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Conflict and Strength – VaYishlach


P1140396
art by Laya Crust

Va Yeishev: Bereshit (Genesis) 32:4 – 36

Haftarah:  The Book of Ovadiah

This week’s Torah reading takes us on Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) journey through the country of Edom towards Bethlehem and Efrat. He was a successful man. He had huge flocks, 2 wives, 2 concubines, 11 sons and a daughter, yet he was nervous. He knew he had to travel through his brother’s landholdings but did not want to face his twin because of  their unresolved history. Would Esau be angry at Yaakov? Did Esau still want to kill his brother?

The narrative begins with Yaakov sending messengers to his brother, announcing his approach. The report came back that Esau was coming to meet Yaakov, accompanied by 400 men.  Yaakov, frightened and anxious, sent his messengers ahead with many expensive gifts. He sent his family to the far side of the Jabok River for safety and he himself slept on the closer side of the river, possibly to be on the alert for any attack.

A man came and wrestled with him through the night. Finally at dawn the stranger told Yaakov to let him go. Yaakov demanded that the man give him a blessing and the blessing came in the guise of a new name- Yisrael, “because you have striven with beings Divine and human” (כּי שׂרית עם אלהים ועם אנשׁים).

Image result for jacob and the angel golden haggadah
Golden Haggadah, c. 1320

Who was the man Yaakov fought with? An angel sent by Gd? An adversarial angel representing Esau? Or was it an inner battle that Yaakov was struggling within himself? At the end of the battle Yaakov had a new name and an injury that stayed with him the rest of his life.

Yaakov’s name has many meanings. It can mean follow, heel, or deceive. When he was born Yaakov followed his brother into the world, holding on to Esau’s heel. As they grew up he deceived his brother and his father, and in turn was deceived by his father-in-law.

He left Canaan to avoid confrontation with Esau and to seek a wife. Many years later he left Lavan’s estate in the night, also hoping to avoid confrontation. He may have been a successful man in terms of his career but he was afraid to face the consequences of his actions.

Yaakov couldn’t avoid wrestling with the angel and he refused to give up or give in to the aggressor. He was given a name that represented his strength and position.

Image result for jacob and the angel
by Gustave Dore, 1855

The night of struggle heralded a new beginning. He faced himself and the enemy across from him. That incident strengthened him in his role as leader of a nation. He could carry on and deal with whatever life put in front of him. The struggle with the immortal being took place between sending a message to Esau and actually facing him. Maybe the fight itself influenced Yaakov’s interaction with Esau.

These days we are facing anti-Semitic attacks- verbal and physical, hurtful and deadly, overt and covert, on a frightening level. We are witnessing anti-Semitism from the British elections to UN resolutions, to terrorist attacks in kosher grocery stores and in synagogues, and unconscionable displays of hatred against Israel and Jews on campuses. Like Yaakov we have to face our fears rather than run away from them. Strength as a people and a nation is the only way to combat the hatred.

Like Yaakov let’s struggle with the adversaries and stand firm for what is right. May we see peace soon,

Sabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Jacob and His Angels

Jacob and the Angel by Laya Crust

Of all the individuals in the Torah, Jacob had the strongest relationship with angels. He first encountered those ethereal beings when he left his home and traveled to Cana’an. When he fell asleep Jacob dreamt of a golden ladder reaching to heaven with angels traveling from him on the ground to the heavens above. Jacob had further encounters with angels- they bumped into him at an encampment. An angel wrestled with him when he was alone, on the night before he was to meet his brother Esau after decades of separation.

That fight with the angel was dramatic. It was a fight that lasted all night, injured Jacob permanently, and culminated with a new name for Jacob. He was given the name Israel and his descendants have been called “The Children of Israel” until to this day.

Jacob’s struggle at the river is probably the most represented by artists. Each presentation shows a slightly different perspective of the confrontation.

Inline images 1Those of you who have been to Toronto may be familiar with this sculpture by Nathan Rapoport. The Angel is swooping down from heaven with huge velocity, but Jacob stands his ground, holding his own. They are very evenly matched.

Inline images 2

 

This piece by Don Saco shows Jacob pulling the angel down. Jacob is struggling to keep the ethereal being earthbound, and winning.

Phillip Ratner created this piece which looks like two dancers- waltzing. They areImage result for jacob and the angel

evenly balanced and seemingly each  is trying to gauge the worth of the other.

Image result for jacob and the angelGustave Dore is known for his hundreds of engravings of biblical stories. This engraving shows Jacob literally on the brink of survival. He is struggling with all his might against the strong and relaxed angel who definitely seems to have the upper hand.

 

The painting below by Chagall shows Jacob on his knees, possibly at the point when he is given the blessing by the angel. In the text Jacob doesn’t seem to be asking or begging. Chagall has given the angel a stance of superiority whereas in the text Jacob is acting as if he is in control of the situation. Related imagePossibly the most intriguing piece I have seen is this sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein.

