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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayishlach: Reflections of the heart
"Jacob sent angels ahead of him to his brother Eisav." Jacob sent a lavish present to Eisav. "Eisav ran towards him, and he embraced him." What made Eisav change his mind? Jacob saw G'd's benevolence and kindness and expressed his appreciation to G'd for helping him to build a family. "A person is obligated to bless G'd for bad things the same way one blesses for good things." Even if a person is evil and one is obligated to hate him, at the same time one must be able to develop a feeling of love for that person. The famous chief rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, was an uncompromising fighter for Torah Judaism, but at the same time he exhibited immense love for every fellow Jew. In the town of Scadec, Poland, a Jewish informer caused a lot of trouble for the Jewish community. "As water reflects the face to a person, so does the heart of one person to another." Jacob reached out to his brother and thought of him with deep feelings of compassion and mercy. We need to learn from Jacob how to settle and deal with a situation in a positive way. "May it be Your will HASHEM … and assist us that we should see the virtues of our friends and not their shortcomings."
Jacob sent angels to Eisav
In the beginning of this week's parasha, Rashi (Bereishis 33:8) quotes from the Midrash Rabbah (78:11) that when Jacob sent the angels to Eisav they met him with his four hundred soldiers. The angels started to push the soldiers and asked them "who do you belong to?" When they answered that they were under the command of Eisav, the angels said, "Let's hit them." The soldiers responded, "Leave us. Eisav is the son of Isaac." But the angels took no notice. "He is the grandson of Abraham", said the soldiers. Still the angels took no notice. Finally, they said, "He is the brother of Jacob". To this, the angels answered, "If so, you are one of ours." This encounter did not have any influence on Eisav. He continued on his way with his army with the obvious intent of attacking Jacob and his family.
Jacob sent a lavish present
The Torah continues to relate how Jacob sent a lavish present with some of his servants: hundreds of goats and rams, and many camels, cows and donkeys. Rashi quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma that Jacob also sent diamonds and pearls. Jacob instructed his servants to try to appease Eisav and to refer to Jacob as Eisav's servant. This major presentation still did not have any effect on Eisav. It seemed that nothing could change Eisav's mind to attack Jacob.
Eisav and Jacob embraced
When Eisav finally met up with Jacob, it says (Bereishis 33:4): "And Eisav ran towards him, and he embraced him, and he fell upon his neck, and they cried." Rashi quotes the Midrash (78:8) that explains that when Eisav saw how Jacob bowed down to him, he became compassionate and really felt a brotherly love for Jacob.
What caused Eisav to change his mind?
This seems strange. We can understand that Eisav did not get nervous by meeting angels. Most likely he was used to that from his father's and grandfather's home (see Rashi Bereishis 16:13). However, he was well aware that angels are powerful messengers of G'd, and they clearly showed him that they were ready to assist Jacob. So we would expect him to get nervous about their involvement and change his plans to attack Jacob. And if his hatred was so strong that this did not stop him, what happened when he met Jacob that turned him around?
Jacob saw G'd's benevolence
In order to answer this question, we shall analyze another point in this week's parasha. When the angels came back with their report to Jacob that Eisav was coming towards him with four hundred soldiers, he became very frightened and started praying to G'd. In his prayer, Jacob said (Bereishis 32:11): "I have been diminished from all the kindness and all the truth that You have done for your servant. For with my staff I crossed this Jordan and now I have become two camps." This is a most unusual prayer. Why would Jacob mention G'd's kindness at a time when he and his family were in mortal danger? The incident Jacob is referring to, when he crossed the Jordan with his staff, is described in the Midrash. When Jacob had to flee from Eisav thirty-four years earlier, Eisav sent his grandson Eliphaz after him to kill him. Jacob taught Eliphaz that a pauper is comparable to a dead person. He thus convinced Eliphaz not to kill but to take all his possessions instead. The only item Jacob was left with was his staff. Now when Jacob mentions the two times he arrived at the Jordan river, we would expect him to express himself and pray in a totally different way. It would only be natural if Jacob would cry out in anguish and say: "The last time I came to the Jordan, I barely managed to save my life. And this time, my family and I are again in grave danger. Please G'd, take mercy on me and my family." Jacob did not plan to split his family into two camps because of his affluence. Rather, he was scared what would happen if Eisav attacked. With two camps, he hoped that at least one camp could escape and save themselves. However, instead of focusing on his distress, even at this most difficult of times, Jacob saw G'd's benevolence and kindness. He expressed his appreciation to G'd for helping him to build a family. He remembered how he had started off as a single person with just a staff, and now was large enough to split up his family into two camps.
Bless G'd for bad and good
In every situation we go through in life, even in times of difficulties, if we are focused, we also can see G'd's kindness. With this insight, we can understand what the Talmud (Berachos 54a) teaches: "A person is obligated to bless G'd for bad things the same way one blesses for good things." Despite all the difficulties, there is always something good hidden that will be noticeable to a discerning eye. As my late father used to say, in any given situation we have more to thank for than to complain about.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi
This was Jacob's approach, not only when he dealt with G'd, but also when he dealt with other people. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Lubavitch, writes in his magnus opum, The Tanya (Chapter 32), how to deal with a person who transgresses the Torah and does not accept rebuke. On the one hand, we are obligated to hate him for his wrongdoings. On the other hand, we must love him, for although he sins, he still has a holy soul that tries to influence him to do good. He further explains that we must feel compassion for him that he has fallen prey to his evil inclination. In this way, our hatred will diminish and our love for this poor soul will flourish. Rabbi Shneur Zalman concludes that this is how Jacob conducted himself throughout his life.
