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Parashat Vayishlach 5784: Aliyah by Aliyah

First Reading: Missions

Sending Messengers

We start our meditations on this week’s parshah with the observation that there are three parshahs in the Torah whose name stems from the verb “to send” שלח: Vayishlach (וישלח), our parshah, Beshalach (בשלח), in the Book of Exodus, and Shelach (שלח) in the Book of Numbers. All three of these Torah portions begin with a mission. Though the simple meaning of the verb “to send” is to send away, in the Torah it is most often used in the context of sending someone as an emissary or as a messenger on some kind of mission.

Who is doing the sending in each of these parashot?

In Vayishlach it is Jacob who is sending messengers on a mission to placate his brother Esau. In Beshalach it is Pharaoh who sends the Jewish people out of Egypt. And, in Shelach it is Moses sending spies on a mission to the Land of Israel.

Messengers of Compassion

Now let us begin to interpret these three missions and the spiritual meaning behind them by first understanding why the first mission in the Torah is Jacob’s.

In Kabbalah, Jacob is considered the exemplar of the sefirah of beauty. Beauty (tiferet, in Hebrew) is the source of mercy and compassion in the psyche and, like Jacob himself, is likened to the crossbeam running through the central axis of the sefirot, connecting all the sefirot on the central axis, from crown at the top to kingdom on the bottom. Whenever we wish to awaken our own feelings of mercy, we need to connect vicariously with our patriarch Jacob. Then the spiritual mechanism of mercy begins to function.

Effective Compassion

To be effective, compassion must go through 3 stages, which correspond to Jacob, Pharaoh, and Moses. First, one’s sefirah of beauty must ascend to (i.e., connect with its source in) the supernal crown to arouse great mercy (a synonym for compassion) from the source of true mercy and true loving-kindness. The supernal crown symbolizes God’s mercy for all His creatures. In the Zohar, Pharaoh is associated with the supernal crown, given that he, like the crown, holds the infinite energy that can be released once the Israelites will be released from Egypt.

Once mercy has been aroused in the supernal crown, one must exercise one’s sefirah of knowledge, one’s consciousness to draw the mercy down until it reaches the sefirah of kingdom. The sefirah of knowledge is most often associated with Moses, who is conscious of the Divine nature of reality. The sages say that it is forbidden to feel mercy for anyone or anything that has no appreciation of the good. Therefore, exercising our own knowledge means awakening that receiver’s knowledge by helping him or her first appreciate the good.

From knowledge, the energy of compassion is ready to descend into the lower realsm of reality, all the way down to the sefirah of kingdom, which descends through the three lower Worlds of Creation, Formation, and Action. Now compassion can be passed on as bountiful abundance to the object of our compassion. In everyday life, the sefirah of kingdom in our psyche most often appears as the power of expression. Thus, in practice, this third stage corresponds to appointing our messenger with his or her mission.

It follows then that the first mission (as far as the names of the Torah portions goes) in the Torah—Jacob’s sending of emissaries to his brother Esau—is one of compassion and mercy. Following the sages’ dictum that “everything follows the lead of the first time,” this indicates that the motivation behind all the missions in the Torah is compassion and mercy to others. This also bears on us, teaching us to send people only on missions where it is clear to us that our motivation is one of mercy. Sometimes, a person has mixed reasons for sending someone to perform some action on their behalf. In such a case, he should strive to elevate his heart to see things from the perspective of the supernal crown, the source of all compassion and mercy, before appointing a messenger to carry out the mission.

The Moral of the Story

For all the compassion they contained, all three missions failed. Jacob’s messengers came back to him and reported that, “We came to your brother Esau, and furthermore, he is coming to meet you and four hundred men are with him.”[1] As a result: “Jacob was tremendously fearful and distressed.”[2] The same is true of Pharaoh sending the Israelites from Egypt; he could not hold back and decided to pursue them and bring them back. The spies sent by Moses did not perform their assigned duty and convinced the Israelites not to enter the land.

What is the moral of these stories then?

The sages tell us that normally, “It is more of a mitzvah to do something yourself than to send a messenger on your behalf.”[3] Or, in the colloquial: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

Indeed, we see that in the end Jacob himself placates his brother by bowing down seven times before him. God Himself takes the Israelites out of Egypt by drowning the Egyptians. Moses spends 38 years preparing to take the Israelites into the Land of Canaan himself.


