In this week’s parsha, we find the famous episode of Ya’akov Avinu’s fight with the malach. It’s brought down in different seforim that this malach was the epitome of the yetzer hara, or some even say, the satan himself. Because of this, the malach attacked Ya’akov Avinu and not the other avos because the essence of Ya’akov Avinu was the truth of Torah which was diametrically opposed to everything the malach stood for.
The question really lies in the aftermath of their battle, when Ya’akov Avinu asks the malach his name. The Malach responds, “Why is that you ask my name?” With this, the conversation ends and the malach blesses Ya’akov and they both go on their separate ways. The ba’alei mussar all ask very similar questions regarding this episode. What exactly was the malach answering? From the fact that Ya’akov accepted his answer seems to indicate that it was a full answer, however he answered Ya’akov’s question with another question! What’s the pshat in these psukim?
The ba’alei mussar answer this question with a very deep idea which is very applicable to each individual. They say that the malach’s retort wasn’t merely dodging the question, rather it was the answer. “Why is it that you ask my name?” wasn’t a question back to Ya’akov- rather it was the actual name of the malach.
What’s in a name? In Parshas Breishis, it says that Hashem brought every animal in front of Adam Harishon and he called each one by its name. The meforshim point out that Adam knew what to call each animal by looking into its essence and then calling it a name which describes it. That is, the essence of anything we can find in the world is alluded to by its name. (This idea is also brought up in regard to naming children. Seforim bring down that when a parent names a child, there’s a special ruach hakodesh which rests on him to be able to call the child after its essence, and if the child is named after a person, the child assumes a piece of the identity of the person he was being named after.)
With this understanding behind what a name is, when the angel was telling Ya’akov his name, he wasn’t just saying what he happened to be called; rather he was revealing his essence. This malach was the shoresh of ra, he was the epitome of the yetser hara. And how does he describe his essence? “Why do you ask my name?”, that is- don’t ask questions! Don’t think about it! That’s the essence of the yetzer hara. To blind us from thinking. Once we begin to think and ask questions, the yetzer hara lacks its essence and is then revealed as nothing.
This idea can be brought out with a mashal. Before modern technology, movies were shown by portraying images onto a screen via a projector. To someone who didn’t understand how the system worked, he would think that there’s an actual reality happening on the screen! Yet to the thinking individual who knew how the movie worked, he needed to only shine a flashlight onto the screen to reveal the reality that there was nothing there.
The same is true with our yetzer hara. He fools us into thinking that he’s this serious reality! And even more so, he tricks us into not asking questions. When a person is always thinking about his life and his purpose, he doesn’t fall into the hands of the yetzer hara. It’s impossible to have the conscious thought that one is standing in front of Hashem and still rebel against His will! Rather, that’s not the way the yetzer hara gets us. He gets us by convincing us not to ask his name – to cease our constant thinking and meditation. Only by doing that can he fool us towards sin.
This yesod is very deep. Within mussar, there are many different approaches for one to work on himself. In one such approach, the emphasis is put on understanding the self and the individual components which comprise the self. With this understanding, the hope is that we can come to a heightened level of consciousness and control. One of the major parts of the self which then needs definition is the yetzer hara. And for that we have this pasuk. The yetzer hara is really nothingness. We just believe he’s our greatest enemy because we fail to ask his name. So, the next time the fight with the yetzer hara comes to the door, all we need to do is look at it and ask, “What’s your name? Who are you? What do you want?” to which he’ll be forced to concede that in reality, he’s really nothing.
In 2017, a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci known as “Salvator Mundi” went on auction at Christie’s in New York. The winning bid, made by a Saudi prince, was $450 million. Incredible! Someone was willing to pay half a billion dollars for a rare painting.
In Parshat Vayeitzei, we also find a high price being paid. Yaakov worked day and night for seven full years tending to Lavan’s flock in order to earn the hand of Rochel in marriage. However, the pasuk says regarding Yaakov, those seven years seemed like just a few days.
Seven years…like a few days? Really? Yes, because Yaakov realized Rochel was his perfect match. Seven years of work was a small price to pay to marry the future mother of Yosef and Binyamin.
In Parshat Toldot, we have the opposite scenario—the biggest fire sale in history! For the price of a $5 bowl of lentil soup, the first-born twin, Esav, sold his full birthright, including the priesthood and the right to serve in the Beit Hamikdash (Rashi).
Some might wonder if this was a valid sale. The halacha states if someone over- or under-charges more than a sixth of the value of an item, the sale is null and void. The value or reward in the next world for serving in the priesthood is beyond imagination! As it states in Pirkei Avot (4:22), a single hour of olam haba (the next world) is far greater than all the pleasures a man could possibly have in his entire lifetime. How could Yaakov legitimately buy something so valuable for a bowl of lentil soup?
