17 Nov PARSHAS VAYISHLACH: A COUNTER-INTUITIVE READING OF A DIFFICULT PASUK
The Torah describes Yaakov’s positioning of his family in preparation for the meeting with Eisav: “He put the handmaids and their children first, and Leah and her children later, and Rochel and Yosef last” [Bereishis 33:2]. Although obviously there had to be some kind of arrangement, seeing the Torah explicitly spell out this sequence seems problematic. It is as if Yaakov considers Bilhah and Zilpah and their sons to be expendable – putting them on the “front lines of battle” with Eisav so to speak. L’havdil, it seems as if they were treated like cannon fodder – the first line infantry who are chewed up by the enemy’s attack.
In a similar vein, Leah and her children are also treated as second class family members. Leah was never Yaakov’s favorite wife and now her branch of the family are similarly positioned in a more vulnerable position than that of Yaakov’s favorite wife (Rochel) and son (Yosef).
How are we to read this pasuk so it doesn’t seem like the cynical calculation of an army general putting his privates in the front row to face enemy fire?
Rav Schach offered a novel interpretation which he felt was “amita shel Torah” – the absolutely true interpretation of this Torah pasuk. Rav Schach said, Heaven forbid that the strategy of placement should show cynical callousness toward the handmaids and their sons. Just the opposite was the case.
As we learn in next week’s Parsha, Yosef brought evil tidings about his brothers to his father. Rashi explains that he told them that Leah’s children were bullying and abusing the sons from the handmaidens (Gad, Asher, Dan, Naftali). We have to put this in the proper perspective, but the fact is that the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah suffered emotionally and psychologically from the teasing of their half-brothers. When a person suffers pain (yisurin) that itself achieves atonement, wiping out the debit so to speak of the debt this person owes in Heaven. By virtue of this fact, the sons of the handmaids had the greatest merit in the family. Since they had to suffer anguish at the hands of their brothers, Heaven looked most favorably on these down-trodden individuals. It was for this reason that they earned the first place in the welcoming party. The people with the most merit always lead the Jewish people into battle.
After that, it was Leah and her sons because Leah also suffered. She suffered greatly by the fact that she felt Yaakov did not love her. Her sons also sensed that tension in the family and they too suffered. Again, it was this suffering that earned them the “second spot in the line-up” to meet Eisav.
Ironically and counter-intuitively from the way we would read the pasuk, Rochel and Yosef precisely because they were so beloved and the apple of the eye of Yaakov Avinu, had no special claim to the cleansing affect of psychological suffering and therefore they had to be at the end of the line of the welcoming party.
Rabbi Schach felt this was the true interpretation of this pasuk.
We know that it is very difficult when people suffer misfortune. But people should keep this idea in mind — a person who has suffered qualifies to receive more merit than one who has not suffered. Suffering removes “debits,” leaving people who have suffered have the cleanest of slates. This should be a consolation to any of us who have suffered difficulties during the course of our lives.
Succoth: What Kind Of A Name Is That For A Nice Jewish City?
Later in the parsha, the pasuk says, “Then Yaakov journeyed to Succoth and built himself a house and for his livestock he made huts (Succoth); therefore he called the name of the place Succoth” [Bereishis 33:17] There is something glaringly difficult about this pasuk. Yaakov calls the name of the city Succoth (huts) for all eternity because he made huts for his livestock there. This is not the way things work in the Torah. Names always have great significance. What is the significance of the name Succoth?
We have mentioned in previous years that the Chida writes (a similar idea is expressed by the Ohr HaChaim haKodosh) that up until this point in time no one cared about their animals. Animals were left outside in the cold, in the heat, in whatever the climate would bring. Yaakov Avinu was aware of the concept of animal pain (tzar baalei chayim) and did not want his animals to suffer. He was the first human being to create covered huts for his animals and he eternalized the city by the name “Succoth” to take note of that revolutionary action.
[Of course mankind has carried this idea ad absurdum and from the first person to build huts for his cattle we now have “Save the whales” and “Save the elephants” and save some little bug in Oregon. Such is the way of society.]
I would like to offer a different approach to the question of why Yaakov called the city Succoth. The question is strengthened by a comment of the Tur [Orach Chaim 417]: The Tur writes that each of the 3 Pilgrimage Festivals was enacted to correspond to one of the 3 Patriarchs. Pessach corresponds with Avraham, who told Sara to knead dough and make Matzo [Bereishis 18:6] (the reason being that it was Pesach when the Angels arrived). Shavuos corresponds with Yitzchak, for the Shofar blown on Mt. Sinai represents the Shofar of the ram sacrificed in place of Yitzchak. Succoth corresponds with Yaakov, as it says, “He made Succoth for his livestock.”
Here again, we are left to wonder: How can the huts Yaakov made for his cattle equate with the Matzo Avrohom made for his guests and the Shofar of the ram of Yitzchak in terms of religious symbolism and significance? The former two are seminal events in Jewish history. There is obviously something very profound in the expression “and for his livestock he made huts”, but what is it?
Rav Simcha Zissel makes an observation based on a unique reading of the above-cited pasuk by the Targum Yonasan ben Uziel. The Targum does not translates the words “vayiven lo bayis” as commonly translated “And built himself a house”. Rather, the Targum translates those words to mean “and he built himself a house of study (Beis Medrash)”. Although Yaakov himself lived in a tent and his cattle lived in huts, he saw to it that a Yeshiva was constructed in the locale as the one and only permanent structure.
Why then was the city called “Succoth” instead of “Yeshiva”? The reason is that Yaakov wanted to convey an important point: Everything in this world is temporary. We are living in temporary dwellings and our cattle are living in temporary dwellings. If everything is so temporary and in 18 months you will be leaving Succoth to the Land of Israel, why not just pitch a tent for your Yeshiva as well? The answer is that regardless of how temporary everything else in life is, there is one thing we need to establish firmly and make permanent – even if it is only for a year or two. What is that? It is the Yeshiva.
Yaakov Avinu wanted to convey that everything lacks permanence. They were living in tents, the animals were living in huts, and they were living out of suitcases, almost on the run. Yaakov wanted to record that idea for all of history and thereby named the place “Succoth” to memorialize the concept of the temporary dwelling. Within all this transience however, one thing was lasting: Vayiven lo Bayis. He built a permanent House of Torah study. If there is going to be any kind of future existence to one’s family and one’s community, no matter how transient everything else is, a Yeshiva must be built as a permanent and distinguished institution. Only by first accomplishing this can one hope to eventually move on to Eretz Yisrael and have success raising his family in the ways of Hashem.