16 Kislev 578

What do Jacob and Hanukkah have in common?

Listen to the Recorded Message: https://youtu.be/VZ8vuuYzbMw

In a couple of weeks, we will celebrate a special festival for our people, Hanukkah. This  is the Festival of Lights and this year we will light the seventh candle on Christmas day. There is a relationship between the 25th of Kislev and the 25th of December, which Christianity copied from us. There is also a very interesting relationship between this week’s parashah, Vayishlach and Hanukkah which shows both sides of the same coin – assimilation and destruction.

In this story, we see Jacob finally leaving Haran, literally sneaking away from his conniving father-in-law, Lavan, to return to the home of his parents. The name Yaakov  comes from the Hebrew, ekev, heel, connoting the idea of being crooked. Was Jacob an honest man, or was he a liar and deceiver? Jacob is the greatest example of what the Torah calls “midah keneged midah” – measure for measure. Whatever he did in the past, he would be confronted with over the next years of his life, living under the oppression of his father in- law. Jacob deceived his father and Esau and now his father-in-law would deceive him…measure for measure. The problem was not that he stole the birthright from Esau who sold it for a bowl of lentil soup. Esau wouldn’t have been upset about that; the fact is that he stole the “blessing” of the first-born inheritance given by his father.

Jacob was a meek man, an ish “tam” who allowed himself to be influenced by Rivka, his mother. He worried that his father would curse him if he discovered that he wasn’t Esau but Rivka said, “let the curse fall upon me”. We hear nothing about Rivka after this. She said that she would send Jacob word when it was safe to return home but it never came. Later we only hear about her maid, Deborah leaving us with the impression that Rivka had died shortly after Jacob left home.  Jacob was away from home for almost 22 years and later we will see that he would be separated from Joseph that same amount of time.  Here too we see “measure of measure”.  The Torah is a teaching tool, using stories from these families to teach us life lessons.

When Jacob heard that his brother was coming with 400 men, he was filled with fear. Jacob was not a warrior like Esau but he knew that he had to lay out a strategy before meeting him. He prepared to minimize his losses and alleviate his brother’s hatred toward him. Before even speaking to God about it, he divided his family and servants into two camps and prepared gifts for his brother hoping to placate him.

As he was preparing himself for his encounter with Esau, he went off alone and was having trouble sleeping knowing that he had to make things right with both his brother and his Creator. He either had a dream or a revelation in which he was wrestling with a man.  We can understand this deep struggle within himself. The man, who is said to be Esau’s guardian angel, Samael, injured Jacob after they wrestled most of the night but Jacob prevailed.  Here is where Jacob is given a new name – Israel but he, unlike his grandfather would keep both of his names during his entire life.

In the same way that Jacob had to make things right, we also are given this opportunity. It is called teshuva – the process of returning to God. The first step in true teshuva is to acknowledge and take responsibility for our actions. Passing the buck and blaming others never works. Whatever problem we have, starts within us. Adam blamed the Creator and Eve for his failure and Eve blamed the Creator and the snake. If they had acknowledged and asked for  forgiveness, where might we all be today?

The second step is to make restitution and reparation which is the most difficult part. Sometimes the damage done is impossible to repair but that first step is so important in the eyes of our Creator. He receives our “offering” and has a way of making things right for all concerned.

The Torah is teaching us that if we have failed in some way, we need to confront our failures and deal with them. Jacob finally acknowledged what he had done to his brother. How do we know?  Our sages say that by calculating the amount of animals given to Esau that he gave enough to cover the cost of his birthright. Then he bowed “seven” times before his brother. Our sages say that this was the opposite of God’s revelation to Rivka where “the older would bow to the younger.” When Jacob finally acknowledged that Esau was the number one, Esau kissed, hugged, and cried with Jacob.  Rivka’s revelation, however, will be fulfilled at the end of times.

Jacob never trusted Esau and refused any offer of going with him or sending his men with him.  He preferred to continue his journey with his family and servants on his own.  Instead of going directly to Shechem, Jacob turned north, built סֻכֹּת sukkot for his cattle from which that place was named.

