Parashat Vayeishev: Speaking A Language They Understand

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Parshiot Vayishlach and Vayeishev 5768

PART ONE: The language they understand

The two parshiyot of Vayishlach and Vayeishev, when viewed together, paint a picture of a conspicuously polarized Ya’akov.

In parashat Vayishlach, Yaakov’s sons, lead by Shimon and Levi, decimated the city of Shechem. Yaakov was gripped with fear at what awaited him at the hands of the usual hostile gentiles of the land. And more so now, when they discover what the Hebrews had done, which will increase their animosity exponentially with the feeling that justice is on their side.

However, in parashat Vayeshev, on the opening phrase “Vayeshev Yaakov”, Rashi explains that the Torah uses the word “Vayeshev” meaning and he sat, in lieu of the more precise word “Vayagar,” and he resided, that Yaakov believed that he had reached the stage in his life when he could now “sit” in tranquility, (or in today’s terms “retire in comfort”.)

The question is: What happened to dissipate Yaakov’s profound dread of the pending vengeance of his idolatrous neighbors in parashat Vayishlach (and where indeed were the avengers?) and allow his feeling of confidence in parashat Vayeishev?

The answer is embedded in the very episode of the brothers’ wrathful conduct in Shechem.

When Avraham was first commanded to leave his home for Eretz Yisrael, the globe was sparsely populated. Europe, Africa, even Asia could have been perfect settings for nurturing a new civilization based on monotheism. Yet, HaShem, sent Avraham to the densely populated area of Canaan which was rife with idolatry and uncongenial to new beliefs.


Because Canaan was the seat of idolatry in the world.


כי מציון תצא תורה

For from out of Zion will come forth Torah

The reality was

כי מיבוס תצא עבודה זרה

From out of Yevus (the name of Yerushalayim when it was occupied by the Jebusites) shall come forth idolatry

Now I suggest that at the time of our parasha, when Avraham is no longer alive; and Yitzchak is old, and his son Ya’akov had not been seen in over 20 years, there was joy in the land. There was no longer anyone to disturb the stability of society built on idolatry, or to point an accusing finger saying, “You are immoral.”

Then one day, Ya’akov returns to the promised land. The inhabitants have to be informed that the Shechina is again active in the holy land.

So HaShem prepares the conditions necessary for the newly arrived Hebrews to announce their return. Their sister is violated, and the family honor and justice demand retribution for the perpetrators. The brothers eradicate the city of Shechem.

The news travels far and wide to every corner of the land, “Ya’akov has returned. The wrath of his monotheistic belief has taken its toll of the immoral people of Shechem. Things will never be the same again. The Jews have returned!”

But Ya’akov is gripped with fear of what awaits him at the hands of the gentile peoples of Canaan. He travels to Bet El (Yerushalayim) to offer a sacrifice to HaShem. And, lo and behold, he is not attacked. It now becomes glaringly apparent that the gentiles are more afraid of him then he is of them. The lesson becomes internalized by Yaakov and his sons. This is the language which speaks to these people – they scavenge at the blood of the weak but shrink away before the courageous and strong.

With this lesson firmly embedded in his consciousness, Ya’akov can now entertain the thought that he can “sit in tranquility.”

Sixty years ago, Hashem produced the conditions for the entire world to learn that there is a people called “Jews” and that they have returned to their ancient homeland – Eretz Yisrael.

The War of Independence; the Six Day War; the Yom Kippur War; the destruction of the Iraqi atomic reactor and so much more. This is the language which the nations of the world understand.

We all pray for a land filled with the voice of Torah, but the nations do not understand Torah.

To prepare the hearts for one world under Hashem, the nations must first become acquainted with the Jewish People, with Eretz Yisrael, with Yerushalayim, with the Temple Mount, in the language they understand. The language of strength!

A short story to elucidate the lesson.

An Arab entered a bank after closing time. When the teller told him that the safe closes automatically at five o’clock, and will not reopen until the following morning, the Arab went beserk. The teller told him to return in the morning when he will be taken first on line. The Arab began frothing at the mouth. The teller promised him a gift if he leaves, and the Arab started to become violent. The manager, upon hearing the noise, came out, punched the Arab in his face breaking his nose, hit him strongly in the stomach, broke his arm and threw him out the door.

The teller approached the Arab and said, “I told you what the rules are why didn’t you believe me?”

And the Arab replied, “You TOLD me, but he EXPLAINED it to me.”

