“Jewish Geography” Parashat Vayishlach 5777

Some sections of the Torah are more troublesome than others. Parashat Vayishlach contains a particularly good example of a particularly troublesome section: the entire thirty-sixth chapter of the Book of Bereishit – all forty-three verses of it – seems completely irrelevant. This chapter names all of the descendants of Esav and then it lists the kings who ruled in Edom before Am Yisrael inherited the Land of Israel. Here is one example [Bereishit 36:39]: “[King] Baal Hanan, son of Achbor died, and Hadar reigned in his stead. The name of his city was Pa’u; his wife’s name was Mehetavel, daughter of Matred, the daughter of Mei Zahav.” Haven’t we stressed time and time again that the Torah is not a book of history? Isn’t the Torah supposed to make me a better Jew? So what are we meant to do with all the information in this verse? King Hadar has zero relevance to my life. Why should I care where he came from or who his mother-in-law was? The ArtScroll Chumash precedes its commentary on these verses with a word of warning: these verses are simply not meant to be understood according to their simple meaning. They require a hefty dose of Midrash in order to become palatable. In this shiur we’re going to try a different path: we’re going to see if the simple meaning of the verse can’t teach us a thing or two.

Our chapter begins with the following verse [Bereishit 36:1]: “These are the generations of Esav, that is, Edom”. The phrase “eleh toledot” – translated above as “these are the generations” – also appears in the first verse of Parashat Toledot [Bereishit 25:1]: “These are the generations of Yitzchak the son of Avraham – Avraham gave birth to Yitzchak”. Two weeks ago I heard a beautiful explanation of this verse given by Rabbi Yaakov Trump of the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst. Rabbi Trump translated the word “toledot” not as “generations” or “lineage”, as it is most commonly translated, but, rather, as “legacy”. What was Yitzchak’s legacy? “Avraham gave birth to Yitzchak”. Yitzchak proudly carried the torch that was first lit and then carried by his father, Avraham. What was Esav’s legacy? The Torah answers this question [Bereishit 36:6]: “Esav took his wives, his sons, and his daughters and all the people of his household, and his cattle and all his animals and all his property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and he went to a[nother] land, because of his brother Yaakov.” The legacy of Esav is separation and division. The first thing that Esav does is to leave his family. The reason given is “because of his brother”. The next verse elaborates [Bereishit 25:7]: “For their possessions were too numerous for them to dwell together and the land of their sojourning could not support them because of their livestock”. Rashi answers, in short, “Yeah, right”. Are we really to believe that the Land of Canaan was too small to provide food to both Yaakov and Esav’s livestock? The real reason Esav left was “because of his brother” – because he could not stand living with his brother. Rashi notes that Esav leaves with “all of the people (nafshot) of his household”. Compare this to Yaakov and his family who go down to Egypt with [Bereishit 46:27] “all the people (nefesh) of the house of Yaakov”. Rashi comments that “Esav had six souls [in his family], and the text calls them “the souls of his household” in the plural, because they worshipped many gods [in his family, each his or her own deity]. Yaakov had seventy [souls], but the text calls them [in the singular] because they [all] worshiped one God.”

After describing Esav’s exit from the Land of Canaan, the Torah enumerates all of the “chiefs” (alufim) of Esav. According to Rashi these “chiefs” were actually the heads of the clans. That is to say, the descendants of Esav were dispersed throughout the Land of Edom, each in their own clan with their own beliefs and their own leaders. Finally the Torah segues into the names of the eight kings who ruled in the Land of Edom. Each of the Edomite kings[1] is named along with his hometown. King Hanan stands out in that the names of his in-laws are also mentioned. These kings were not national leaders – they were local leaders. They were never “Kings of Edom”. They always remained “King from Pa’u”, “King from Dinhavah”, or “King from Detroit”.

The Torah concludes its discussion of Esav’s legacy with the words [Bereishit 36:43] “These are the chiefs of Edom according to their dwelling places in the land of their possession. That is Esav, father of the Edomites”. That is Esav. The legacy of Esav was each man “according to their dwelling places”. There was no centrality, no shared mission and no shared purpose. The legacy of Esav was an assortment of disconnected tribes who had at one time shared an ancestor.

Now let’s compare the legacy of Esav with the legacy of Yitzchak. Yitzchak’s legacy is that he is the continuation of Avraham. He is firmly connected with his past. Years later, Yaakov’s sons take this legacy one step further. As they stand before Joseph, accused of espionage, they tell him [Bereishit 42:11] “We are all the son of one man”. This is our creed[2]. We are one people. We share a mission and we share a purpose. When the Torah enumerates the kings of Edom, it notes that these kings (plural) ruled [Bereishit 36:31] “before any king (singular) reigned over the Children of Israel”. Extrapolating Rashi’s logic regarding the word “souls”, the Torah is alluding to the fact that Am Yisrael has always been and will always be ruled by one king[3].

I have just returned from a particularly lengthy sojourn that took me across the world and back. During this time I was hit full force by Yaakov’s legacy: no matter where I went, while I was far away from home I always felt at home. We’re all familiar with the theory of “Six Degrees of Separation” that posits that anyone on the planet can be connected to any other person through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries. Jews operate through a different paradigm: the theory of “Jewish Geography” that posits that when two Jews meet each other for the first time, they will always know someone in common. Not only is the Jewish chain shorter, it is much stronger. While I may be connected to Barack Obama by six people, I probably only know one of them, and then, only casually. Jewish Geography is another story altogether. Let me give you a few examples from my recent sojourn: I spent a Shabbat in Long Island and ate lunch at the house of one of the congregants. After Shabbat I received an email from a friend from New Jersey containing a photo of a young couple who was at the same lunch: the girl is her daughter, and is engaged to the son of my hosts. In Denver a woman asked me if my mother’s name was Ruth. Turns out her husband sold us meat for fifteen years in Binghamton. In a meeting in LA of entrepreneurs and Venture Capitalists, my host and I played our own Jewish Geography after discovering we both attended Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in two consecutive years. In Manhattan I discovered that I had dated the aunt of my host’s wife.

The descendants of Esav do not play “Edomite Geography”. You see, Jewish Geography is more than just knowing the same people. The mere fact that I can play Jewish Geography from Hong Kong to Cape Town to San Diego means that I am welcome anywhere I go. It means that across the world I can have deep, meaningful conversations over a single malt and a bowl of chulent with people whom I have never met before but with whom I share a deep visceral connection. While overseas I pined for Israel, the home of a Jewish nation that is leaving its cocoon after two thousand long years of exile. But it was an indescribable feeling to get off a plane and to shake hands with people who I had never before met but who I knew felt just as viscerally that “We are all the son of one man”.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul ben Tzvia.

[1] Except for one king, Baal Hanan, son of Achbor, who apparently came from Detroit.

[2] This is what is written on our bumper stickers.

[3] The division of the Davidic Kingdom into the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel by King Yeravam was a crime for which the Kingdom of Israel was eventually punished by being sent into exile well before the Kingdom of Judah.

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", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. 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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