Monday, November 30, 2009


Two countries for two nations
By Rabbi Gustavo Suraszki

At the beginning of this portion, Yaakov Avinu is filled with anxiety over the approaching meeting with his brother Esav after a twenty year separation. He doesn’t know what to expect. He only knows that Esav is coming towards him with four hundred men from his people.

Yaakov's lack of certainty concerning his fate is expressed very well by RaSHI, with his saying that prior to this meeting, "Yaakov prepared himself for three things: for a gift, for prayer and for war" (RaSHI on Bereshit 32, 9). In other words: Yaakov didn’t know what to do – whether to tempt his brother in order to find favor in his eyes and to develop a feeling of “political horizon”, or to prepare for a destructive war, or whether to depend on the grace of The Holy One.

However, from the perspective of this weekly portion’s reader, there isn’t much room for optimism. A person reading the Torah for the first time will immediately feel that there isn’t much room for making peace, rather for revenge and the beginning of waves of violence between the two sides. There is a great probability that in the end, blood will be spilled at the site of the meeting. However, in the end, the two adversaries kiss and embrace in the center of the arena.

Many commentaries have been made on this very same embrace. There are those who say that Esav “nashak” (kissed) his brother with all his heart (RaSHI on Bereshit 33, 4), and there are those who say that Esav “nashach” (bit) him with all his heart. Between “kissed” and “bit” (“nashak”- “nashach”) there are innumerable commentaries. One of them is the commentary of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (which was cited in RaSHI’s commentary on Bereshit 33, 4) which states: "It is a rule that it is common knowledge that Esav hates Yaakov, but, his pity was aroused at that moment and he kissed him wholeheartedly”.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai describes this embrace, in my humble opinion, in a rather problematic fashion. He says that Esav’s hate towards his brother was known (it’s a rule, an halacha!!) and only at that moment did his compassion grow for his brother.

This feeling doesn’t change, hints RaSHbI. In RaSHbI’s opinion, Esav was a “serial hater” and that hate was in his DNA code. Only on rare occasions was he able to have compassion for his brother Yaakov. The embrace was genuine, but RaSHbI was convinced that it was almost “a miracle”. It is impossible to rely on a person like that, because it is impossible to rely on a miracle.

At the beginning of our Torah portion, the RaMbaN says “that all what occured to our forefather with his brother Esav will always occure to us with the sons of Esav.” He is basically describing this meeting as a “prototype” of all of the meetings that occurred over the generations between the Jewish people (B’nei Yisrael) and the nations of the world. Meetings in which there were kisses that were also bites, and embraces that were counterfeit; meetings in which the suspicion dominated the setting.

Even if the RaMbaN related to the prototype principally in regard to “the sons of Esav”, I feel that it can also serve as a prototype of the relations between us and the sons of Ishmael.

What do we learn from this meeting between Yaakov and Esav?

The first thing that it teaches us is that even if the kiss was genuine, it didn’t make them friends forever. But the most important point is not in the present story. The important point is that on that occasion, they understood that there was room in the world for both of them. And most importantly: they understood that there is no more important battle than the struggle for co-existence between two entirely different conceptions of the world.

It’s reasonable to assume that Yaakov and Esav continued to live very differently from each other as they did at the time of their births. Even if Esav invited his brother to continue the journey together in saying “... "Travel on and let us go" (Bereshit 33, 12), Yaakov quickly realized that there was no point to it. Yaakov continued along his path to the Land of Canaan, and Esav made his way to Seir. That was perhaps one of the first opportunities in history in which the slogan has made: "Two countries for two nations".
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Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Between Edom and Lavan

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

At the beginning of Parashat Vayetze, Ya'akov flees from his brother after the painful episode of the sale of the birthright and the blessing of his father Yitzhak.

It would seem that Ya'akov had a problem with colors. He fled from Edom (Heb. Red) and fell into the hands of Lavan (Heb. White). He had no other place to go. He felt like the People of Israel on the shore of the Red Sea in the desert with the Egyptians behind them and the sea in front of them.

What should he do?

One wants to kill him and the other exploits him and makes him realize that he has much to learn about cheating and exploitation. The former threatens his body and the latter threatens his spirit.

