‘Preparing for Adversity’ Parashat Vayetze 5779

Jacob, on the run from his brother, Esav, heads to his mother’s family in Aram Naharaim to seek shelter. He stops for the night to rest [Bereishit 28:11]: “He took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place”. Rashi comments that “he lay down there, but for the 14 years that he studied at the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, he did not sleep a wink”.

Understanding Rashi’s explanation requires some background. A few verses earlier, Rashi calculates that 14 years are missing from the Torah’s description of Yaakov’s life[1]. Rashi identifies these 14 years as occurring between the time that Jacob fled his parents’ home and the time he arrived at his Uncle Lavan’s house. Rashi asserts that Jacob spent all of this time studying in a yeshiva that was run by Shem, the son of Noach, and by Ever, Shem’s grandson. This yeshiva appears sporadically in Rashi’s commentary on the Book of Bereishit. For instance, when Rebecca wants to find out why her pregnancy is so difficult, she goes [Bereishit 25:22] “to seek G-d”. Rashi suggests that she went to “seek G-d” at the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever.

Let us assume that the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever actually existed. Let us assume that it had a real mailing address, real books, and real students sitting on real benches. Why did Jacob go study there after he left home? If he wanted to learn Torah, he should have made a beeline to his grandfather, Abraham. No person in the world knew more about the Way of G-d than did Abraham. The “Siftei Chachamim”, a supercommentary[2] on Rashi’s commentary, answers that Jacob wanted to keep Abraham out of the family politics. Why did he need to know that one of his grandchildren wanted to slaughter the other one? Best for Jacob to study elsewhere and to let Abraham remain blissfully ignorant.

I would like to propose a very different explanation, but before doing so, we must learn a little more about Shem and Ever. Maimonides, writing in the Yad HaChazaka [Laws of Idolatry 1:2-3] teaches, “[G-d] was not recognized or known by anyone in the world, with the exception of a [few] individuals: for example, Chanoch, Methuselah, Noach, Shem, and Ever. The world continued in this fashion until the pillar of the world – the Patriarch Abraham – was born… Ultimately, he appreciated the way of truth and understood the path of righteousness through his accurate comprehension… He began to call in a loud voice to all people and inform them that there is one God in the entire world and it is proper to serve Him. He would go out and call to the people, gathering them in city after city and country after country, until he came to the land of Canaan – proclaiming [G-d’s existence the entire time]”. Contrary to popular belief, Abraham was not the world’s first monotheist; he was the world’s first Jew. There was a seminal difference between Abraham and all the monotheists who preceded him. Rabbi Yosef Karo, writing in the “Kessef Mishneh”, his gloss on the Yad HaChazaka, explains, “Abraham would call out and announce [to all the peoples] belief in the unity of G-d. Shem and Ever taught the path of G-d [only] to their students. They did not awaken and announce the way Abraham did and that is why Abraham’s greatness increased”. Although Shem and Ever were spiritual giants, they did not preach to the masses. Those who wanted to learn were welcome in their yeshiva. Those who were not interested stayed away. Shem and Ever never made an effort to leave the yeshiva and to bring their monotheism to the rest of the world or even to their own families. Their belief was insular. Only Abraham spread his beliefs[3]. This would become the creed of the Jewish People [Bereishit 18:19]: “I have loved [Abraham] because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice”.

According to the Rashi’s calculations mentioned earlier, Jacob was sixty-three years old when he ran away to escape Esav. He had certainly spent much of that time studying Torah with his father and his grandfather. I suggest that before he went for an extended stay by his Aramean relatives, he went to the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever to learn things that his father and his grandfather never taught him. The question is: What were those things?

While preparing this shiur, I came across an article written by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen of the Jerusalem Kollel. Rabbi Gefen asks a similar question: What kind of spiritual nourishment was Jacob looking for at the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever? Rabbi Gefen suggests that Shem and Ever lived among wicked people and so they had developed methods of dealing with them. As Jacob was headed to the house of the evil Lavan, he needed guidance in this topic and so he went to Shem and Ever. How does a person prepare for evil? Rabbi Gefen suggests that preparation is required in both halacha – law – and in machshava – thought. From a halachic standpoint, Jacob would be facing “many unusual and difficult challenges and needed guidance as to when [he] could apply various leniencies and to what extent.” From the standpoint of thought, he would have to steel himself so as remain diligent even under the most adverse conditions, so as not to learn from Lavan’s evil ways.

I suggest that Jacob needed to learn something that Abraham could never teach him. Jacob went to Shem and Ever because he needed to learn their insular ways. He needed to learn how to retreat. He needed to learn how to live with people who wanted nothing to do with their cousin Abraham and his ideas[4]. After spending so many years studying Torah with Abraham and Isaac, it was only natural that Jacob’s Torah would flow from his every pore. He had to spend 14 years at the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever to learn how to cease being a Jew without ceasing to be a monotheist.

It has been nearly a month since the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a suburb of Pittsburgh, in which 11 Jews were shot dead. It was the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in the history of the United States. Getting my head around the attack was hard enough, but I was completely unprepared for the reaction in the Jewish community. Many American Jews began to align themselves on party lines. Progressives blamed President Trump for the attack, accusing him of fanning the flames of anti-Semitism with his wild rhetoric. Not only was President Trump to blame, but his supporters, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were equally guilty. Conservatives defended the President as the most pro-Israel president in recent history, and then they accused the Progressives of siding with politicians such as Louis Farrakhan and Keith Ellison who espouse boycotting and sanctioning Israel. After reading an article in the Times of Israel called “How the Pittsburgh massacre is driving American Jews apart”[5], my wife and I were incredulous. When an act of terror happens in Israel, Israelis put their political differences aside. It makes no difference if the person who was killed was a settler or a kibbutznik. Everyone mourns, because the person who was killed was a Jew and he was killed because he was a Jew.

Creation of a rift in American Jewry is the greatest gift that we could give the Squirrel Hill shooter. Shem and Ever dealt with adversity by retreating into their shells. The children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob deal with adversity by reaching out and standing together.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] Rashi’s calculation is based on dates that clearly appear in the Torah mixed together with stories taken from the Midrash.

[2] The Siftei Chachamim is actually an amalgam of supercommentaries. Sometimes it identifies its source and sometimes it does not. This is one of those later cases.

[3] Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik suggests that Abraham tried in vain to enlighten the Egyptians and the Philistines while he was living among them. He found success only within his own family.

[4] During Jacob’s twenty years at the house of Lavan, Lavan mentions G-d’s name only once, only after Jacob has fled back to the Land of Canaan [Bereishit 31:29]: “I have the power to inflict harm upon you, but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Beware of speaking with Jacob either good or bad.’” Not “G-d”, only “the God of your father”. Lavan was not interested in anything Jacob could have taught him about G-d and so Jacob didn’t even try.

[5] https://www.timesofisrael.com/how-the-pittsburgh-massacre-is-driving-american-jews-apart/

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, 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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