurned paganism for the belief in one G-d. This group of people included Methuselah, Noah, his son, Shem, and Shem’s grandson, Ever. According to our Sages in the Midrash, Shem and Ever actually ran a sort of yeshiva[2] for monotheists. The common denominator uniting these monotheists is that they kept their beliefs quiet and esoteric. They did not preach to the masses. Their yeshiva was open to people who would walk in but there was no active recruiting of new students. Abraham was the first person to openly preach monotheism to the masses. He paid a high price for this, suffering injury, degradation, and exile. But he would not be deterred. Even so, this still did not make Abraham the first Jew. According to the Rambam, what transformed Abraham from “monotheist” to “Jew” was the communicating of his beliefs to his children [Hilchot Avoda Zara 1:3]: “[Abraham] compiled books, which he imparted to his son Isaac. Isaac, from his seat of learning, gave instructions and admonitions. And Isaac, in turn, imparted it to Jacob and appointed him head master, who, at his seat of learning, gave instructions and supported all who flocked to him.” It is the mesorah – the transmission of Jewish tradition to our children – that lies at the heart of Judaism. G-d states this explicitly: [Bereishit 18:19] “For I have singled [Abraham] out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of G-d by doing what is just and right”. G-d “chose” Abraham the same way that Abraham “chose” his descendants.

I suggest that the three commandments in the Book of Bereishit all share the same motif: the transmission of our values and tradition to our children in order to join the eternal chain that is Judaism. Let’s see how this comes together. The first commandment in the Book of Bereishit is the baseline: we are commanded to procreate. Life does not begin and end with individual. Just as each person is someone’s child, each person is commanded to bear children of his own. Nevertheless, human procreation is qualitatively different than the procreation of every other species. We do not procreate merely to survive as a species, we procreate to ensure that a message – a way of life – is transmitted to the next generation.

The second commandment in the Book of Bereishit is circumcision. Circumcision – brit – bears witness to our eternal covenant with G-d. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the sixteenth century, teaches that this covenant was specifically burnt into the flesh of our reproductive organs: “Seeing that the organ on which the covenant with G-d is marked is the organ instrumental in ensuring a man’s continuity beyond death through the genes[3] of his offspring, it is appropriate that the covenant which represents the eternal intimate and reciprocal relationship of G-d and the Jewish people should be symbolized in this manner.” Circumcision impels us to perpetuate our covenant with G-d through our children. Our personal covenant with G-d is not limited by our own bodies or even by our own lifetimes. We are but one link in an eternal chain.

The third and last commandment in the Book of Bereishit is the prohibition of eating the gid ha’nasheh. In the course of the nine verses describing the assault on Jacob and the ensuing prohibition, the word “yarech” – “hip” is used no less than five times, as if it is emphasizing something. I suggest that the word “yarech” is directing our attention to an earlier episode in the Torah in which Abraham charges his trusty servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for his son, Isaac. Abraham prefaces his directions to Eliezer by commanding him [Bereishit 24:2], “Place your hand under my hip”. Rashi, the renowned medieval commentator, explains Abraham’s motive: “Whoever takes an oath must take in his hand some sacred object. such as a Scroll of the Torah or Tefillin. As circumcision was the first commandment given to him… it was consequently dear to him and therefore he selected this as the object upon which to take the oath”. Eliezer would be setting out find a wife for Isaac, a woman through whom Isaac will build a family that will continue Abraham’s legacy. Abraham commands Eliezer to place his hand on his hip due to its close proximity to his circumcision, signifying the transmission of the mesorah. Reflecting this relationship of hip-equals-circumcision back to the gid ha’nasheh, could it be that Jacob’s injury and the resultant prohibition are connected somehow with the concept of circumcision? Before Jacob is assaulted, he is making preparations to meet his brother, Esav, a man whose life’s goal is to murder Jacob in retribution for making his life miserable. Jacob prepares for battle, dividing his family into two camps and moving them to safe locations. Suddenly, Jacob is attacked [Bereishit 32:25]: “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” While the medieval commentators wrestle with the question as to why Jacob was left alone, I suggest that Jacob was assaulted as Divine punishment merely for being left alone. As great as Jacob was, he was still only one link in an eternal Jewish chain. When Jacob is “alone” – separated from his children – for whatever the reason, he becomes expendable. The eternal message will continue with his descendants. And so Jacob is injured specifically on his hip, next to his circumcision. The prohibition of gid ha’nasheh reminds us that we are never alone[4].

The Book of Bereishit sets the stage for the birth of the Jewish Nation at the Egyptian exodus and the accepting of our eternal mission at the Revelation at Sinai. The commandments in the Book of Bereishit enable the Jewish People to survive for eternity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] Translation from Sefaria. “Gid ha’nasheh” is widely translated as “displaced tendon” or “displaced sciatic nerve”. The prohibition of eating the gid ha’nashe makes kosher filet mignon very rare and costly, as that particular cut of meat is located in close proximity to the gid ha’nashe and must be removed via deveining by a person with considerable skill and a sharp knife.

[2] The well-known midrashic concept of a “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever” is somewhat anachronistic. The first yeshivas were established thousands of years after Shem and Ever died. The word “yeshiva” typically means “teaching Torah”. See, for example, the Talmud in Tractate Yoma [28b].

[3] Translation from Sefaria. The word “gene” is also anachronistic.

[4] Another episode in Parashat Vayishlach highlights a misunderstanding of the significance of circumcision. Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, is kidnapped and raped by Shechem, a local tribal leader. Jacob’s sons conceive of a plot with which to rescue Dinah. They meet with Shechem and tell him that they would be willing to marry Dinah off to Shechem, under one condition [Bereishit 34:14-15]: “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us. Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you will become like us in that every male among you is circumcised.” Shechem is amenable and he takes this suggestion back to the tribal elders, telling them [Bereishit 34:22] “But only on this condition will the men agree with us to dwell among us and be as one kindred: that all our males become circumcised as they are circumcised.” There is a seminal difference between what Jacob’s sons demanded of Shechem and what Shechem demanded of his kinsmen: Jacob’s sons demanded circumcision as a means of “becoming like us”. Circumcision is more than the mere cutting away of the foreskin. Circumcision, as we have seen, means changing one’s persona from an individual to an individual link in an infinite chain bound by shared values. Shechem did not demand this from his kinsmen. He merely asked them to become circumcised “as they are circumcised”. He wanted to remain who he was, just without a foreskin.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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