Ya'akov did not have an easy life. He lost his beloved wife prematurely. His daughter Dina was kidnapped and raped by Shechem the son of Hamor. He saw his son Reuven lie with his mistress Bilha. He suffered the disappearance of his beloved son Yosef, and thought that he had died. Ya'akov himself speaks of his difficult experiences in Parashat Vayigash when he says to Pharoah: "Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been" (Genesis 47:9)

However, this upheaval that occurs in our father Ya'akov's life in our Parasha, does him good. In retrospect, we can say that between our Parasha and Parashat Vayishlach, Ya'akov undergoes the process of changing from the "Ya'akov" to the "Yisrael".

The struggle with the angel that will take place next week is only the end of the process. This process and the name change that takes place in Parashat Vayishlach, bears witness to the victory of our father Ya'akov. The name "Ya'akov" reminds us of the word "akov" (Heb. crooked) and the name "Israel" reminds us of the word "yashar" (Heb. straight, upright).

Ya'akov escapes from Cana'an "akov" (a Crooked) and a liar, after twenty years he returns to Cana'an "yashar" (straight, upright) after having tasted integrity and fairness. He has become another person and returns to Cana'an a mature man. Between the flight from Edom and the flight from Lavan, he has found himself.

There is a story that once there was a farmer who asked G-d for control of the natural forces so that his crops would succeed and G-d granted his wish. Thus, every time that the farmer wanted a light rain, there was a light rain and every time he wanted sunshine, the sun shone.

However, at harvest time it became apparent that all his work had been in vain, and his year's work a total failure.

The man approached G-d, hurt and angry and asked him about the unexpected results. Why, if he had the power to control the natural forces, did everything come out the opposite of what was expected?

G-d said to him: "You asked for the things that you wanted, but what you wanted was not necessarily what the earth needed. You wanted sun and light rain, but you never wanted a storm and it is on the contrary the storms and heavy rains that are beneficial to the earth, frightening the birds and insects and cleansing the crops from pests."

Sometimes there is nothing more beneficial in life than a storm, even if it hurts a great deal (even the purest oil undergoes a painful process of crushing) Who knows what would have happened to Ya'akov had he not experienced this upheaval. What would his life have been without the pursuit of Edom and the exploitation of Lavan?

It is possible that Ya'akov would have remained the same spoiled child in Rivka's house, while she decided everything for him. Perhaps he would have remained the same "innocent man sitting in his tent" living in the shadow of his dominant Yiddishe Mame who would protect him from every possible upset.

Who would have guessed that between Edom (red) and Lavan (white) Ya'akov would find "a rosy life" (perhaps for the only period in his life)? Precisely in this difficult period he found happiness.

And the literary expression is: he labored for seven years in order to win Rachel for his wife and the seven years were in his eyes "like a few days" (Genesis 29:20). Only a happy man can feel that seven years of hard labor are like a few days...

Sometimes the nature of a storm is such that it can also be beneficial.
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Monday, November 16, 2009


The sad story of a compulsive consumer

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

One of the most famous stories in the Torah is that of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob in exchange for lentil stew, and Isaac mistakenly blessing Jacob towards the end of this portion.

Many plead in poor Esau's defence for being tricked out of his birthright by his own brother. There are even those who tend to see Jacob as the one who cynically took advantage of Esau's condition.

But even at the simplest literal level, we can see that this is only half true. In the same way that Jacob took advantage of Esau's exhaustion, Esau did not value his own birthright. Esau knew only how to listen to his gut instinct and act on his impulses without weighing up the implications...

At the moment of selling, Esau was totally impulsive...and made a wrong decision. But man is the sum total of all his decisions. It is true that there are things in life which are beyond our control. Forces of nature, and (G-d forbid) diseases and death itself. But an incorrect decision about those things which are in our control can harm us and come back like a boomerang even after many years. For a wrong decision resembles an arrow. While the arrow is under man's control he can do with it as he pleases. But the moment he has shot the arrow, he can no longer call it back...

This is what happened to Esau. He let his instinct decide and did not understand exactly how this act would affect him in the future.

I heard a story about Rabbi Alexander Ziskind of Grodno. Every year he broke his fast on Yom Kippur by eating a very bony fish. Why? Because this way he was forced to eat slowly and not devour his food. He decided that even at the moment of the greatest possible hunger, the soul should be in control of the body, and not otherwise.