Image result for jacob and the angel  Image result for jacob and the angel

Both figures are large. Heavy. Monumental. The angel, with his fine, strong features and flowing hair seams to be squeezing the air out of Jacob. The 2500 kilo marbled brown stone is beautiful and adds a feeling of power to the composition. It appears to be a fight almost to the death- a struggle between two enormously strong equals.

There are questions about this struggle with the angel at the Jabok River. Was the angel sent by God to give Jacob a blessing but Jacob was too suspicious so that’s why the fight ensued? Was it actually a dream? Was it Jacob’s conscience and he was fighting himself?

Every part of Jacob’s story is a struggle. He seems to have been a man who wanted a quiet life but was thrown into strife every step of the way. It’s true that he did traded his stew for Esau’s birthright. But he had to be convinced by his mother to deceive his father. He was sent away to find a wife; essentially exiled. He had to find a profession, learn it, and work for a begrudging and selfish father-in-law. Rather than stay near his parents’ successful herd and home he left to support two wives, two concubines, and a large family. When he achieved financial success God told home to return to Cana’an.

Jacob needed the encouragement of God and God’s angels. Each step of the way they were there to accompany him- in essence hold the door open. The struggle at the Jabok River was a struggle within Jacob, looking at his history with his brother and fearing to face the consequences. It was the opportunity for Jacob to reflect on his years in exile with the difficulties between his two wives. It was the point in time where he faced his challenges and accepted with full heart his position as patriarch- leader of a future nation.

We all have angels and we all have struggles. Hopefully we can recognize and remember the angels in our lives and access them with growing strength and wisdom.

With prayers for peace and wisdom, have a Shabbat Shalom.

Laya

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What’s in a Name? – VaYishlach


P1140396
art by Laya Crust

Va Yeishev: Bereshit (Genesis) 32:4 – 36

Haftarah:  The Book of Ovadiah

This week’s Torah reading takes us on Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) journey through the country of Edom towards Bethlehem and Efrat. He knew he had to travel through his brother’s landholdings and was nervous due to their unresolved history. Would Esau be angry at Yaakov? Did Esau still want to kill his brother?

The narrative begins with Yaakov sending messengers to his brother, announcing his approach. The report that came back was that Esau was meeting Yaakov, accompanied by 400 men.  Yaakov, frightened and anxious, sent his messengers ahead with many expensive gifts. He sent his family to the far side of the Jabok River for safety and he himself slept on the closer side of the river, possibly to be on the alert for any attack.

A man came and wrestled with him through the night. Finally at dawn the stranger told Yaakov to let him go. Yaakov demanded that the man give him a blessing and the blessing came in the guise of a new name- Yisrael, “because you have striven with beings Divine and human” (כּי שׂרית עם אלהים ועם אנשׁים).

Who was the man Yaakov fought with? Some commentators think it was an angel sent by Gd. Others think it was an angel representing opposition from Esau. Still others present the idea that it was an inner battle and that Yaakov was struggling with himself. It doesn’t really matter who exactly Yaakov wrestled with. The important element was Yaakov’s ability to face issues, establish the foundation of a nation, and understand his role.

 One of Yaakov’s weaknesses was trying to displace and be superior to his brother.

When we look at Yaakov’s life right from the beginning Yaakov tried to supplant his twin brother Esau. They fought before they were born- Rivka, their mother – complained to Gd about their fighting! Yaakov held on to Esau’s  heel trying to be the first baby to see the world. He then traded stew for Esau’s birthright and masqueraded to get Esau’s blessing from their father. Yaakov ran away from home to evade his brother’s anger- he wouldn’t face the consequences of his actions. But when he left his father-in-law Lavan to return to his home he couldn’t evade his brother any longer. He had to travel through Esau’s lands. There was no choice, no other route.

The confrontation with the immortal being took place between sending a message to Esau and actually meeting him.The night of struggle heralded a new beginning. Yaakov was given a name that represented his strength and position. He realized that his path was his own, not at risk from Esau. We can learn from Yisrael’s life that it is often a struggle to know oneself, but is a valuable struggle.

We have to face our fears rather than run away from them. Yaakov was given a new name after facing an adversary. That incident strengthened him is his role as father of a nation so he could carry on and face whatever life put in front of him. May we all have the strength to face the obstacles in front of us.

May we see peace soon,

Sabbat Shalom,

Laya

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The Angel, the Donkey and the Man

Balak:    Numbers 22:2–25:9

This week’s Torah reading is about a Moabite king, Balak, who calls Bilaam the seer to curse the children of Israel.

After being called by the king twice Bilaam goes, and here is the order of events: Bilaam gets up early in the morning, saddles his donkey, and goes towards his destination accompanied by two young men, his helpers.  En route an angel appears. He’s invisible to Bilaam but the donkey sees him and is frightened. We don’t hear anything more about the two young men, they may have returned to the original camp. The donkey, upset, talks to Bilaam and finally the angel, armed with a sword, appears and challenges the seer.