Rav Elchanan Wasserman explains that every mitzvah is priceless, but each person can assign it his own value. As such, the value we place on a mitzvah personally matches the reward we will receive for its fulfillment. For Esav, the spiritual empire of the priesthood and Beit Hamikdash was worth a bowl of soup. Therefore, Yaakov paid an honest price.
This gives insight to the Gemara which tells us that the wicked get rewarded in this world for their good deeds. How so? We know a lifetime of pleasure can’t compare to a moment in olam haba! Rav Wasserman explains that the wicked value their earthly pleasures more than a spiritual connection to the Almighty.
A few years ago at the PTI annual dinner, Rabbi Paysach Krohn told the story of Aaron Goldstein, who was visiting Eretz Yisroel. At 1 a.m., he was about to go to sleep but remembered he hadn’t davened maariv. Where could he find a minyan at this hour? He remembered a place called Zichron Moshe in the Geula neighborhood of Yerushalayim where one could find a minyan at all hours of the day. Aaron took a taxi there and saw two other guys. He opened a Gemara and reviewed the daf while he waited. After twenty minutes, there was still no minyan.
Suddenly, an idea popped into his head. He called Bar Ilan taxi, which has all Jewish drivers, to send seven taxis. “It’s 2 a.m., why do you need so many taxis?” asked the dispatcher, thinking this was a prank. “I have a big event and need a lot of taxis,” Aaron said. The seven taxis converged onto Zichron Moshe. “Where are all the people?” yelled one of the drivers. “Is this some prank?” Aaron came out with a wad of bills in his hand. “This is not a prank. I have yahrzeit and need a minyan for maariv and to say kaddish. Please come pray with me. I will pay your full fare. Start your meters now.” This was a first…for all of them! One taxi driver donned a yarmulke and entered the shul. The rest followed. Aaron davened maariv clearly and appropriately, not caring about the ticking of the meters. After the last kaddish, Aaron pulled out his wad of bills to pay each driver. The drivers refused. “We can’t take your money. We need to thank you for allowing us to daven maariv and answer amen to your kaddish. We will not take money for participating in this mitzvah,” they said.
In this story, davening maariv and saying kaddish with a minyan was worth 560 shekels to Aaron. To the taxi drivers, the mitzvah was priceless—no fare amount was worth it.
Each day, such choices present themselves. Which priceless item will we value most—a worldly pleasure such as a rare painting, or a mitzvah leading to a portion in olam haba? May we all have the good judgment to make choices which are truly beneficial for us.
You will be forgiven for never having heard of Chaim Selig Slonimsky.
A minor celebrity in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, he was an avuncular man with solid credentials as an astronomer and scientist, notorious for his traditional Jewish appearance, and particularly for his expansive white beard.
In an age when secular studies were universally frowned upon in strictly-orthodox circles, Slonimsky was considered safe – a committed observant Jew who excelled in the world of science, but whose convictions were firmly in the right place.
Legend has it that Slonimsky stumbled on the formula for duplex telegraphy in 1859, but rather than patenting it, he filed his discovery away, telling his wife “now let us see how long it will take them to figure it out!”
And although American scientist Moses Gerrish Farmer had successfully demonstrated a rudimentary form of duplex telegraphy in 1856, it was not until 1871 that Joseph Barker Stearns figured out a serviceable version that was almost identical to Slonimsky’s proposal, and his system was then further improved upon, and more importantly, commercialized, by Thomas Edison in 1874, paving the way for the modern telephone.
Remarkably, Slonimsky’s innovation would never have come to light had Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin not tried to use it as part of an anti-American propaganda campaign in 1952, when a pair of distinguished Russian scientists published a paper which essentially said, “Russia got there first!”
Slonimsky’s stellar reputation in the traditional Jewish world took a severe knocking in late 1891, when he published a short article in his newspaper, Hatsefira, which questioned the veracity of the celebrated miracle of Chanukah, namely the discovery of a cruse of uncontaminated oil for the Temple menorah which should only have lasted 24-hours, but which lasted a full eight days, the time period required to produce new oil.
Citing Maimonides’ omission of the particular words in the Talmud that convey this miracle (see: Hil. Chanukah 3:2), Slonimsky suggested that Maimonides was clearly of the opinion that the “miracle” of Chanukah was not in fact supernatural. Rather, the victorious Hasmoneans lit the Temple Menorah each night in front of the crowds celebrating their God-assisted triumphant victory, but once people had left, the priests extinguished the flames so that enough oil remained to light up the menorah each subsequent night until new oil was produced.
Slonimsky’s article set off a firestorm of protest among traditional rabbis, and countless articles and pamphlets were published to refute his thesis. Critics claimed Slonimsky was an irredeemable heretic and challenged him to recant.