(from Sha’ashu’im Yom Yom on Vayishlach)


Second Reading:

Darkness before light

Though we noted that the three missions in Vayishlach, Beshalach, and Shlach were failures, and that the conclusion is that some things should be done directly, not by messenger, this does not mean that these missions were a complete waste, and it would have been better if they would have never occurred. Instead, each of these missions, with its failed result, was a necessary stage in achieving the final goal.

This is like the way that the sages say we should view our own sins: “A person does not understand the intricacies of a halachah [a law] until he transgresses it.”[4] The Zohar goes even another step forward by stating that failure before success is the natural way in which the world was created, first darkness (“And the earth was dark…”) and then light (“And God said: ‘Let there be light!’”). In Kabbalistic language this is reflected in the antecedence of the World of Chaos (עולם התהו) to the World of Rectification (עולם התקון).

Let us now focus on each of the missions and see how the initial failure was necessary to bring about the final positive result.

Jacob’s Mission

Jacob sent messengers to placate his brother Esau. Though the messengers did not completely calm Esau, they certainly weakened his anger at Jacob (and certainly did not make him angrier than he was before they came). When Jacob finally did encounter Esau, Esau had already softened somewhat, making it easier for Jacob to part in peace with his brother.

In Kabbalistic terminology, Esau corresponds to the World of Chaos. The Arizal learnt about the existence of the World of Chaos and its shattering from a passage in our parshah.[5] This passage describes the early lineage of the Edomite kings, the descendants of Esau.

Thus, the two encounters with Esau (through his messengers and his personal meeting) correspond to the rectification of the two Worlds of Chaos described in the Arizal’s teachings. The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) identifies three main stages of emanation of sefirot from Adam Kadmon called Akudim, Nekudim, and Berudim.

The first lights that formed the World of Akudim were unstable but under control so they did not lead to the utter devastation of that world. The chaotic nature of the World of Akudim is considered stable chaos.[6] But the second emanation of lights that formed the World of Nekudim created an unstable state that shattered and broke the vessels of that world without any chance for control.

Thus, the messengers' meeting with Esau reflected the stable but not yet fully rectified state of the World of Akudim, stable chaos. After the messengers returned, Jacob sent various gifts before him so that Esau would receive them before meeting him and be further placated. As explained in Chassidut, these gifts represent the raising of feminine waters all the way to the World of Nekudim, the state of unstable chaos. Finally, when Jacob himself met Esau, he bowed down before him seven times, symbolizing the self-nullification and submission, which created the stable and rectified state of the World of Berudim, the World of Rectification.

Pharaoh’s Mission

Regarding the second mission that appears in parshat Beshalach, the sages remark that if the Jewish people would have remained even one additional moment in the spiritual defilement of Egypt, they would have fallen into the fiftieth gate of putrescence and God would have had nobody to take out of Egypt. Therefore, God had to act as Pharaoh to chase the Israelites out of Egypt without delay, even though they had not yet attained an inner freedom from Egypt that would have permitted them to become a people truly free of mundane limitations and therefore needing to subject their physical needs. This failure can be likened to a thin crack in God’s will to completely free and redeem the Jewish people, it is extremely minute, since the result will not be different, it will only take longer and require additional spiritual work on our part.

From a Kabbalistic perspective, this failure is hinted at in the small blemish that was created in the sefirah of crown of the World of Chaos. As is explained in length in the Arizal’s teachings,[7] the fall of the World of Chaos affected each of its sefirot differently. The seven lower sefirot (including knowledge, because victory and acknowledgment are considered one) fell and broke entirely, causing them what is likened to instant death. But the sefirot of understanding and wisdom were not affected as much—only their backside fell, which is why they are described as having become null (not died). The sefirah of crown was affected the least of all and only the backside of its sefirot of nehi (victory, acknowledgment, and foundation) fell, which is described as merely a blemish in the crown. This blemish was cleared with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and specifically when God said “I” (אנכי).

