Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Parsha Vayishlach – Esav’s Adaptable Angel

Bereishis, 32:30: “Then Yaakov asked, and he said, ‘please tell me your name’.  And he said, ‘Why then do you inquire of my name’? And he blessed him there.”

Rashi, 32:30, Dh: “We do not have a fixed name, our names change according to the current mission that we are sent on.”

After Yaakov was successful in his seminal battle with the Malach, the Malach asked Yaakov his name, and when Yaakov answered, the angel told him that his name would now be known as Yisrael. Yaakov then asked the Malach for his name, but the Malach refused to answer, and instead asked, why Yaakov was asking him his name. Rashi explains that the Malach was saying that Malachim have no set name, rather their names are dependent upon the current mission that they have been sent on.  There are two basic questions on this episode. Firstly, why was Yaakov asking the Malach for his name?  Secondly, we do in fact know the name of this Malach: Chazal tell us that Hewas the Guardian Angel of Esav, which is also known as the Satan and which represents the yetser hara.  If so, why, according to Rashi, did he say that his name changes according to his mission?

When Yaakov asked the Malach for his name, he wasn’t simply trying to ascertain a way to identify the Malach.  Rather, we know that that the name of something defines it’s essence.  When Yaakov asked the Malach his name, he was asking what was his essence?  In this way, he was hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the Satan and the challenges it would pose to his descendants.  When the Malach replied by telling him that it does not help to know his essence, because there is no one aspect of the yetser hara that he would have to conquer.  Rather, he was saying that his essence is that he adapts to the times and circumstances to pose the exact spiritual challenge that the Jewish people as a whole, and each Jew as an individual, will face throughout the generations[1].  Sometimes he would come in the form of false ideologies such as Hellenism or Communism, at other times, he will come in the form of challenges such as technological advances.

On a more individual level, the Gemara in Chullin[2] alludes to two different ways that the yetser hara works.  The Gemara brings a Machlokes as to the appearance of the Malach.  One opinion holds that he appeared to Yaakov like an idol worshipper, and the other holds that he appeared in the guise of a Talmid Chacham.  Rav Yissachar Frand, shlit’a explains that the yetser hara can be both; there is no one definition and no one battle plan.  Yet it needs to be understood on a deeper level, what these two manifestations represent.  The idol worshipper aspect of the yetser hara is not too difficult to comprehend.  He encourages us to weaken in our avodas HaShem by preventing us from doing Mitzvos, but what does the Talmid chacham aspect of the yetser hara do? 

Rav Frand answers based on the tefillah we say in Maariv: “May you remove the Satan from before us and from behind us”. “Before us” refers to how the Satan stands in front of us to block us from doing Mitzvos.  “Behind us” refers to how, on occasion, the Satan deems it necessary to stand behind us and actually pushes us to do Mitzvos.  What does that mean? It means that there are times when a person undergoes a significant, positive transformation and takes on new aspects of Torah observance. This is obviously a great thing, and the yetser hara is unable to prevent him from progressing, but it does not just stand idly by and let the person continue unimpeded.  Rather, it tries to make the person change too fast or take on too much in one go, instead of following the sensible approach of piecemeal growth.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for baalei teshuva to face the yetser hara of moving too fast and then at some point, feeling overburdened by their new commitments.

The yetser hara makes a particular effort to prevent a Jew from Torah learning as that is the basis of our whole avodas HaShem.  For some, it suffices to distract them in various ways, but it can also utilize the aspect of being “behind us” by pushing a person to overexert themselves in their learning to the extent that they burn out or become ill from not getting enough rest.  There were Gedolim who, at a young age, experienced this phenomenon to the extent that they needed a significant period of recuperation where they could not learn on the same level.  After this experience, they exhort their students to be careful to not push themselves too far[3].

We have learnt that there is no single approach of the yetser hara, rather it adapts to the times and circumstances, and according to each individual.  It is incumbent on each person to zero in on the particular areas where his yetser hara is strongest.

[1] The basis of this answer was heard from Rav Yissachar Frand shlit’a, in the name of Rav Chaim Dov Heller, shlit’a.

[2] Chullin, 91a.

[3] Needless to say, that the more relevant aspect of the yetser hara with regard to learning, is to reduce our learning, not to make us do too much.

Rabbi Yehonsan Gefen – Parsha Toldos – YAAKOV, RIVKA AND DECEIPT

One of the most perplexing episodes in the whole Torah is that of how Yaakov tricked his father, Yitzchak in order to receive the blessing meant for Esav.  There are numerous, famous questions on this story, but one question that is less commonly asked is why, in fact Yaakov needed this blessing.  The Chikrei Lev[1]notes that the blessing that was due to Esav was totally physical in nature, with promises of material abundance.  This would seem to have suited Esav’s temperament as he was engulfed in the material world.  In contrast, Yaakov was an ‘Ish tam, yoshev ohalim’ – a pure man who learned Torah.  Why would he need such a gashmius blessing when all he craved was spirituality?  In addition, it is evident that Yitzchak always planned to bless Yaakov with the blessing that he did indeed give him right at the end of the Parsha, which is far more spiritual in nature, and is a continuation of HaShem’s blessing to Avraham.  Accordingly, why was it so important for Yaakov to receive Esav’s blessings of gashmius?  Another strong question on this episode is why did HaShem arrange the course of events that the protagonists in the story had to act with so much ramaus (deceit)?

