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Tuesday
Nov242015

THE WORLD OF OTHERNESS

YAAKOV’S DISTRESS

Yaakov returned from a 22 year sojourn with his uncle Lavan with a huge entourage that included his wives, children, servants, flocks of sheep, cattle and camels etc. Yaakov discovers that his brother Eisav, who pledged to kill him, was approaching with 400 armed men. The Torah records Yaakov’s feelings at the prospects of war with his brother:

And Yaakov was very frightened and it distressed him. So he divided the people who were with him, the flocks, the cattle and the camels into two camps.

Rashi makes the observation that there is a repetitive expression here: It describes Yaakov as both frightened and distressed. Why the dual expression?

Rashi explains: “And he was frightened lest he be killed, and it distressed him were he to kill others.”

THE FOUR QUESTIONS

Commentators ask: We can easily understand why he was frightened lest he be killed, but why was he so distressed that he might kill others? Weren’t the others he might have to kill, out to kill him? Isn’t there a Mitzvah, a commandment, to defend yourself and your family?

The Chassidic work Orach L’chaim answers that Yaakov was distressed that he would be compelled to kill his own brother. However, Rashi states that he was concerned that he would kill “others,” making it clear that he was concerned about killing any of Eisav’s men, not just Eisav.

A second question may be raised. The Torah states that in response to his fear and distress he divided the camp into two parts. By dividing his camp into two sections, the Torah continues, it would enable one half of his camp to escape harm. This clearly ameliorates his concern of being killed, but how does dividing his camp into two address his distress at having to kill others? If he were forced to kill Eisav’s henchmen he would have to kill them even if half of his entourage could escape.

A contemporary work, Avir Yosef, answers the first question by observing that Yaakov was concerned that the justified killing of his enemy would plant feelings of violence in him. Yaakov was distressed that his pure soul would be sullied by the violence in which he would be forced to engage.

However, why should his fear of instilling a violent streak in his psyche be a reason for him to divide his camp into two?

The Maharal in his work Gur Aryeh asks a third question: Why does Rashi say that he was distressed that he might have to “kill others.” What does Rashi mean by “others?” Why not simply state that he was distressed that he would kill Eisav.

A fourth question can be raised. Why did Rashi have to mention the word “others” entirely. Obviously, if Yaakov were forced to kill, it is self-understood that he would be killing others, not himself or people close to him?

The classic work Semuchim Lo’ad argues that the word “others” alludes to the sage Rabbi Meir, one of Eisav’s descendants, who was given the moniker “others” in the Talmud. Yaakov was concerned that killing Eisav would eliminate the possibility for the emergence of the great luminary, Rabbi Meir.

While this is an ingenious explanation, it leaves unanswered the question why he was concerned about Rabbi Meir specifically.  Furthermore, why is Rabbi Meir alluded to with the sobriquet “others”?

PLANTING SEEDS

To answer all these questions (based on the thesis that he was concerned for the deleterious effect his killing of others would have on himself) we must delve more deeply into Yaakov’s concern.

Yaakov, like Avraham and Yitzchak before him, knew that he was not just an individual. Yaakov and the other two forefathers knew that they were the progenitors of the Jewish people whose mission it would be to illuminate the world that would forever transform it into an utterly different and unrecognizable G-dly world. This reality would take place at some point in the future and it is what we know of as the Messianic Age.

The Patriarchs and Matriarchs, particularly Yaakov, were the delicate seeds or saplings that were being planted by G-d to ensure the future changes. Every event in their lives was geared to cultivating and nurturing these seeds and saplings. If the slightest thing went wrong and their behavior was found wanting, even if it was inadvertent or even if it would taint their character ever so subtly, it could have major ramifications for the future of the Jewish people and indeed the entire world.

For one, it would require their children to go through an even more difficult future. They would need a more intense refining program to compensate for the damaged spiritual “gene” of their patriarchal progenitor. A minor defect in the genetic material can result in a major deficit in the offspring which necessitates major intervention and repair.

In spiritual terms this would result in his progeny, the Jewish people, having a significantly diminished spiritual potential, which would undermine their well-being. This weakened spirituality could ultimately spell disaster for them due to a prolonged stay in exile.

Exile is a painful surgical process. It is intended to refine and rehabilitate us; it is fraught with its own pitfalls. Besides the inevitable pain and suffering exile has wrought, we are more vulnerable and susceptible to the forces of assimilation. 

