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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Vayishlach 5771 - Never Defeated
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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King Louis XIV of France once asked Blaise Pascal, the great French philosopher of his day, to prove to him that miracles occur. Without a moment's hesitation, Pascal answered, "Why, the Jews, Your Majesty - the Jews."

“What is the Jew?...What kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who, despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish. What is this Jew whom they have never succeeded in enticing with all the enticements in the world, whose oppressors and persecutors only suggested that he deny (and disown) his religion and cast aside the faithfulness of his ancestors?!

The Jew - is the symbol of eternity. ... He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear.

The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.”

- Leo Tolstoy What is the Jew?

“The struggle for world domination is between me and the Jews. All else is meaningless. The Jews have inflicted two wounds on the world: Circumcision for the body and conscience for the soul. I come to free mankind from their shackles.”

- Mein Kampf, Adolph Hitler

“Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.”

- Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain

“I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations ... They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.”

- John Adams, President of the United States (Letter to F. A. Van der Kemp, Feb. 16, 1808)

After over two decades in the home of his father-in-law Lavan, Yaakov Avinu finally departed. Despite his having arrived with literally nothing but his walking stick, Yaakov left with a beautiful family, tremendous wealth, and spiritual vibrancy. The time had finally come for the fateful encounter with his insidious brother Eisav.

As they set up camp for the night Yaakov realized that he forgot some jugs on the other side of the river. When he journeyed back alone to retrieve them he was confronted by the Angel of Eisav. Their dynamic confrontation foreshadowed and symbolized the epic perennial struggle between Yaakov’s descendants and Eisav’s descendants.

“Yaakov was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he perceived that he could not overcome him, he struck the socket of his hip; so Yaakov’s hip-socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him… Therefore the Children of Israel do not eat the Gid Hanasheh (the displaced sinew) of the hip-socket to this day, because he struck Yaakov’s hip-socket on the displaced sinew.[1]

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt’l explained that the word “nasheh” means a creditor. When one owes someone else money he is subservient and indebted to the lender. In that sense the Gid Haneshehis the sinew of submission and lack of resistance. When the Angel dislodged that sinew he robbed Yaakov of control over the muscle of the hip, which attaches to the bone to control the leg. That caused Yaakov to lose some of his footing and control, and forced him into a certain level of submission. The tendon was still there, the muscle was still there, and the leg was still there, but its use was hampered. But Yaakov immediately regained his composure, and although injured, he eventually persevered and defeated his implacable opponent.

The Torah forbids us to eat that sinew because of what it symbolizes. Its dislocation of it represented the Angel of Eisav gaining the upper-hand and stymieing Yaakov, if even for a moment. A Jew must realize and know that the Spirit of Eisav can NEVER vanquish Yaakov or even cause him to falter.

We traverse exile with a certain measure of dignity and fortitude. True, there have been many times in our long and painful history when we have been subject to unspeakable pain and domination. However, we do not view domination as Eisav’s physical superiority, but as our spiritual inferiority.

“Yaakov falls… not because he is not equal to Eisav in material power. Rather, because he has not understood how to retain the protection of G-d for himself. If Israel stands, it stands not because of its strong material power, but because G-d bears them aloft on the eagle wings of His Almightiness.”

A short time later Yaakov met up with Eisav himself. Eisav was so overwhelmed by Yaakov and his family that, incredibly, his relentless rage dissipated. When Eisav then suggested to Yaakov that they proceed together, Yaakov refused, stating that his family would not be able to keep up the pace. “So Eisav returned on that day to his way, to Seir.[2]

Rabbi Hirsch comments that this was the final time that Yaakov and Eisav appeared together. From that moment when they took leave of each other they would never again be united. Eisav returned on his path, while Yaakov proceeded on his own path, each towards his own divergent destinations.

One of the reasons for the joy of an upsherin[3] is that the child’s payos (edges, i.e. sideburns) are not cut[4]. A Jewish male’s payos are an external symbol of the separation we maintain from the rest of the world. We are different and we are proud of what/who we are!

Someone once asked the Brisker Rav why people remark that at an upsherin, “payos machin” (literally, ‘we make payos’). It would seem that not cutting the sideburns is merely adhering to a prohibition, not fulfilling a command. We do not ‘make payos’ we simply refrain from cutting them.

The Brisker Rav replied by quoting the vernacular of the Rambam[5] in his quotation of this law: “We do not shave the corners of the head like the nations of the world do…” The Rambam associates this law with our desire to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the nations. Thus by refraining from cutting the sideburns we are actually “making payos”, fulfilling an active obligation to demonstrate our separateness and uniqueness.[6]

The day when the boy receives his first haircut there is an additional beautiful custom, for the father to bring his son – wrapped in a tallis – to a rebbe who teaches young children.[7]

On the day the child is introduced to the study of Torah he is also taught that we are special and different. We are not merely a nation among nations. We are the Children of Yaakov, the Chosen Nation. The two ideas are inextricably bound.

Rabbi Moshe Wolfson shlit’a notes that the gematria (numerical value) of the words “ כף ירך יעקב - Yaakov’s hip-socket[8] (was dislocated)” is the same as the words “ להדליק נר חנוכה- To kindle the Chanukah candles”.