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld
The famous chief rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld lived this way as well. He was an uncompromising fighter for Torah Judaism, but at the same time he exhibited immense love for every fellow Jew. He often became unpopular among the secular citizens due to his strong stands. Once a group of thugs broke into his house and threaten to kill him. Initially, he responded with an extreme calmness, which enraged them even more. Suddenly he stood up and opened his shirt. In a loud clear voice, he said, "I am ready to sanctify the name of G'd with my life. Go ahead, you can kill me. I am not moving away from the truth as much as one hair's breadth", and he continued to explain his view that had so upset them. Inexplicably, the thugs retreated and left his house.
The rabbi and the informer
Later, Rabbi Sonnenfeld explained that his conduct was based on an event that had happened years earlier in the town of Scadec, Poland. In that town, a Jewish informer caused a lot of trouble for the Jewish community. Everyone was scared of him, and he bullied all the members of the community. He demanded every week to be called up to the Torah with the aliyah meant for the rabbi and showed no respect for anyone. As time went on, the rabbi of the town passed away, and a new rabbi came to town. The new rabbi was a great Torah scholar, and he decided to put an end to this evil. The very first Shabbos, when it came to the aliyah meant for the rabbi, the gabbai called up the informer as usual. At that moment the rabbi turned to the informer and called out in a loud voice, "What have you got to do with the Holy Torah? You despicable, impure person who keeps informing on everyone in the community, you want to say a blessing over the Torah? Get out of here!" The informer was totally shocked and at first tried to attack the rabbi, but the other congregants kept him away. He turned to the rabbi in great anger and said, "I'll teach you", and left the synagogue.
The heart of one reflects to another
A few months later, the rabbi was asked to perform a Brit Milah, in a village not far from the town. He decided to walk to the village accompanied by two of his students. Suddenly, the students noticed the informer charging towards them on a horse. Understandably, the students panicked, but the rabbi kept calm. As the informer reached them, he jumped off his horse and strode up to the rabbi. To the astonishment of the students, the informer suddenly bowed his head and said, "Please forgive me for all that I have done." And as sudden as he had come, he jumped back on his horse and left. As the rabbi continued his travels, he explained to his students what had just transpired. He told them that, when the informer was approaching them, the rabbi thought to himself that there is a solution to every problem in our Holy Scriptures. He was trying to think of the right verse that would give him the solution to save himself. The verse that came into his mind was from Mishlei (27:19) where it says: "As water reflects the face to a person, so does the heart of one person to another." Immediately, the rabbi started to think of merits for the informer. How could a member of the community be in such bad shape and have fallen so low? Maybe if he had had a better education in his childhood he would not have turned out like this. Who knows what this poor soul had been through that caused him to turn against his own people? Said the rabbi, "I started to take mercy on him and really felt bad for him. No doubt what was going on in my heart had an impact on the informer's heart and brought about that he started thinking in my favour. He probably thought to himself, 'Maybe the rabbi was right after all. For sure the rabbi did not have anything personal against me, as he did not even know me. He only stood up for the honour of the Torah.' In this way his heart softened and he decided to ask for forgiveness, and regretted his evil past.'"
Reach out with compassion and mercy
As Rabbi Sonnenfeld finished relating this incident he added, "I also thought about these thugs who broke into my house and threatened me. I tried to develop a feeling of compassion and mercy for them. Who knows what had caused them to fall so low that they were ready to raise their hands against a peaceful innocent person, not to mention the rabbi of the community?" He added that besides learning this approach from the rabbi of Scadec, he believed that this is what made Eisav turn around when Jacob and Eisav had their encounter. The Torah (Bereishis 33:3) relates that Jacob bowed down seven times "till he reached his brother". This sounds strange since Jacob did not reach his brother. It was Eisav who came running towards Jacob. Said Rabbi Sonnenfeld, there is a deeper meaning in these words. Jacob reached out to his brother and thought of him with deep feelings of compassion and mercy. He developed a strong sense of brotherly love, trying to find merit for this evil man. The response did not take long. Eisav felt Jacob's compassion and love in his heart and reciprocated by running to Jacob and embraced him.
Deal in positive way
We often find ourselves in situations dealing with people who have offended us or dealt with us in an improper way. Sometimes these people can be the ones closest to us, like a spouse, family member, or friend, and sometimes it can be a total stranger. Rather than walking around with a grudge and having hard feelings, we need to learn from Jacob how to settle and deal with any situation in a positive way.
See the virtues not the shortcomings
The great Chassidic leader, Rabbi Elimelech of Lichensk, wrote a prayer to be said before the morning service that is printed in many siddurim. He writes: "May it be Your will HASHEM … that we should prepare our hearts and thoughts so that our prayers come smoothly in our mouth … and assist us that we should see the virtues of our friends and not their shortcomings." If we start our day internalizing this message, it will help us to deal with any situation we may encounter in a true Torah way. As it says, (Mishlei 3:18): "The ways of the Torah are pleasant and all its paths are peace." If we go through life in the ways and paths of the Torah, we will enjoy life in a pleasant and peaceful way together with our fellow human beings.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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