The Chikrei Lev explains Yitzchak’s intention in blessing Esav – Yitzchak surely realized that Yaakov was on a higher spiritual level than Esav, but he believed that Esav’s role was to physically provide for Yaakov so that Yaakov could focus on spiritual pursuits.  This indeed was the nature of the highly successful relationship between Yaakov’s sons, Yissachar and Zevulun – Zevulun provided for Yissachar’s physical needs so that Yissachar could focus on his spiritual growth.  Therefore, Yitzchak believed that Esav was most fitting to receive the blessings that were completely focused on material abundance, not spiritual blessing.  Yitzchak’s error was that he believed that Esav could become a righteous person through elevating the physical world in order to provide for Yaakov.  However, in truth, Esav had become so engrossed in the material world, that he had no connection to spirituality, rather he was immersed in all kinds of immoral behavior.[2]  The Chikrei Lev emphasizes that Yitzchak always planned on giving Yaakov the blessing that pertains to spirituality because he felt that Yaakov’s role was in the purely spiritual realm.  However, Rivka recognized that now that Esav wasn’t fitting to fill the physical role that was required, Yaakov had to assume that role as well and he needed the blessing that accompanied it in order to give him the ability to succeed in this role.

Had Yaakov directly asked Yitzchak for a blessing, his father would only have given him the spiritual blessing, but not the one that he designated for Esav.   Because of that, Rivka realized that it was necessary for Yaakov to act in a derech ramaus (trickery) and dress as Esav so that he would merit to get the blessing of gashmius as well.  The question remains as to why did HaShem arrange events that the blessing would come about through ramaus, as this would seem that this lessens the value of the blessings?

The two people in this episode who had to act deceitfully were Rivka and Yaakov – Rivka instructed Yaakov to mislead his father, and Yaakov carried out the deceit.  It seems that there are different reasons why Hashgacha determined that each one was forced to act in this way.  With regard to Yaakov, the commentaries note that his outstanding natural Midda was that of Emes – truth – and yet, in this episode, and in other times of his life[3], he was forced to act in a way that was ostensibly contrary to Emes.  This was not a co-incidence.  Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky explains that all the Avos faced extremely difficult tests and that these challenges were particularly in areas that challenged their natural inclinations.  Rav Kamenetsky notes that even though a person excels in his Avodas HaShem through his own natural trait, there is still the possibility that he is not purely acting from a desire to perform HaShem’s will, rather that he is simply acting according to his nature.  In order to test him to ascertain the intentions behind his actions, it is necessary to place him in situations where he is required to act against his natural inclinations.  If he still succeeds in doing HaShem’s will it demonstrates that he was acting purely for the sake of HaShem.  Thus, all the Avos had to succeed in overcoming great nisyonos that contradicted their nature.[4]

With regard to Yaakov Avinu, he was placed into a situation where he was convinced that it was G-d’s will that he should deceive his own father in a matter of grave significance.  Rav Kamenetsky describes this challenge as Yaakov’s own ‘Akeidah’ showing that this test for Yaakov was comparable in difficulty and significance to that of Avraham.[5]

It seems that the nature of Rivka’s test was different.  She in fact had grown up in a home and society that was steeped in dishonesty.  In this vein, the Midrash states:  “…It says, ‘and Yitzchak was forty years of age when he took Rivka, daughter of Besuel the Arami, Padan Aram; the sister of Lavan the Arami.”  [This comes to teach that] her father was a ramai (trickster)her brother was a ramai, and the people of her place were ramaim – and this righteous woman emerged from among them…”[6]

Rivka was very well-versed in ramaus and her greatness was that she was unaffected by all the deceitful people around her, and became a Tzaddekes in all areas.  Yet, the Chikrei Lev notes, the fact that she was so familiar with dishonesty, enabled her, firstly to recognize the dishonest nature of Esav and secondly, to be unafraid to act deceitfully when necessary.  However, it appears that her test in this area was to take the midda that she had seen misused by so many people, and use it in the right way with pure motives.  She succeeded in this test, with tremendous positive consequences.

We have seen how an essential aspect of the process of the creation of the Jewish nation was the rectification of normally negative character traits, to be used for the right reasons.  This reminds us that all Middos, whether ostensibly ‘good’ traits’ or what we generally characterize as ‘bad’ character traits, must be directed to Avodas HaShem.  That motivation alone is what determines the righteousness or otherwise of how we apply our natural traits.

[1] Maamar 23.

[2] See Darash Moshe, ibid for a similar explanation.

[3] Such as his dealings with Lavan.

[4] Avraham had to act against his natural trait of Chessed in a number of his tests, in particular the Akeidah.  Yitzchak’s test is a little less obvious, but Rav Dessler writes that it was to overcome his natural internal focus and fear of sin, and come out into the world to teach them about HaShem.  (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Chelek 2, pp.`162-163).

[5] Emes LeYaakov, Bereishis, 27:12.

[6] Shir HaShirim Rabbah, 2:5.