During the period of Greek culture’s surging influence the Greeks sought to destroy the notion that Jews were unique and elite. They invited the Jews to take part in all of their activities and rituals to demonstrate that they were all the same.

The Medrash[9] relates that the tyrannical despot Antiochus passed an edict which obligated all Jews to write on the horns of their oxen, “You do not have a portion in the G-d of Israel.”

Maharal[10] offers a poignant explanation for this bizarre edict. One of the darkest moments in Jewish history was the sin of the golden calf. Hardly five weeks after they had witnessed the unparalleled revelation at Sinai the nation committed the egregious sin with dire consequences. But after Moshe implored the Almighty on our behalf, G-d acquiesced and promised that He would not destroy us, and that we would be forgiven.

The Greeks wanted to ingrain within us that although at one time we were indeed destined to be special and different, we had forfeited that position when we committed the sin of the golden calf. An ox is a mature and grown-up calf, and therefore the Greeks compelled every Jew to inscribe on the horns of their oxen that they had no connection with the G-d of Israel, the G-d of an elite people. The Greeks espoused that the (golden) calf had never died or been overcome and the Jews never transcended that sin.

The Greeks submitted that with all of their sophistication and advancements in medicine, engineering, mathematics, philosophy, drama, they had become the Chosen people. Therefore, if the Jews wanted to be special they would have to join with them.

The Greeks loved wisdom and did not seek to impede the Jews from studying Torah, albeit as long as they studied it as a subject of academia. Jews and Greeks could even study Torah together. The Greek’s chief goal was “to make them forget Your Torah”, i.e. that the Torah was G-d’s and not merely another subject of study.

The Maccabean revolt was driven by those who fought for the purity of Torah. They were consumed by a religious zeal fueled by the knowledge that they were indeed special and different. It is for that reason that the miracle of Chanukah involved the light of the Menorah, for the lights of the Menorah symbolize the spiritually pristine light of Torah.

The lights of Chanukah serve as the antithesis and rectification of what the Angel of Eisav tried to accomplish during his struggle with Yaakov. He tried to demonstrate that Yaakov is subservient to Eisav. But the Chanukah candles resplendently symbolize that we rise above Eisav and his pernicious efforts to vanquish us – spiritually and physically.

Thus, on the day when we begin to teach our son Torah we must also symbolize to him that we – as a people – are different. It is through pure Torah study that we maintain our uniqueness as a holy nation. Torah study without that appreciation is severely remiss. We are an eternal people; the secret to our eternity being our binding to the holy Torah.

It is appropriate that we conclude with the timeless words of the great Rabbi Yaakov Emden zt’l in the preface to his commentary on the Siddur[11]

“No nation has been as pursued as we have. How great have been our difficulties, how overwhelming were our enemies. From the very inception of our history, they have been bent upon utterly destroying and eradicating us. This was due to the hatred that they had for us because they were jealous of us…. (Despite) our many enemies, they were never successful in destroying or eliminating us. (I swear) by my life that when I ponder these wonders, I deem them to be greater than all of the miracles and wonders which Hashem did for our forefathers in Egypt, in the desert and in Eretz Yisroel. The longer this exile lasts, this miracle receives even greater affirmation and the might and power of G-d.”

“Eisav returned on that day to his way, to Seir”

“Therefore the Children of Israel do not eat the Gid Hanasheh”

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[1] Bereishis 32:25-33

[2] 33:16

[3] This week we celebrated the upsherin of our dear son Avrohom Yosef (Avi). There is an ancient custom not to cut a young boy’s hair until he is three years old. There is much depth and meaning behind this custom. When he turns three the family celebrates the child’s ‘upsherin’, i.e. his first haircut.

[4] See Vayikra 19:27

[5] Hil Akum 12:1

[6] Nitei Gavriel, Tiglachas Hayilodim (hakdamah)

[7] The father places the child in the rebbe’s lap and the rebbe learns the letters of the Aleph Bais with the child. The letters are read from a chart which is coated with honey. Each time the child recites a letter he is given some honey to eat. This inculcates in the child the feeling that Torah is sweet and delectable.

[8] 512

[9] Bereishis Rabbah 2:4

[10] Ner Mitzvah “וכל זה, מפני שרצו האומה הזאת לבטל מן ישראל מעלתם האלקית העליונה שיש לישראל, ולכך גזרו עליהם לבטל מהם התורה אלקית”

[11] "מי שמעיין בייחוד עניננו ומעמדנו בעולם, אנחנו האומה הגולה, שה פזורה, אחרי כל מה שעבר עלינו מהצרות והתמורות אלפים מהשנים... כל האומות הקדומות אבד זכרם... ואנו הדבקים בה' חיים היום, חי נפשי כי בהתבונני בנפלאות אלה, גדלו אצלי יותר מכל ניסים ונפלאות שעשה ה' יתברך לאבותינו במצרים ובמדבר ובארץ ישראל. וכל מה שארך הגלות יותר, נתאמת הנס יותר, ונודע מעשה תקפו וגבורתו"

(בהקדמה לסידור בית-יעקב).

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