Worst of all, the ramifications of the defective spiritual gene, in the long run, could delay the onset of the Messianic Age, when G-d’s plan for the world will finally be realized.

All of this may have been streaming through Yaakov’s mind when he considered the prospect of having to fight Eisav.

YAAKOV’S FEAR OF SIN

This could answer a question concerning Yaakov’s fear that he might be killed. The Talmud asks, wasn’t he promised by G-d that He would be protected? The Talmud answers, he was concerned that he might have become so tainted by sin that he forfeited G-d’s protection.

Commentators have not been satisfied with the Talmud’s answer when taken at face value. To them, it is inconceivable that G-d would go back on His unconditional and unequivocal promise to Yaakov that He would be with him.

In light of the above, we may suggest that Yaakov’s fear was primarily for the blemish his sins might have caused so that even if he successfully weathered the Eisav storm and not die in the process, he would still be diminished. That diminution would have an unpredictable ripple effect on his progeny.

YAAKOV’S LIMP

Indeed, this is precisely what happened. Yaakov encounters Eisav’s angel in the night, who wrestles with and injures him. Where is Yaakov injured? In the part of the body associated with reproduction. This tells us that Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav did have a deleterious effect on his progeny. In the end though, Yaakov was healed and that portends that we will be liberated with Moshiach. However, we have had to endure the bitter and harsh Galus and as a reminder of that we do not eat the sciatic nerve of any animal.

Yaakov was justified in his fear that his imperfections would prove deleterious for the future of the Jewish people.  We can now see that Yaakov’s fear of being killed was actually a fear of being spiritually diminished, with an exponentially more severe effect on his progeny.

ALL QUESTIONS ANSWERED

We may now answer all of the questions raised above and tie all the loose ends together:

The reason Yaakov was so concerned about killing others is that the violence, although totally justified, could create a tiny “abrasion” in his spiritual generic makeup which would have a significant impact on the future.

We can now understand how dividing his camp into two would solve the problem raised by his fear of killing others. By dividing his camp and ensuring that one half would escape it would mean that one part of his family would be blemish free; they would not have engaged in the violence. And their violence-free genetic makeup would produce spiritually healthy descendants.

RABBI MEIR AND OTHERNESS

The word “others,” we have seen, is said to allude to the Talmudic Sage Rabbi Meir, who was nicknamed “Others.”  

The simple reason for this epithet is that he was penalized for his disrespect for the head of the Sanhedrin at that time. Instead of referring to him by his proper name—“Rabbi Meir says…”—the Talmud frequently states, “Others say.”

However, as the Rebbe explains, this title was also an honorific as it alludes to Rabbi Meir’s otherness. He was in a league by himself. So great and profound was his wisdom that none of his colleagues could fathom their depth. He was distinguished by his otherness.

Perhaps, Yaakov’s fear was that if he acquired some negative traits as a consequence of his need to engage in violence it would scar his spiritual genetic makeup. And as a result, the “otherness” of his progeny would be lost. His descendants would be made ordinary and incapable of bringing the otherness of Divine light (the word “Meir” means “illuminate”) to their lives. They would be condemned forever to the quotidian state of Galus.

To ensure that the future of the Jewish people would be extraordinary, Yaakov resisted having to engage in even the most kosher form of violence thereby guaranteeing his progeny an early entry into the illuminating otherness of Moshiach.

DOUBLE LIGHT

On the 19th of Kislev, this coming Tuesday, we will be celebrating the liberation of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the first Rebbe of Chabad and the author of the classic work Tanya, also known as the Alter Rebbe) from Tsarist imprisonment. He saw his liberation as a Divinely sanctioned “license” to continue spreading the profound mystical teachings of Judaism contained in Chassidus.

The name Shneur means “double light” and alludes to a higher dimension of G-dly light. His teachings reveal the “otherness” of G-d, Torah and Israel and pave the way for the ultimate otherness of Moshiach and the Final Redemption.

Our generation, in particular, has been bequeathed Rabbi Meir’s otherness as well as the other-worldly light of all the Chabad Rebbes, particularly our Rebbe, and their teachings of Chassidus. May we soon see the imminent unfolding of the Final Redemption and our entry into the world of otherness!

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