Moshe’s mission

Finally, we come to Moses’ mission. Moses’ motivation for sending spies was to, through them, instill his own (higher) consciousness of God into the entire Jewish people, but this did not happen. Moses’ sefirah of knowledge did not enter enough into the spies’ own consciousness and ultimately the failure of the mission caused us to this day to mourn on the Ninth day of Av. Nonetheless, Moses began the task of elevating the consciousness of the entire people to his own, a process that continues with what is known as the extension of Moshe in each generation and will culminate with the coming of Mashiach.

The extension of Moses in every generation since then refers to the different spiritual leaders that we have had throughout the generations, who have done everything in their power to teach us knowledge of God. Indeed, as the sages say, Moses himself will be the (soul of the) Mashiach. The Mashiach will succeed in perfectly uniting the sefirah of knowledge of Moses (higher knowledge) with the sefirah of knowledge of the rest of the Jewish people (lower knowledge). This unification is hinted to in the verse: “For God is a God of [two types of] knowledge, and his actions are not [read: are] weighed.”[8]

This failure is the one most clearly connected to the shattering of the World of Chaos as the complete death (i.e., shattering and falling of all the lights) of the seven lower sefirot began with the sefirah of knowledge. The Arizal learned this from the name of the first king of Edom (see above) who ruled and then died: Bela ben Be’or.[9] The name Bela is related to the name Balaam, the prophet who was brought by Balak to curse the Jewish people. The sages say that though there has never been another Jewish prophet equal to Moses, but that among the nations of the world, there was: Balaam. Thus, Balaam is considered Moses’ arch nemesis. Where Moses represents the rectified consciousness of higher knowledge, Balaam represents the most shattered and chaotic state of consciousness—the sefirah of knowledge in the World of Chaos. Again, it will be the Mashiach who will succeed in reuniting the rectified higher knowledge of Moses, with the already rectified consciousness of lower knowledge that all Jews possess.

(from Mivchar Shiurei Hitbonent vol. 15, pp. 79-84)



Fifth Reading: Reading: Shechem

“Jacob arrived safely in the city of Shechem…. He [Jacob] purchased the parcel of land upon which he had pitched his tent…”

In the 1980s, HaRav Ginsburgh was a Rosh Yeshivah in Me’ah She’arim. In the early 1990s, he was invited by a group of students who had set up a yeshivah in Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem to be their Rosh Yeshivah—Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai. At the start of the second Arab uprising in 2000, on October 7, the IDF abandoned Joseph’s Tomb and the Yeshivah was destroyed by the Arabs. Since then, Od Yosef Chai has been in the nearby village of Yitzhar.

Everyone is aware of Shabbat Hebron, which is marked annually on the Shabbat of parashat Chayei Sarah. On that Shabbat, many thousands of Jews come to spend the holy day in Hebron and this truly increases awareness of our connection to the sanctity of Hebron and to the Cave of the Machpelah, where the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried. The Shabbat of parashat Chayei Sarah was chosen because that is the Torah reading in which we read how Abraham purchased the Cave of the Machpelah. Some years back, those who live near Shechem (another of our holy cities) tried to mimic this and thought that on the Shabbat of parashat Vayishlach there should be a Shabbat Shechem. The choice of parashat Vayishlach was obviously because in it the Torah describes how Jacob purchased a plot of land in Shechem. But, as we all know, Shabbat Shechem never really caught on. Now, we would like to explain that the reason for this lack of success is because Shabbat Shechem should actually be celebrated on the Shabbat of parashat Lech Lecha!

From Yitzhar to Shechem

The first mention of Shechem in the Torah is in parashat Lech Lecha. The sixth verse of the parshah is: “And Abram passed through the land until the place of Shechem, until the plain of Moreh, and the Canaanites were then in the land”[10] (וַיַּעֲבֹר אַבְרָם בָּאָרֶץ עַד מְקוֹם שְׁכֶם עַד אֵלוֹן מוֹרֶה וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי אָז בָּאָרֶץ). The numerical value of the entire verse is 2368, or the product of 32 and 74. This is an example of self-reference, because 74 is the numerical value of the word “until” (עַד), a word that appears twice in the verse. Moreover, the two letters of the word "until" can also be read as "witness" (עֵד), and as the Torah tells us, “A testimony must be based on two witnesses.”[11] A repetition of the word "until" also alludes to the idiom "until and including" (עַד וְעַד בִּכְלָל), which in this context suggests that we cannot be satisfied with only being “until," i.e., near the city of Shechem (as we are here in Yitzhar), but we must continue to strive to return to the city itself.

