Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Vayishlach


Katonti mikol ha’chasadim (32:11)

Hashem promised to protect Yaakov and return him safely to the land of Canaan. Nevertheless, as he prepared to face his brother Eisav who was approaching him with an army of 400 men, Yaakov became very frightened. Why wasn’t he confident that Hashem would protect and save him in fulfillment of His promise? Rashi explains that Yaakov feared that perhaps the miracles Hashem performed for him after the promise him had depleted his supply of merits. We find in the Torah that the way of the righteous is one of humility, never requesting anything in their own merits, but always relying on Hashem’s infinite mercy and kindness to give them gifts that they feel they don’t really deserve. This makes it puzzling to observe Yaakov worrying that the miracles that Hashem did for him were payment for his merits, and he may therefore not have any remaining.

The Vilna Gaon explains that there is a difference between Divine acts of kindness which have already been done and those that a person would like to be performed. With respect to the future, a person should indeed not rely upon his accumulated merits. If he wants to have his wishes fulfilled, he should throw himself on Hashem’s mercy. Regarding the past, however, a sense of humility should cause a person to worry that the few merits that he may have possessed were used up by the numerous Heavenly gifts that he has received.

In light of this explanation, the Vilna Gaon brilliantly explains a cryptic comment made by the Gemora in Sotah (5a). The Gemora teaches that a Torah scholar should have one-eighth of one-eighth of arrogance. It is difficult to understand why conceit would ever be appropriate, and why was this seemingly arbitrary measurement selected as the appropriate amount? The Gaon points out that Parshas Vayishlach is the eighth portion in the Torah, and ours is the eighth verse in the parsha. The Gemora is hinting that the only acceptable form of arrogance is that described in our verse, namely the concern that whatever merits one may have had have already been used up.

 Al kein lo yochlu B’nei Yisroel es gid ha’nashe al kaf ha’yerech ad hayom hazeh (32:33)

In his commentary on Yoreh Deah known as Kreisi U’Pleisi (65:16), Rav Yonason Eibeshutz records a fascinating historical incident. In his times, a m’nakeir (the person who removes the forbidden parts of an animal after it has been ritually slaughtered) created a scandal by announcing that what people had traditionally assumed was the forbidden gid ha’nashe (sciatic nerve) was anatomically incorrect. He identified a different nerve as being that which the Torah forbade. The ramifications of his claims were enormous. If he was correct, it would mean that all Jews around the world had forgotten the tradition identifying the forbidden nerve, and as a result, had been consuming non-kosher food for generations.

Wherever the man went he created quite an uproar, until he came to Rav Yonason’s hometown of Prague. After listening to the man’s claims, he investigated the matter and found that the nerve which the man claimed was the genuine gid ha’nashe was one which is found only in male animals. After this discovery, he promptly took out a Sefer Mitzvos Gedolos, which states quite clearly that the prohibition of gid ha’nashe applies to both males and females. This would seem to refute the man’s argument, as the nerve he alleged was the real forbidden one wasn’t found in females. Rav Yonason concludes that the man was silenced and left in shame, his claims disproved.

The tremendous problem with this story is that the Sefer Mitzvos Gedolos writes that the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve applies equally to male and female Jews, but he makes no reference whatsoever as to what kind of animal the forbidden nerve is found in. How could Rav Yonason have made such a glaring oversight?

Some explain that the impossibility of all Jews erring in something so important was so clear to Rav Yonason that even before examining the man’s actual claims, he had mentally dismissed the allegations. To quell the uproar the man had created, Rav Yonason simply wanted to “refute” him by any means possible. Because the man was simple and unlearned, he fell right into the trap.

However, the real answer is that there was a printing error in the original version of Kreisi U’Pleisi, which stated that the refutation came from “Samech-Mem-Gimmel” when it should have read “Samech-Hei-Nun.” As a result of the mistaken abbreviation, people reading it assumed that his source was Sefer Mitzvos Gedolos. In reality, it was Seder Hilchos Nikkur, which indeed says explicitly that the forbidden nerve is found in both male and female animals and proves Rav Yonason’s claims. Indeed, there is a Jew in Los Angeles with a copy of the original print of Kreisi U’Pleisi with the handwritten marginal corrections of Rav Yonason himself, and in the margin next to this line in the book is written this exact correction.

 Vateiled Rochel vat’kash b’lidta (35:16)

In relating the difficulties involved in Binyomin’s birth, the Torah records that Rochel gave birth and subsequently had difficulties with the childbirth. This chronology of events isn’t what we would expect. In a regular birth, first a woman has labor pains, and then the child is born, but when Rochel gave birth to Binyomin the order was reversed. Why did her pains begin only after she had already given birth?

The Chida answers that the Mishnah in Shabbos (2:6) teaches that women die during childbirth for being lax in one of 3 areas: the separation of challah, the laws of family purity, and lighting Shabbos candles. When Rochel’s delivery of Binyomin was abnormally difficult, she feared that perhaps she might die. Additionally, she also feared that people who heard she died during childbirth would assume that it was because she had sinned in one of these three areas and wasn’t as righteous as she was alleged to be.

In reality, the Mishnah is specifically referring to those who die during the time of danger (Shabbos 32a), which is limited to the actual childbirth, and not to a person (such as Rochel) who has post-delivery complications. However, the Torah continues by noting that even after the baby was born, Rochel’s pain continued to intensify, and with it her fears about the implications.

At this point, Rochel’s midwife attempted to comfort her by explaining the aforementioned difference: “Vatomer la ham’yaledes al tir’i ki gam zeh lach ben.” In other words, don’t be afraid of what people will say because your son has already been born, in which case even if you die, it will no longer be due to the sins mentioned in the Mishnah. Still, Rochel wasn’t persuaded by this logic and called her child “Ben oni” – “son of my affliction” – as she felt that even a woman who dies from immediate post-labor complications is also included in those referred to by the Mishnah. Yaakov, however, knew the truth about Rochel’s righteousness and called the child “Ben yemin” – the son of the right, which is always the stronger side – as a reference to her pious ways.

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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     Before his encounter with Eisav, Yaakov arranged his wives and their children, placing first the maidservants and their sons, then Leah and her children, and finally Rochel and her sons (33:2). Rashi explains that the more beloved to Yaakov they were, the closer to the back he placed them in order to protect them from Eisav. In next week’s parsha, the brothers became jealous of Yosef and wanted to kill him over an extra article of clothing he received from Yaakov (37:4). Why didn’t they similarly become jealous here, when their being placed closer to the front than Yosef could potentially be life-threatening? (Meged Yosef)

2)     After Sh’chem and his father attempted to convince Yaakov and his sons to allow Sh’chem to marry Dina and offered their daughters in marriage to the brothers, Yaakov’s sons answered and explained that they could only do so if Sh’chem and his townsmen would circumcise themselves (34:13-17). As Rashi writes (24:50) that Lavan demonstrated his wickedness by speaking up before his father Besuel and not allowing his father to answer, why did the brothers answer in front of their father Yaakov? (Tosefos Rid 24:50, Emes L’Yaakov)

3)     Why did Shimon and Levi first kill the men in Sh’chem’s town and only afterward kill Sh’chem and his father (34:25-26), when they were the primary perpetrators of the crime? (Bod Kodesh)

4)     Rashi writes (35:8) that the date of Rivkah’s death was hidden so that people wouldn’t curse the womb from which Eisav emerged. Why wasn’t the date of Yitzchok’s death concealed for the same reason, as he was Eisav’s father? (Gur Aryeh, Ayeles HaShachar)

© 2011 by Oizer Alport.