And thus Esau could be considered the first typical compulsive consumer in the history of mankind. What is a compulsive consumer? Firstly, it is a person who cannot control himself and buys goods simply to satisfy his obsessions. This applies not only to someone who rushes to a store to buy the latest state-of-the art cellular phone on the market even if he doesn't really need one, or the person who upgrades his internet capabilities simply because the company called and encouraged him to do so. A compulsive consumer is mostly a person who is prepared to pay a very high price for something which is basically worthless. How much would a lentil stew be worth? Of course it would have some value, especially if one were hungry. But to give up one's birthright for a lentil stew sounds rather exaggerated.

A compulsive consumer is a person who makes secondary issues his primary concern, and considers essential matters to be subordinate to these.

A most interesting and graphic example of this is the law of the "Ikar and Tafel" as regards the world of blessings. A person eating a banana recites the blessing "Borei pri haadama", while one eating whipped cream recites the blessing "Shehakol nihiya bedvaro". But what happens when someone eats a banana with whipped cream? Which should one bless? The answer is "Borei pri haadama" because in this meal the banana is the main portion (Ikar) and the cream the smaller part (Tafel).

I would say that a person who knows in a similar way how to give essential matters primary importance in his life, is a person who is moving towards a life of blessings, just like the one which Jacob received from his father Isaac.

We can move towards or away from blessings, based on the decisions we make in our lives. That blessing was not, in fact, stolen from Esau. Esau simply lost it along the path he chose.

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Toldot 5766 - The Brawn and the Brain

Monday, November 02, 2009


Abraham's Virtue

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

In this week's Portion, Vayerah, the Torah speaks explicitly and extendedly about Abraham's special attitude towards the Mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim (Hospitality). It is known that Abraham was still recuperating from the painful circumcision, but only three days after the brit, he was already sitting at the opening of is tent...

Rashi questions: Why did he sit at the opening? And answer: "To see those who pass and invite them in".

We know how much Abraham went out of his way to show good hospitality to the angels. Ran to the livestock, slaughtered a cow, baked cakes, brought a bowl to wash their feet.

While physically still "grieving" the Mitzvah of circumcision (Brit Milah), he found the strength to serve G-D by fulfilling the Mitzvah of hospitality (Hachnasat Orchim).

But in our portion we have yet another story of hospitality given by Lot, the son of Abraham's brother...

He too knew how to fulfill this Mitzvah!

When the angels came to announce the upcoming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot too sat at the city gates of Sodom, got up, walked towards them and invited them to his home. Why if this is so is only Abraham our father written in the texts of the Sages as an outstanding provider of hospitality, and no one speaks about the quality of Lot?
There is a story told of the famous Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who, in his travels, came to the city of L'vov.
Seeking a lodging place, he approached one of the wealthy townsmen, and, without identifying himself, asked for a place to stay. The wealthy man yelled at him angrily, "We don't need wayfarers here. Go to a hotel!".
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak then approached a poor Melamed (teacher), who welcomed him graciously, offering him food to eat and a place to sleep.
On the way to the poor man's house, someone recognized Rabbi Levi Yitzchak as the famed Rabbi of Berditchev. Soon all the townsfolk came out to greet and see the face of the venerable Rabbi. Among them of course was the wealthy man, who proceeded to ask for forgiveness, and beseeched the Rabbi to stay with him at his home.
In response, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak turned to the gathered people and said, "Do you know the difference between Abraham, our Father of blessed memory, and Lot? Why does scripture go into such detail about the full meal Abraham served the angels? After all, Lot also baked matzos and prepared a feast for his guests? Why is Abraham's hospitality considered special and not Lot's?".
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev answered his own question by pointing out that when the guests came to Lot, scripture states (Genesis 19:1) "The two angels (malachim) came to Sodom". Whereas with Abraham the Torah says (Genesis 18:2) "And behold he saw three people (anashim) standing upon him". Lot saw angels! Who wouldn't accept angels into his home? Whereas, Abraham saw poor wanderers, ragged, fatigued and covered with dust, in need of a placed to rest and a little food.
Lot too knew how to act; he too knew the meaning of hospitality. But he had a flaw in his heart. He only knew how to provide hospitality, for appearance's sake. May it be God's will that the verse "Purify our heart to serve You sincerely" be fulfilled in our lives.