Saturday, Apr 20, 2024

That Is Who We Are

The sagas and encounters of Sefer Bereishis, the ma’asei avos that serve as perpetual guideposts to us, continue in this parsha as we are introduced to two new figures, Yaakov and Eisov, whose struggle endures and will continue until the End of Days.

Their differences were apparent even prior to their birth. One sought to escape to a life of the bais medrash and the other wanted to busy himself with avodah zora. Yaakov was a tzaddik tomim, while his twin brother, Eisov, was quite obviously wicked, yet able to couch his behavior and at times present himself as an upright person.

Yaakov was distinguished most of all by his form of speech. He spoke with respect, humility and empathy, as had his father, Yitzchok, and grandfather, Avrohom. Eisov had no use for anything holy, and glibly sold his bechorah to Yaakov for the symbolic price of some lentil soup. He lived a purely heathen life, though he conducted himself virtuously around his father.

After selling the precious bechorah, the posuk tells us that Eisov did not regret what he had done. Erasing any thought that he sold his inheritance under duress, as an act of desperation, the Torah informs us, “Vayivez Eisov es habechorah.” He mocked what had been bequeathed to him. He laughed off what he had done and said, “Who needs it? The whole thing is worthless.”

Baalei mussar say that this is the standard reaction of people whose silly actions cause them to lose. When a child loses a game, he invariably says, “I don’t care that I lost. It was a dumb game and I never even tried.” A sophisticated, mature person can mourn a loss, appreciating what could have been, and is able to admit to himself that he missed an opportunity. Eisov lacked the capacity for serious introspection. As soon as he began pondering what he had done, he mocked the whole thing, quieting the soft voice of sincerity before it could rise to the level of seriousness to be able to convince him that he was off kilter.

The parsha tells us that while it appears that Yitzchok appreciated Eisov, the difference in speech and manner between his two sons was obvious to him. When Yaakov came forth to receive the brachos of “Veyiten lecha,” Yitzchok was confused, for although Yaakov was wearing the coat of Eisov, he sounded like Yaakov. “Hakol kol Yaakov.”

Eisov later cried to his father, begging for a brocha, as he plotted his brother’s murder. The words meant nothing. Yitzchok discerned something in Yaakov’s voice, a sincerity and heart that marked him as different.

Words are everything to a Jew. Our manner of speech defines us. How we speak, the words we choose, and our tone of voice all matter. We are to be refined, disciplined and respectful. We respect people whose words are soft and thoughtful, not brash and irreverent. We respect and promote men and women of truth, whose fidelity to honesty and tradition grounds them. We mock the loud bullies, those with the quick put-down and glib tongues. Negativity and cynicism may sound cute and bring popularity to the one who uses his intelligence to laugh at people, but the one worthy of our respect is he who labors, speaks from the heart, and seeks to find and do good. His life is one of accomplishment. It is him and people like him who embody the ideals of Am Yisroel.

Listen to the voice of Eisov. The number-two official in the US Justice Department, who has blocked any remedy to the situation of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, spoke last week to the New York Times about the changes that the Trump administration will supposedly bring to the Justice Department under the stewardship of Jeff Sessions.

“You don’t just try to hammer everybody for as long as you can because you can,” the deputy attorney general said. “Your obligation as a prosecutor is to look at the individual’s conduct.

“We want sentences that are just and proportional. That means we should sentence people in ways that will be fair, that will punish people for their crimes and that will serve as a deterrent. But we shouldn’t keep people in prison longer than is necessary.”

This, from a person who has no problem keeping Sholom Mordechai in jail for 27 years. Yes, it is time to drain the swamp and bring change, honesty and fairness to government and to justice.

Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky advised voting for a certain candidate in the recent presidential election. He explained that his opponent is a person who typifies dishonesty. She speaks words of compassion, justice and law, but she uses their power to further her own agendas and lull the populace into accepting the abrogation of trust.

We are in the exile of Eisov and must make sure that we do not adopt his perfidious and disrespectful nature.

In this week’s haftorah, the novi Malachi repeats to the Jewish people Hashem’s words, “I love Yaakov and Eisov I hate…” As for the kohanim, “Amar Hashem Tzevakos lochem hakohanim bozei shemi,” they failed to demonstrate proper respect to Hashem and the Mikdosh (Malachi 1:2-6).

Underpinning the reprimand, and perhaps the connection to this week’s parsha, is the fact that the kohanim earned their role and mission as a result of Yaakov’s purchase of the bechorah. The bechorim did not act properly, and the kohanim were chosen to replace them as attendants to Hashem.

The original sale of the bechorah was rooted in the fundamental difference between the brothers. Yaakov was a man of respect, while Eisov epitomized ridicule and scorn. As the posuk says of Eisov, “Vayivez Eisov.” His personality was one of derision. Thus, if the kohanim had digressed to the level that they became “bozei Hashem,” embodying Eisov’s characteristic of the middah of bizayon, they were demonstrating that they were no longer worthy of inheriting the gift bequeathed by Yaakov to serve Hashem in the Bais Hamikdosh.

I was at a wedding in Brooklyn last week. After enjoying the simcha, I returned to my car, put the key in the ignition, and tried to pull out of my parking spot into the street so that I could begin my journey home, but the street was jammed with cars and the traffic wasn’t moving.

After wondering how Brooklyn residents deal with this all the time, I patiently waited for a space to open, allowing me to enter the road. There was no way. Then I saw an opening and attempted to direct my car into it. At the same time, an oncoming car moved forward and blocked me from getting into the road. I was upset at the lack of consideration and did something I had never previously done. I got out of my car, walked over to the gentleman, and motioned for him to open his car window. He looked at me curiously. “What?”

