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We hope you enjoy this selection of short divrei Torah, presented to family and guests at our Shabbos table as a springboard for discussion. Each one is followed by a question. The responses shared at our table are enlightening, entertaining, and always thought-provoking.

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Parshas Vayishlach #1

Planning Ahead

“Yaakov was very frightened, and he was distressed” (Bereishis 32:8).

After twenty-two years away from home, Yaakov was returning as a wealthy man with a large family. He had fled because Eisav, infuriated over the incident of their father Yitzchak’s blessings, had threatened to kill him. Now Eisav was on his way to meet him, accompanied by a private army numbering four hundred. Not surprisingly, Yaakov feared the outcome.

Why does the Torah, always concise, use two terms – “frightened” and “distressed” – to describe Yaakov’s fear? Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains: “He was frightened that he might be killed, and distressed that he might kill others.”

Yaakov’s fear that Eisav would kill him is understandable. However, if he was threatened with death, he would be permitted to kill the attacker in self-defense (Sanhedrin 72a). By killing Eisav, he would be eliminating a serious threat to his own safety and that of his family. Why, then, did this cause him such distress?

Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin of Brisk answers this question, citing a Rashi in Parshas Toldos. When Rivkah urged Yaakov to escape, she said, “Why should I lose you both in one day?” (Bereishis 27:45). Rashi writes that Rivkah’s words were prophetic; both Yaakov and Eisav died on the same day. This is why Yaakov was distressed – he feared that if he was forced to kill Eisav, he too would die that same day (Maharil Diskin, Bereishis, Vayishlach, “vata’avor”).

Yaakov’s Plan

Based on this explanation, the Maharil Diskin resolves another difficulty. In preparation for his meeting with Eisav, Yaakov took the precaution of dividing his family and possessions into two camps. He was certain that even if Eisav was out to kill, at least the second camp would be saved: “If Eisav comes to the one camp and strikes it, the remaining camp will survive” (ibid. 32:9). What made Yaakov so sure that the second camp would survive the onslaught?

The Maharil Diskin explains that Yaakov placed a distance of a day’s travel between the two camps, with himself at the head of the first camp: he personally would be the first to face Eisav. If Eisav killed him, Eisav too would die that day, before he had time to reach the second camp and they, at least, would survive.

Yaakov prepared for his meeting with Eisav with an elaborate gift, prayers, and a battle plan (Rashi), taking all measures at his disposal to achieve a successful outcome. Dividing his family into two was a calculated plan to ensure their survival.

Question for Discussion:

Today’s planning dramatically impacts our tomorrow. Some plans, like who to invite next Shabbos, are short term. Others, like career choices or saving for retirement, are long term. Our planning should also include short and long term spiritual goals and commitments, ranging from deciding to be ready early for the coming Shabbos, to undertaking the seven-year Daf Yomi cycle. What is a plan that you committed to at some point, and how did it work out?

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Parshas Vayishlach #2

The Name of the Game

“And Yaakov asked, and he said, ‘Please tell me your name.’ And he [Eisav’s guardian angel] said, ‘Why are you asking about my name?’ And he blessed him there” (Bereishis 32:30).

The night before his impending meeting with Eisav, Yaakov Avinu was confronted with another great danger. An angel appeared to him in the guise of a man and a bitter struggle ensued, lasting all that night. Chazal tell us that Yaakov was fighting with none other than Eisav’s guardian angel. According to some opinions, he looked like a talmid chacham, and according to others, he looked like an idolater (Chullin 91a).

The Torah relates an interesting dialogue between the two combatants. As the new day dawned, the angel told Yaakov to let him go – he had to return to Heaven to fulfill his designated tasks (Rashi). Yaakov replied that he would not let him go unless he blessed him.

The angel said, “What is your name?”

Yaakov told him his name, and the angel said that from now on he would be known not as Yaakov, but as Yisrael, a name which would recall Yaakov’s successful battle “with an angel and with man.” Yaakov then said to him, “Tell me what your name is.”

The angel refused to answer, saying, “Why are you asking about my name?” (Bereishis 32:25-30).

This response is surprising. If the angel was not permitted to divulge his name, or if he did not have one, he could have said so. Why did Yaakov want to know the angel’s name, and why did the angel respond so strangely?

Rashi writes that with these words, the angel was telling Yaakov that angels do not have permanent names; their names continually change, determined by their current mission (ibid. 32:30).

However, this particular angel appears to have been an exception. He did have a permanent assignment, and is still on duty to this day. His name has remained the same throughout – he is Sama-el, the embodiment of the Satan, the prime instigator against the Jewish people in every generation.

Changing Costumes

Rav Chaim Dov Keller, rosh yeshivah of Telshe-Chicago, explains the meaning of this dialogue, including the angel’s response. He cites Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, who associates the word shem (name) with the related Hebrew word sham (there). A name tells us where an entity is, defining its place and its essence. When Yaakov asked the angel for his name, he wanted to understand more about the ongoing battle his children would face with this eternal adversary. What was his “name”? Who and what was he, and what was his true essence? Armed with this information, Yaakov could guide and instruct his descendants about how to deal with him in the future.

To this the angel replied, “Why are you asking about my name,” informing Yaakov that there was little point to his question. The Satan has no one name – in other words, there was no one challenge Yaakov’s children could learn how to fight and overcome. His name, and the challenges it represents, would change constantly. In subsequent generations he would appear as Hellenism, or socialism, or communism, or whatever else would work in a given time and place. All the many tests and trials presented by a vast range of movements, philosophies and more faced by the Jewish people throughout history are all this one same angel; whatever form they take, they are all Eisav, out to destroy Yaakov, G-d forbid. He could not define his mission or essence to Yaakov, because he constantly adopts a new face and new trappings.

Now we can understand why Chazal say that Eisav’s angel looked like a talmid chacham, or like an idol worshipper. Depending on the circumstances, he can take on the appearance of either – he stops at nothing to achieve his goals.

Every day we ask Hashem to “remove Satan from before us and from behind us” (Maariv prayer, “Hashkiveinu”). The Satan changes his approach all the time. Sometimes he blocks us from the front, preventing us from moving ahead with a mitzvah. At other times he operates from behind, pushing us headlong into what he claims is really a great, big “mitzvah.” The Satan, or the yetzer hara (evil inclination), has no permanent identity. He adapts easily, mounting a battle tailored to the times (Rabbi Yissocher Frand, “The Battle with Eisav’s Angel Always Keeps Changing”).

The struggle between Eisav and Yaakov is ever-changing and never-ending, with no fixed name or form. Even as we conquer the latest manifestation of Eisav’s angel, he is plotting his next appearance, in a new disguise.

Question for Discussion:

What do you consider to be the biggest challenge currently facing the Jewish people, and why?

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