Cold Comfort

Parashat VaYishlach 5780

by Meir Sendor

“When Rabbi [Yehudah haNasi] would need to go to the government [in Rome] he would look over this parashah, and he would not accept a Roman escort on his return. One time, he did not look it over, and he accepted a Roman escort home, and even before he reached Acco he ended up selling his fine cloak (Yalkut Shimoni, 33).”

Nachmanides explains that in rabbinic tradition this week’s parashah is considered the Torah portion of exile – a guide to dealing with the dangers of the exilic world. Rabbi Yehudah haNasi was not only one of the leading scholars of his time, but as Nasi he was the political leader of Judea, which was under oppressive Roman occupation. When He had official business in Rome he would review this week’s Torah portion, to follow carefully every move that Yaakov Avinu makes in his encounter with his dangerous brother Esav, regarded midrashically as the progenitor of Rome. Among the details of Yaakov’s maneuvers was that after he reconciles with Esav successfully, and Esav invites him to visit him at home and offers to provide an escort, Yaakov leaves his reply vague and politely but firmly refuses the escort (Gen. 33:15). Yaakov did not let his guard down even after the crisis seemed to be over. The one time that Rabbi Yehudah haNasi forgot to review the parashah, he accepted a Roman escort home and ends up having to bribe the Roman soldiers, losing his expensive cloak in the process (Nachmanides, Gen. 33:15).

The state of the world today seems more and more precarious, with governments in turmoil, with levels of violence increasing worldwide and threats of war growing. Anti-Jewish animus is rising steadily in Europe and the United States (it’s already through the roof in the Middle East and has been for more than a century). The horrific shootings in Jersey City this week, targeting Jews and police officers, have shocked us here in Israel as well as in the States, and our hearts ache for those who were killed and wounded and for their families. Like Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, we would like to look to Torah, especially to our patriarch Yaakov Avinu, for guidance on how to move through all this securely.

Yaakov’s first reaction to his anticipated encounter with Esav is not encouraging – but it’s essential. When he hears that Esav is marching to meet him with four hundred men, the Torah says:

בראשית פרק לב פסוק ח

ויירא יעקב מאד


And Yaakov was exceedingly fearful…

In the Gemara Berakhot (4a), Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi notes that HaShem, in the ladder dream, had already promised Yaakov:

בראשית פרק כח פסוק טו

והנה אנכי עמך ושמרתיך בכל אשר תלך


Behold I will be with you and protect you wherever you go…

So why was Yaakov fearful? Wasn’t God “on his side?” What could be more reassuring than God’s own promise of protection? Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi answers “perhaps sin might cause [a change].” God’s promise was solid, but it was also conditional on Yaakov remaining worthy of it. Yaakov was anxious that perhaps, over the twenty years since he had received that promise, he had lost the merit by which he had earned God’s care. For instance, as Targum Yonatan suggests, for twenty years Yaakov, away from home, did not fulfill the mitzvah of honoring his parents, while Esav, who was around the house, did. Things change. In Midrash Rabbah Rabbi Yehudah bar Shimon says “from here we learn there are no promises for a righteous person in this world (VaYishlach 37).”

Rabbi Yaakov Leiner in Beit Yaakov takes this further, much further. He explains:

The statements of HaShem have no delimited meaning, such that a person could say to you “see, this is the true interpretation of the matter, and it cannot sustain another interpretation other than how I understand it.” A person should not imagine that this is the situation, for the words of HaShem are living and existing, and in a moment they can change their meaning from what they themselves seemed to a person to mean, without any change [in the words themselves]. Like a person who learned the words, and then after a moment the person himself might realize that the way he learned them previously was not the correct way, and so on endlessly. And this is the root of faith, that a person should not say this thing is impossible… for by God everything is possible… And this is because the words of HaShem are alive and flow continually from the source of life. Therefore righteous people do not rely on a [divine] promise in this world, for it is impossible to arrive at and ascertain the true, clear meaning of the promise and perhaps it will change. Therefore a person should serve HaShem with fear continually and pray to God and not rely on a miracle (VaYishlach, ma’amar 14).

I quoted this statement of the Beit Yaakov at length because it is Torah for adults. He pulls no punches. He undercuts all those who confidently proclaim they know God’s Will and that God is on their side. He pulls the rug out from all who pretend that this or that ritual will magically protect them, even that performing mitzvot and learning Torah in a ritual way will magically protect them. He uproots all magical thinking and sense of entitlement just because you think you are following the Torah. He reminds us that HaShem is real and Infinite, not some figment of our imagination that we can pretend to understand with our limited minds and control with our actions. He reminds us that the words of Torah are living words of the Living God, from the Infinite Mind, and we can’t presume to plumb their depths or reach their heights completely.

For those looking for refuge in this world, for those seeking reassurance that they’re under divine protection because of their religion, Rabbi Leiner offers cold comfort – or no comfort at all. He offers יראה, usually translated “fear,” but it’s not fear in the crude sense. It’s a conscious and high spiritual state of vigilance that comes from a real sense of HaShem’s Infinite and intimate Presence and our urgent responsibility to keep discovering His Will, endlessly. We learn Torah and do mitzvot not as protective rituals, but to deepen our ethical and spiritual sensitivity and alert us to what God is asking of us in every situation – and do it. And with intellectual and spiritual humility we pray to HaShem to help us to discover and continue to discover His Will, endlessly.

When Rabbi Yehudah haNasi prepared for his dangerous diplomatic missions to Rome on behalf of all Jews, he would review this week’s parashah carefully, even though he had read it many, many times. He reviewed to sensitize himself further to the details, to keep exploring the wisdom, to keep asking HaShem to help him find insight on how to proceed. This is spiritual vigilance. The one time he was lax and let down that vigilance, he paid for it – and he shared his experience with us so we can learn from his mistake. So how will we find the guidance to move through the dangerous world that we find ourselves in these days? Stay awake, stay alert – keep learning and seeking HaShem’s guidance. It might be cold comfort – but it’s real.

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