Parashat Vayishlach 5777
Rabbi Meir Sendor
This week’s parashah opens with Yaakov Avinu’s anxious preparations to meet his twin brother Esav after years of estrangement. Fearing Esav’s murderous resentment, Yaakov prays poignantly and movingly to HaShem for help. The commentators note certain peculiarities in the phrasing that alert us, not only to Yaakov’s state of mind at this moment, but to the very nature of prayer itself.
In his salutation, Yaakov invokes HaShem with a series of epithets:
בראשית פרק לב פסוק י
ויאמר יעקב אלהי אבי אברהם ואלהי אבי יצחק יקוק האמר אלי…
And Yaakov said ‘God of my father Avraham, God of my father Yitzhak, HaShem Who said to me…
Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher suggests that by rights the series should begin with a general appeal to “HaShem,” invoking the Tetragrammaton, followed by specific references to his grandfather and father. For Rabbenu Bahya and other kabbalists such as R. Menachem Recanati, the order Yaakov uses here expresses a technical progression of sefirot. “God of my father Avraham” appeals to Avraham’s consciousness of God through the divine quality of love. “God of my father Yitzhak” appeals to Yitzhak’s consciousness of God through the divine quality of judgment. “HaShem” in this series refers to the divine quality of mercy. According to these kabbalists, Yaakov is asking for divine love, judgment and mercy to help him deal with Esav.
But Rabbenu Bahya adds a detail that reveals a deeper dimension of this prayer. The divine Name “HaShem,” the Tetragrammaton, the Explicit Name of God, is associated with Yaakov’s own consciousness of God, his own discovery of God’s compassion and truth. So Yaakov is not just stringing together a series of divine epithets. His invocation of God gets more and more personal.
This personal awareness is the real secret of the power of prayer, as it says in the Pesikta Rabbati:
פסיקתא רבתי (איש שלום) פיסקא כב – י’ הדברות פ’ תנינותא
מפני מה ישראל מתפללים ואינן נענים, ריב”ל בשם ר”פ בן יאיר מפני שאינם יודעים סוד שם המפורש, ואית ליה קרייא סגייה לכן ידע עמי שמי לכן ביום ההוא כי אני הוא המדבר הנני (ישעיה נ”ב ו’) וארשתיך וגו’ [וידעת את ה’] (הושע ב’ כ”ב) אשגביהו כי ידע שמי יקראני ואענהו וגו’ (תהלים צ’ י”ד וט”ו),
Why is it that Israelites pray and are not answered? R. Yehoshua ben Levi in the name of R. Pinchas ben Yair says because they don’t know the secret of the Explicit Name that invokes His Greatness…
R. Kalonymus Kalmish Epstein, in his Maor Va-Shemesh, explains:
מאור ושמש שמות פרשת וארא
דהנה כתיב (תהלים כה יד) סוד ה’ ליראיו, יש לפרש כך דהנה יש להבין מה זה סודות התורה… שאין לומר שהכוונה על חכמת הקבלה וכתבי האר”י ז”ל וזוהר הקדוש – דהנה לשון ‘סוד’ הוא דבר שאי אפשר לגלות לאחרים כלל, והלא כל הקבלה וכתבי האר”י והזוהר יכולין לגלות לאחרים ולפרשם ביתר שאת, ואם כן כיון שנתגלה – אין זה סוד. אבל מה הוא סוד שאי אפשר לגלות לשום אדם – הוא סוד ה’. רצה לומר, עצם אלקות, שהוא היה הוה ויהיה, והוא עיקרא ושרשא דכולי עלמין, זה אי אפשר לגלות לשום בריה, רק כל אדם משער לעצמו השגת אלקות לפי שכלו ולפום שיעורין דלביה. וכל מה שהאדם מזכך עצמו, ויגע עצמו יגיעות הרבה להשיג – כך ישיג בשכלו הזך יותר ויותר. ומה שמשיג שכלו באלקותו יתברך – זה אי אפשר לגלות לשום אדם מעמקי לבו, מה שהוא בלבו ושכלו;
It is written “the secret of HaShem is for those who fear Him (Ps. 25:14).” This should be explained thus, that to understand what is meant by secrets of the Torah… the intent is not the wisdom of Kabbalah and the writings of the Ar”i z”l, and the holy Zohar. For the term “secret” refers to something that is impossible to reveal to others at all, whereas the entire Kabbalah and the writings of the Ar”i z”l and the Zohar can be revealed to others and explained adequately, and if they can be revealed – that’s not a secret. But what is a secret that cannot be revealed to any person – that’s the “secret of HaShem.” This means the essence of divinity, that He was, is and will be, and that He is the root and source of all the worlds, and this cannot be revealed to any creature. Rather, each person posits for himself a grasp of divinity according to his intellect and the estimation of his heart. The more a person purifies himself and exerts himself with great exertions to grasp – so he will grasp with his pure intellect more and more. And what his intellect grasps of His divinity, blessed be He – this is impossible to reveal to any person from the depth of his heart, that which is in his heart and intellect.
This secret awareness of God is also the secret source of prayer. The true power of prayer comes from reaching out to God from our most sincere, personal, private vulnerability, which is the basis of our most sincere, personal, private consciousness of God. When Yaakov prays to God for help, his prayer gets more and more intimate, appealing to “HaShem Who spoke to me…”
The progressive personalization of Yaakov’s prayer mirrors his reference to the object of his fears:
בראשית פרק לב פסוק יב
הצילני נא מיד אחי מיד עשו
Please save me from my brother, from Esav.
The commentators work to explain the double reference. HaShem knows who he is talking about, Yaakov does not have to be so specific. But that’s the point. Yaakov realizes that to get past his brother’s anger and resentment, to reconcile with him, he needs to reach him in the most personal way. He needs to reach not just his brother, but Esav. All the gifts, all the arguments and justifications, all the show of strength aren’t really enough. He needs to touch Esav’s heart.
The commentators see this encounter as emblematic of the ongoing struggle between Israel and Edom, which, by a series of midrashic analogies, comes to stand for Rome and, ultimately, Western civilization. For most commentators Esav is irredeemable and this is a zero-sum battle. But for the Zohar and the Lurianic kabbalists there is hope for healing and repair. They see an allusion to this possibility at the end of the parashah, in the enigmatic section that refers to the “chieftains of Esav,” especially its most enigmatic verse:
בראשית פרק לו
(לא) ואלה המלכים אשר מלכו בארץ אדום לפני מלך מלך לבני ישראל:
These are the kings who reigned in the Land of Edom before a king reigned for the children of Israel.
The Zohar (3:135a) reads this not just as a history lesson, but as a spiritual promise. Before there were any kings of Israel, the reigns of the Edomite kings were destructive and they were destroyed. But the advent of the kings of Israel, and the nation of Israel that learns Torah and practices Mitzvot, ushers in a process of Tikkun, of healing and repair, through an infusion of divine consciousness into the world, inspiring from within even the Edomite kings and culture. This is the healing that Yaakov seeks for his brother, an inner healing that can only happen in the most personal, heartfelt way, invoking his brother by name. The lesson of our parsha is the power of personal relationship, heart to heart. So it is that in this parashah Yaakov earns his own most personal name: Yisrael, he who struggles with God and with man.
Our world today is rife with conflict, violence, barbaric cruelty, losing touch with the preciousness of every individual life. Even on our visit here in the States we sense a coarsening of discourse after the recent elections. Ideological tribalism and group-think are rampant. The secret of healing is the struggle to regain the intimate honesty and compassion of personal relationship.