Connecting Through Prayer

As Rashi explains, when Abraham reached Shechem, he connected fully with the land. He did this by praying for the success of his grandchildren, Shimon and Levi, who fought against the entire city of Shechem. Abraham’s prayer in Shechem is considered a more important act than Jacob purchasing the land in Shechem. First, because Abraham was the first Jew, and every action that he carried out in the Land of Israel (and in general) carries tremendous weight. But more importantly, this was the first place that he came to in the Land of Israel. From the way in which Abraham acted we learn that the way for us to connect and to become one with the Land of Israel involves praying in its various locations. This is universally true. Wherever a Jew is, if he wants to connect with the place, he has to pray in it.

Since Shechem is the first place where Abraham prayed in the Land of Israel, the first place that he existentially connected with, then Shechem symbolizes not only the entire Land of Israel but also the situation in the entire Land. The Torah ends the verse with the words “And the Canaanites were then in the Land.” Throughout the Land of Israel there is tremendous opposition to us as Jews. The “Canaanites,” as it were, are in the Land. But the value of these words, “And the Canaanites were then in the Land” (וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי אָז בָּאָרֶץ), is the same as “Shimon Levi” (שִׁמְעוֹן לֵוִי), indicating that through the courage of our people, through our true yearning for the coming of Mashiach, we will indeed in the end inherit the entire Land of Israel, just as Shimon and Levi inherited Shechem through their courage.

Action vs. Inaction

We truly want the Mashiach to come today, to come right now. For this to happen we must act, and as the sages say: “Action is better than failure to act.” Indeed, when there is uncertainty about what to do in each situation the sages tell us that “sitting passively and refraining from action is better than acting [without knowing exactly what to do].” But even in such circumstances, where the right thing to do is not clear, it is important that every individual strives to do something. Sometimes the problem is that we have been doing all the right things, but we have been doing them without the proper intent. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught us that every commandment should be performed on two levels, the practice of the commandments itself and its inner intent. Perhaps that is what is missing—adding a deeper inner motivation and meaning to our actions.

Additionally, it may be that some actions simply need to be repeated. The value of “the Holy Temple” (בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ) is 248 more than 613, indicating that we may have to perform the 248 commandments again and a second time to make them stick. Putting the two ideas together we may say that we need to repeat commandments again and again because the first time we simply did not have the proper intent, intent that ran deep enough to change reality permanently. Therefore, we must go about repeating the action again and again, until we get it right, until we are able to come to Shechem itself, to use the image from the verse, and not end up only near it.

Still, as of this moment, by Divine Providence, we are not in Shechem but nearby in the settlement of Yitzhar. The name Yitzhar (יִצְהָר) means "oil" (שֶׁמֶן). In the Zohar, oil is likened to the secrets of the secrets of the Torah.

Counting Verses

Let us go back to our verse[12] and find out what number verse it is in the Pentateuch. In parashat Bereishit there are 146 (the value of “world,” or עוֹלָם, a clear reference to Creation) verses. In Noach there are 133 verses. 133 is the value of Betzalel (בְּצַלְאֵל), the great sage and artisan who designed and constructed the desert Tabernacle. From this we learn that Bezalel inherited Noach’s technological skill to create new creations, just as God did in creating the world.

Our verse is the 6th verse in parshat Lech Lecha. So, altogether it is the 305th verse of the Torah. 305 is the exact value of Yitzhar (יִצְהָר). So, it is not by chance that the exiles from Shechem are now in Yitzhar. This means that in order to return to Shechem, we have to have Yitzhar, i.e., oil, the secrets of the secrets of the Torah. We suggest that from now on, every Shabbat Lech Lecha should be called not only Shabbat Shechem, but the Shabbat of the Land of Israel.

(From a class given on the 27th of Tevet, 5768)


Seventh Reading: Science in the Wilderness

“These are the sons of Tzivon: Ayah, and Anah. It was Anah who found mules in the wilderness, when he was tending the donkeys for his father Tzivon.”