“My friend,” I said, “surely you’ve been learning the parshiyos. You know that we’re ainiklach of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. You know that their lives were one uninterrupted chapter of chesed, kindness and giving. When you were maavir sedra these past few weeks and read of the chesed of Avrohom, did that message impact you in any way?

“We are Avrohom’s ainiklach. We look to help each other. We think about each other. We treat other people the way we want to be treated. Even when we drive.”

The features of the driver softened. He shrugged and said, “You know something? I never thought of it that way.”

With a smile on his face, he pulled back a few inches and let me get in the line to get off that block.

Now, this is not a story about me and that driver. It is a tale about us and what we are made of. Moments earlier, he had been aggressive and combative, and for no real reason. It was just habit. He didn’t even think about it. That was just the way he drove, or maybe he was stressed or thinking about something else.

Like a tiny spark can ignite a flame, the smallest reminder is enough to bring back the glory within us. We are identified by three traits. We are rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, people of mercy, bashfulness and kindness. We are invested with sensitivity and compassion, and the words we use, our tone of voice, and our approach have the ability to awaken those traits.

Good parents, friends, mechanchim and communicators appreciate words and the difference between a soft, gentle tone and an angry one.

The secret of using words well is believing in the intrinsic holiness of the people you are speaking to. As the wisest of men wrote, ma’aneh rach, soft words, have the potential to be meishiv cheima, turn away anger, because they open the heart of the antagonist and allow the message to enter.

People of sensitivity see this. Eisov doesn’t see past the surface. He sees a red soup and refers to it by its color, saying to Yaakov, “Haliteini na min ha’adom ha’adom hazeh… Al kein kara es shemo Edom” (Bereishis 25:30). Eisov and his offspring are referred to as “Edom,” because he referred to the lentil soup as “edom.” By calling the soup by its color, he exposed his own superficiality. He was attracted by the color, not the taste or nourishing properties of the food. Edom, as a nation, also fails to perceive beyond what it can touch and feel. Hence the fascination in our world with looks, color and presentation. There is no depth that’s meaningful to them beyond the surface image.

Decades ago, some Sephardic families wanted to open a minyan in Deal, New Jersey. They had a problem. Many of the people they would include in their weekly minyan were not Shabbos observers. With them, there was a minyan. Without them, there wasn’t a minyan. Should they proceed or should they delay their plans?

Rav Shlomo Diamond turned to his brother-in-law, Rav Yosef Rosenblum, for guidance. Rav Rosenblum asked him what would happen if any of those people happened to be smoking on Shabbos and they would see Chacham Ovadia Yosef approaching. Would they conceal the cigarette?

When Rav Diamond told him that they would, he said that this demonstrated that the people possessed basic yiras Shomayim and reverence for Torah. They were simply lacking in knowledge, but the potential was there. “Start the minyan and they will learn!” he said.

Those very people became the cornerstone of a glorious community, fathers and grandfathers of serious bnei Torah and shomer Shabbos families.

The Jew is alive in their hearts. Their soul is dormant, but not gone. With soft words, patience, love and belief in each person, they roar to life. The kol Yaakov is our most powerful force.

The Chofetz Chaim kept pictures in his home that he would look at from time to time. One of them was a picture of a tall man in a threadbare caftan. The man was neither a talmid chochom nor a rov, but a tobacco grinder. He was known as Reb Shimon Kaftan because of the tattered cloak he wore. After losing his wife and children in a plague, he arrived in Vilna. After doing just enough work to sustain himself, he would spend most of the remaining hours of the day going around with a pushka, softly enjoining people to put in their coins, which Reb Shimon used to feed hungry families and support yeshiva bochurim and Torah scholars.

As he walked about, he hummed a little tune, which went something like this: “Someone who gives a penny here, receives Olam Haba there.” It was a simple tune, but the Chofetz Chaim, the rabbon shel Yisroel, would tell the story of Shimon and sing his song. The gaon and tzaddik of Radin perceived the latent holiness in a Yiddish ditty, because words and authentic Yiddishe emotions matter, and the little song caused Jews to open their hearts. It was the timeless kol Yaakov and the Chofetz Chaim would sing it as if it were a sacred piyut.

As we carry the traditions of Yaakov and follow his teachings, it is incumbent upon us to behave accordingly.

Rav Yaakov Edelstein is one of the leading gedolim of Eretz Yisroel. Over the age of ninety, he underwent throat surgery last year, leaving him without the ability to speak. He communicates by writing messages on a pad.

Recently, his doctor told him that there is a possibility that through undergoing strenuous exercise and therapy for several months, he might be able to say two words. After describing the difficult process, the doctor asked if he would be interested in going through with it.

“Kevod harav, which two words do you want to start working on?” the doctor asked.

Rav Edelstein responded, “Amein and todah.”

For that is the essence of a Jew. Those two words sum it up. Amein and todah. Two words that encapsulate the kol Yaakov.

The way a person speaks is reflective of his personality. A person who speaks softly is humble, just as one who speaks respectfully is refined and moral.

As children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, we are all shluchim to continue their holy work. We are to care about each other, and speak with love and soft words people can understand and accept. We speak neither with a forked tongue nor with animosity, hate or sanctimonious judgmentalism. We are neither flippant nor glib. We are and remain positive and hopeful, treating all people the way we want to be treated, no matter the occasion of our interaction.

Hakol kol Yaakov. That’s us.

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