The story reminds me of an earlier narrative, the story of Abraham and Isaac going up to Mount Moriah. Early in the morning Abraham saddled his donkey, and went up the mountain with two young men. The donkey and the young men stopped part way while Abraham continued with Isaac. He was about to scarifice his son when an angel appeared and stopped him.

There are a number of similar elements in the two stories but Bilaam’s narrative has been turned upside down.

Most notably, Gd spoke to both of these men, not a common occurrence in the Bible. Abraham and Bilaam each hastened to get a start on their trek, but Abraham was carrying out Gd’s instructions and Bilaam was carrying out Balak’s directive. The donkey and the angel each helped Abraham (the donkey by  carrying provisions) whereas the angel and donkey both criticized Bilaam for his actions. Finally, the angel stopped Abraham’s sword but in the second story the angel brandished his sword at Bilaam.

Bilaam finally accepted that he had to bless the children of Israel in Gd’s name. He finished off with words that are said each day in synagogue.Balakart by Laya Crust

The message of the parsha is that when we are faced with a situation we have to look at the situation itself and listen carefully to our conscience. (That’s what Bilaam should have done.)  Angels, and in this case the talking donkey, are prophetic visions according to the Rambam (Maimonides) . Prophetic visions for the ordinary person may be deep thought that takes us to the correct answer to a difficult or morally challenging question. It may well be that Bilaam knew that he should have been listening to Gd, not Balak, but he was worried about the repercussions of ignoring a king. The vision of the talking donkey and the sword brandishing angel were his conscience giving him the answer he knew was right.

Next time you have a moral dilemma think deeply about the wise lessons you have learned and they will point you in the right direction.

Balak’s prayer was:

“How goodly are your tents, Jacob and your dwelling places  Israel

The text poetically continues, ” stretching out like brooks like gardens by a river, like aloes planted by Gd, like cedars by water.”

If you find these ideas interesting share them with your friends. And let me know what you think by sending me a comment.

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Naso

NassoJudges: 13:2 – 25

Samson- circa 12th C. BCE

Samson was an enigmatic personality. He was the 12th of 13 Judges living sometime in the 12th Century BCE. It was a time of great conflict and decline for the Israelites, a period that pre-dates the Kings who would be chosen to lead Israel.  When reading his story it’s important to remember that the term “Judge” denotes a leader, rather than an adjudicator.

Samson was a different from the other judges.  He was designated as a Nazir before he was born. His parents, Manoah and his wife, were farmers. One day  Manoah’s wife was alone in the fields.  An angel of God approached her and told her she would have a son. The angel instructed her to refrain from drinking wine and eating tamei (religiously unclean) food. These rules were to be followed by the baby who was to be born. In addition the child’s hair was never to be cut. These rules, the rules of the Nazir, are part of the parsha Naso- and that is feature that relates the Haftarah to the Torah portion.

When Samson was born the text says, “…and the spirit of the Lord began to move him… ”   The word used for “to move him” comes from the root word for “bell” or “ringing” suggesting the rapid, impetuous nature of Samson.

The story of Samson is a puzzling one in many ways. It describes a man who is like a super hero. He is fearless, extraordinarily strong, and impetuous. Why, one wonders, is he given the title of Judge and Leader?

Let’s go to the beginning of the story. It is introduced with the sentence, “And the children of Israel continued to do evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Pelishtim for 40 years.” It was a period of immorality and belligerence and b’nei Yisrael came under the rule of the antagonistic Pelishtim (Philistines).

For the Israelites to fight effectively against them they had to do it surreptitiously. Samson became an unrecognized undercover activist and rebel. Samson was able to “punish” the Philistine tyrants. Having seemingly deserted his own people and marrying Philistine women he was able to infiltrate their community, destroy property, kill fighters, and deflect all attention away from the Jews. In fact, he was wily enough to have blame deflected onto other Pelishtim. His strength, impetuousness and solitariness allowed him to became the leader who fought, unrecognized, for his people.

File:Lovis Corinth - Der geblendete Simson - Google Art Project.jpg

This a larger than life story that ends with the humiliation and then honouring of a tragic hero. The painting above is “The Blinded Samson”, 1921, by Lovis Corinth . The painting shows  Samson’s pain and degradation when he has ultimately been betrayed by Delilah.

This is another fantastic narrative in our writings. Go to the Book of Judges, chapters 13- 16, and read great adventure!

Please share this post with your friends on Facebook, and share your comments with us all. Have a Shabbat Shalom.

Professor Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr Zvi Lederman found this tiny coin, less than an inch in diameter, near the Sorek River by Tel Beit Shemesh. This coin, from about the 11th C. BCE  shows a man fighting a lion.  Some feel this may represent Samson and his fight with the lion.   To read about this interesting discovery go to http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2181404/Israeli-scholars-claim-uncovered-archaeological-evidence-Samson.html

 

 

 

 

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