Regarding Ahashverosh, the Bible states, “Achashverosh, he is Acheshverosh”[13] (אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ הוּא אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ), which according to one opinion comes to identify him as a certain Achashverosh, as opposed to someone else with the same name. In our reading we find a similar formula (though it translates a little differently into English): “Anah. It was Anah”[14] (וַעֲנָה הוּא עֲנָה), indicating that he too is he himself. We need to understand what this means.

Anah was a Horite, the people that were indigenous to Mt. Seir, where Esau and his family settled after Esau had left the Land of Canaan because of Jacob. The seventh reading begins with the identification of Anah’s family: “There are the sons of Seir the Horite… Lotan, Shoval, Tzivon, Anah.” Anah was the father of a woman named Ohalivamah, who eventually married Esau, thus he is Esau’s father-in-law. Apart from his family ties, Anah has another claim to fame.

The Torah tells us that Anah was the person who found the Yeimim (יֵּמִם), or mules, while shepherding donkeys for his father Tzivon. Normally, people shepherd sheep and goats and flocks are made up of these animals. But he was shepherding donkeys. Now, how could Tzivon both be his father and his brother? Rashi solves our question about why the Torah would say that Anah is Anah by stating that actually his brother Tzivon was also his father, because he committed incest with his mother and gave birth to Anah. Likewise, it gets more convoluted when we learn that Tzivon fathered Ohalivamah from Anah’s wife (who was also his daughter-in-law); thus, Anah was only her stepfather.

The question is now, why does the Torah tell us that Anah found the Yeimim or mules in the wilderness. The most common explanation is that here “to find” means “to discover” or “to invent.” Anah took a female horse and a donkey, bred them, and got a mule. The mules are called by this word because it resembles and sounds similar to the word for “fear-inspiring” (אימים). These creatures fear was cast upon all creatures. Anah is thus the person who first cross-bred these two species, creating the mule. It is not surprising that someone who himself was born from an incestuous relationship was the one who discovered how to breed mules, sterile creatures that are the product of a cross-species breeding.

Scientific Wisdom

The Ramban and others explain that Anah was a great student of nature. A great scientist is someone who finds an exception in nature, an exception to the known laws of nature, and then from this exception creates a whole new theory. This is for the most part how science has advanced in the past few generations. An anomaly is identified—a piece of data that stands out and does not fit the current understanding—and that anomaly is then used as the basis for a new theory that seeks to explain the anomaly together with other out of place data.

In fact, the Hebrew word for “mule” (פֶּרֶד) is phonetically similar to “particular” (פְּרָט), alluding to the anomalous, particular case, from which the new theory emerged. Why is the anomaly “fear-inspiring?” Because it threatens the well-established theory that already exists with obsoletion. What was the law that Anah worked with? The established rule stated that inter-breeding two species cannot be done, and even if somehow it could be done, the offspring would be sterile. In fact, this is the definition of species used today: if two animals are from two different species, they cannot be bred. But Anah found is an exception. If in science, which is an establishment, you find an exception to the rule, that is an affront to the establishment and a threat. This is especially true today in medicine where a lot of money is involved.

The Biblical Anah is thus the archetypal individual who threatens science by finding an exception to a law. What happened to the rule? It was passed on to the offspring and mules are indeed sterile—they cannot be bred with one another or with other species. The parents broke the rule, but then the rule was passed on to their offspring.


(from a class given on 19th Adar 5773)


[1]. Genesis 32:7.

[2]. Ibid. v. 8.

[3]. Kiddushin 41a.

[4]. Gittin 43a.

[5]. Genesis 36:31-39.

[6]. Mathematics and science today recognize two different types of chaos, stable and unstable. See James Gleick’s wonderful description in Chaos.

[7]. See Etz Chayim 8:6 and 9:2.

[8]. 1 Samuel 2:3.

[9]. Genesis 36:32.

[10]. Ibid. 12:6.

[11]. Deuteronomy 19:15.

[12]. “And Abram passed through the land, until the place of Shechem, until the plain of Moreh, and the Canaanites were then in the land.”

[13]. Esther 1:1.

[14]. Genesis 36:24.

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