But he was unintimidated and responded defiantly, refusing to retract even the smallest detail of his radical proposal. Ultimately the excitement died down, and Slonimsky went on to live to a ripe old age, dying in Warsaw at the age of 94.
Slonimsky’s detractors were certainly right about one thing – that his dismissal of this story would lead to a general ambivalence towards both the festival of Chanukah, and towards the authenticity of Talmudic legends. As recently as this past October, an article appeared in the Huffington Post under the headline ‘The Truth(s) About Hanukkah’, in which the (Jewish) writer trivializes every aspect of the festival, and particularly the miracle story.
Nevertheless, it is an unavoidable fact that the account of the miraculous oil was first recorded hundreds of years after the Hasmoneans stormed Temple Mount and reclaimed the sacred site for the Jews. If it happened immediately following the victory, why was it not included in the two contemporaneous accounts of the rebellion against the Greeks, Maccabees I and Maccabees II?
While both these books speak of the Temple having had to go through a ritual cleansing process, neither of them mentions anything about a single cruse of oil lasting eight times as long as it should have. Surely this emblematic miracle was worthy of at least a single reference?
As if this is not puzzling enough, one must also wonder why we choose to focus on what is such a minor miracle, notwithstanding its supernatural aspects, when the headline story is surely the astonishing victory of a ragtag bunch of rebels against a professional army of trained combatants? Why did the Talmud feel the need for another hook to hang this festival on, when the success of the Hasmoneans was itself so extraordinary?
Numerous scholars have grappled with these questions and come to different conclusions to the one Slonimsky suggested.
Rabbi Dr. David Berger, for example, notes that Maccabees I had no record of any miracles whatsoever, while Maccabees II is brimming with miracles far more impressive than the long-lasting oil. On that basis, the omission of the oil miracle in a book totally devoid of miracles is hardly surprising, while the absence of a minor miracle in a book containing numerous superlative miracles is similarly predictable.
Other scholars point out that the Bimei Matityahu prayer, which summarizes the Chanukah story and was composed far earlier than the account in the Talmud, focuses exclusively on the military victory and omits any mention of the oil having lasted longer.
My own thoughts on this matter are rather more prosaic. When the victory was still fresh in people’s minds, and bearing in mind that the victors were all highly devout, the miracle of the oil, while undoubtedly noteworthy, took second place to the incredible – and miraculous – success of the Hasmoneans against the Hellenists’ bid to destroy Judaism.
But after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, and the later brutal crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt, the sages of the Talmud sought to refocus the Chanukah festival onto what had previously been seen as a minor detail – namely, a miraculous demonstration of God’s personal imprimatur on what occurred.
The miracle of Chanukah was ingeniously revived by the sages of the Talmud to bolster a festival that might easily have evolved into a God-free event, no different to the frequent anniversary celebrations of ancient military victories prevalent at the time. But by celebrating the miracle of the oil we are assured that this festival remains religious, and we are compelled to acknowledge Divine involvement in what was essentially a military victory against the Greeks.
This important point appears to have eluded Slonimsky, but to me it stands out loud and clear.
Rabbi Dunner’s family can trace itself back over 1,000 years in Europe’s most prominent Jewish communities. He is descended from some of Judaism’s most illustrious rabbis, including the medieval rabbinic luminary “Rashi”, and the revered “Maharal” of Prague.
After studying in rabbinical seminaries in the U.K., U.S., and Israel, Rabbi Dunner began his rabbinic career in Russia, as the Assistant Rabbi at Moscow’s iconic Choral Synagogue. He later served as a rabbi in London, and in 1998 presided over the launch of the innovative Saatchi Synagogue for young Jewish professionals in London’s West End.
In 1987 Rabbi Dunner was introduced to the legendary Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994), an inspirational spiritual guru, and the father of modern Jewish religious music who was known as the “Singing Rabbi”. Rabbi Dunner developed a close friendship with Rabbi Carlebach, a relationship tragically ended by Rabbi Carlebach’s untimely death. Rabbi Carlebach’s final series of concerts took place in the UK in the days before he died, organized and promoted by Rabbi Dunner.
In the late 1990s Rabbi Dunner presented his own daily 2-hour radio show on London’s multiethnic station, Spectrum Radio. Tens of thousands of listeners – Jews and non-Jews alike – tuned in every day to hear Rabbi Dunner’s take on current events, accompanied by incisive interviews with senior British and Israeli politicians and a wide range of Jewish community activists and academics.
Since 2011, Rabbi Dunner and his wife Sabine, together with their six children, have lived in the U.S., where he is the Senior Rabbi of Beverly Hills Synagogue in California. Rabbi Dunner also serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), and on the board of the Israel Christian Nexus, an interfaith organization focusing on cross-communal advocacy and support for Israel.