I began my message with Hanukkah, because I want to talk about how it relates to what is happening today.  Hebrew is a language of picture with many facets. The name Israel contains the Hebrew word “Sar” (sarita) meaning “prince, lord, struggle, fight” – a state of tension.  It also has the understanding of Yashar – El  being straight with God. Jacob who until then had been crooked would now become straight. Another perspective is Ish-reh-El, “a man who sees God”, not physically but in his soul. The most important aspect is that he contended with a special man and prevailed. The Israelites would be constantly struggling with their God and it is a struggle within their souls.  The two aspects of our soul, “yetzer rah and yetzer tov”  have been translated as “bad and good inclinations”, but this is not necessarily true. Good can be bad and bad can be good. For example, excessive love for children can destroy them; a little greed can be positive if it motivates us to work hard for something. The word “struggle” in Hebrew is ma’abak מאבק  and the last letters, chabak חבק mean embrace or hug, both from the same root.

But aside from our traditions, what does Hanukkah truly represent for us? What happened at the time of the Maccabees? It was a struggle against assimilation where we would become like the other nations. This problem has followed us from generation to generation. From the moment Israel became Israel, there has always been within us the desire to be like the other nations. Our Creator’s greatest challenge was to keep Israel as Israel. If it was left only to Israel, we would be totally assimilated and lost. The greatest miracle that we have today is that Israel still exists, in spite of our own people.

In my opinion, to save us from total assimilation, the Creator allowed the Holocaust, without which we would not have the state of Israel today.  However, Israel is in terrible shape, not financially or technologically but spiritually. The religious people will have nothing to do with the secular and Israel is totally divided. They don’t know who their God is. The ultrareligious have totally changed Him from the times of the Torah. They believe more in the rabbis than in the Torah. There are consequences for such disobedience. Maybe we won’t see them immediately but they come later on like we see in the story of Rachel who stole her father’s idols; Yaakov said that whoever took them would die. And she did…consequences.

Esau represents the gentile world; the things of this world (Hollywood vs modesty).  Today we don’t know which of the two Israel represents. Israel has lost her moral compass which made her so special.   We prefer to speak of the technological advances, the democratic advances, the political, but we have lost the battle due to the moral turpitude. Today in Israel, they have removed all differences between male and female, erasing what the Creator made. He didn’t create Adam and Steve. We have lost the idea of right and wrong, as it is written in the Book of Judges, “every man did what was right in his own eyes”. (Judges 17:6)  Israel is again losing its identity.  Jacob knew that if he remained with Esau, all his people would eventually be assimilated into Esau’s culture, because he was freer and stronger and his whose values would be tempting to this new nation that was being formed.  In the same way, Israel would later need to live in Goshen in Egypt, separate from the culture of the Egyptians. A bad union sooner or later forces us to be like them where we lose our own identity.

The hugs and kisses of Esau could have drawn Jacob in to believing that all would be well but eventually he would have seen that it was the wrong thing to do. Let’s not be fooled into feeling accepted by those with bad values where we lower our defenses, and trust in the wrong people. Israel needs to question herself. What are our motives, what are we trying to accomplish.  Yaakov knew that Esau would take over and he would lose his leadership because he was a meek man. On the other hand, continual struggle and being constantly on guard, forces us to check into anything that might jeopardize our identity. Not everything that shines is gold. Be careful of the beautiful smile of a salesman, a politician, a religious person. They flatter to get what they want and destroy our defenses.

This is the story of Jacob and Esau at Hanukkah. Our forefathers fought assimilation.  At the time of the Greek gymnasium where they would exercise naked, since the body was worshipped, They would mock those who were circumcised.  At that time, reverse circumcision was invented by our people who chose to be like the others.  When Israel chose Shaul, it was because they wanted to be like the other nations.  The Creator told the prophet Samuel to let them be, because they were rejecting their God, not Samuel. That has been our constant struggle.

Today the problem comes, not from outside but from within. We can only destroy ourselves from within and sadly, one of the culprits is our own religious people. They have alienated the rest of the population with their religious rules and regulations. The Torah is the opposite. It gives us free will to exercise our responsibility. That is the true message of Hanukkah, the true dedication, when I finally become the person I was meant to be, when I acknowledge that I fail Him, and that I wanted to restart my life. My God is the God of beginning again.

Shabbat Shalom

Message by Ranebi on December 17 2016, 17 Kislev 5777

 פרשת וַיִּשְׁלַח, י”ז כסלו, תשע”ז