We tell our enemies that we desire peace; it appears that they require an EXPLANATION.

PART TWO: Trusting in God to Provide

Expounding on a concept or the explanation of a difficult pasuk are two of the goals set forth by the commentators of the Tanach. But even the most gifted and articulate is unable to describe the depths of despair that Yosef felt while being lowered into the pit swarming with reptiles and scorpions, or the hopelessness he felt during the many years he spent in an Egyptian prison, or the misery felt by Ya’akov during the long years he believed Yosef was dead.

Emotions are beyond description, just as it is impossible to describe color to one who is blind from birth, or the taste of chocolate to one who has never eaten it.

We cannot experience the depths of despair in the hearts of the soldiers of Yehuda Hamaccabi as they stood on a mountain top viewing tens of thousands of Greek soldiers in phalanx formation (foot soldiers in groups of 16 by 16 holding spears 7 meters long) spreading out over the land.

I once heard a lecture given by an Israeli brigadier general on the heroism displayed by the Maccabim during the 25 year war against the Greeks and their Jewish collaborators.

He related that as a young officer attending our war college, he had the privilege to study under one of Israel’s greatest strategists. The course covered the major battles of the last two centuries, from the point of view of military strategy and assessment of chances to be victorious.

Six months into the course, the instructor drew on the board the opposing sides of an ancient battle, without naming the combatants, and had the student officers analyze the potential outcome of the battle. The consensus was unanimous: the side which had more soldiers and equipment would win. The instructor drew another set of military factors and again all the officers agreed that the obviously stronger side would win. He did this three times with different sets of military factors.

At the end of this exercise, when all the officers were in total agreement that the larger and stronger side would win in every case, the instructor revealed that these three sets of military circumstances were actual battle conditions between the Maccabim and the mighty Greeks. But each time the Jews were victorious! The instructor, who was is not an halachic observant person, threw up his hands to heaven and cried out, “If not for ‘Elokim’ the Jews could never have won!”

If not for Godly intervention, Yosef could never have been saved from the pit. And if not for God, Yosef would certainly have rotted in prison instead of becoming viceroy of Egypt. Surely, if not for Godly intervention, I would not be writing this and you would not be reading it; for our ancestors would all have disappeared long ago; and if not for God there would not be a place today in the Middle East where Jewish tourists could spend their vacations.

Were there a Sanhedrin today, and if I were a member, I would propose the enactment of a gezira (amendment) prohibiting Jews in chutz la’aretz from celebrating Chanuka! (the Sanhedrin has the authority to void an affirmative mitzva through inaction, as in the case of the prohibition on blowing shofar when Rosh Hashana falls out on shabbat). Because in the minds of Jews who prefer not to return to Eretz Yisrael after witnessing God’s miracles here, Chanuka is no more real than the existence of Helen of Troy or the long lost Atlantis. If one does not believe that God can provide him with parnasa (sustenance) and security in Eretz Yisrael, why should he believe that God was able to save Yosef from the pit or delivered the mighty Greek army into the hands of Yehuda Hamaccabi and his small band of warriors!

Don’t be agitated at the suggestion that there could be mitzvot which are required to be kept in Eretz Yisrael but not in Cleveland, Brooklyn, Monsey or Baltimore. Does it really bother anyone there that we in Eretz Yisrael are required to give a part of our produce for teruma and ma’aser which is not in required in the exile? Does any great Torah scholar in chutz la’aretz lose sleep once every seven years in the knowledge that there is no mitzva to keep shemitah in L.A.? The halogen lights in the study halls in the great seats of learning outside the Holy Land would continue to burn bright even without the little, half hour, flickering Chanukah candles.

If the contemporary victories of the War of Independence, the Six Day War, and the Yom Kippur war; and the huge strides made here in Eretz Yisrael in all fields of endeavor, are not real enough to activate one to return to Eretz Yisrael in order to be part of these ongoing miracles, why should one believe that something miraculous occurred 2200 years ago!

From time to time, Torah writings, tapes etc., by leaders in chutz la’aretz come to my attention. It always crosses my mind that if all these tapes and books and cd’s would be piled up to make a fire estimated to burn for eight days, there would not be enough sincere material to fuel a fire for even one day.

For my brothers and sisters abroad, have a happy “Festival of Gevura” (heroism) far away from where the action was and is today. And for my brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael, know that all the miracles we are merited to observe and participate in are just “coming attractions” of what we will soon see in this holy land of HaShem.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.