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    One day the zookeeper noticed that the orangutan was reading two books, the Bible and Darwin’s Origin of Species.

    Surprised, he asked the ape, “Why are you reading both those books?”

    “Well,” said the orangutan, “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper, or my keeper’s brother.”


    Sometimes, the contrast is too conspicuous to ignore. In both stories, the Torah employs the same term: “Ish,” which means, a man. (The term is already used in Bereishis, to describe the first man, Adam.) In two consecutive portions, Vayishlach and Vayeishev, the same term is used. Yet Rashi, based on the tradition of our sages, changes his commentary from one extreme to the other.

    In the portion of Vayishlach, we find the term “ish,” a man.

    And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

    Rashi explains that this “man” was the spiritual angel of Esau. In other words, this battle in the middle of the night between Jacob and this mysterious “man,” was part of the ongoing struggle between Jacob and his brother Esau.

    Yet, in Vayeishev, we have the same exact term used. But there everything changes.

    Joseph was sent by his father Jacob, to go visit his brothers and seek their welfare. Despite his brothers loathing him, Joseph embarked on the journey and he got lost on the way. The Torah tells us:

    Then a man found him, and behold, he was straying in the field, and the man asked him, “What are you looking for?”

    And he said, “I am looking for my brothers. Tell me now, where are they pasturing?”

    Who was this mysterious man, “ish,” who encountered Joseph at that vulnerable moment?

    Rashi says it was angel Gabriel, who we see is defined elsewhere in Scriptures as Ish.

    Strange. In Vayishlach it says that Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him. In Vayeishev, Joseph is alone, lost in the field, and, again, a man encounters him and asks him what he is searching for. The same exact word is used in both cases to describe this person: Ish. Yet in Vayeishev, Rashi sees him as the angel Gabriel, and in Vayishlach as Esau’s angel?


    The Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), shared the following explanation in the name of Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, the Divrei Chaim of Tzanz (1793-1876).

    Context is always the key. The word may be the same, “ish,” but the question is what does this “ish,” this man, do?

    In both stories, there is a person who is vulnerable. In Vayishlach, “Jacob remains alone,” in the middle of the night. He has been away from home for 34 years, and has been dealing with a world-class crook. In Vayeishev, Joseph, a young 17-year old lad, is also lost and vulnerable. He has left his father, he was an orphan from his mother, and how he was on the way to brothers who despised him. He does not know it, but this journey would take him to slavery, prison, and complete alienation from his family.

    In both stories, two people are deeply vulnerable. Father and son. Jacob and Joseph. Both of them meet a stranger. A man who appears out of the blue.

    The question is what does this “ish,” this man, do?

    Here is the difference. In Jacob’s case, the man sees a lonely man in the middle of the night and pounces on him. There is lonely Jacob in the middle of the night? Let me attack him.

    What about in the second story? Here too Joseph is alone. And a man encounters him. But what does the man say and do?

    “Then a man found him, and behold, he was straying in the field, and the man asked him, saying, “What are you looking for?”

    Do you see the difference? He does not pounce on Joseph. He does not exploit his vulnerability, manipulate his moment of weakness toward his own goals. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity to help. He asks the young lad: What are you looking for? You are a dreamer. I see you are searching for something. What is it that you seek? How can I help you?

    And Joseph tells him: “I am searching for my brothers!”

    I want a relationship. I am searching for love. For belonging. For understanding. For comradery. For attachment.

    So Rashi is simply mirroring the context of the narrative. When a man, encountering a vulnerable person, seizes the opportunity to attack him, that man, Rashi says, is an angel of Esau. But when a man, encountering a vulnerable person, seizes the opportunity to offer a loving hand, a guiding heart, to see how he can be here for you in your search for love and family, this person, Rashi says, must be the angel Gabriel!


    We all encounter a person, a child, a teen, an adult, who is “alone,” vulnerable, lonely, lost, confused, bewildered, pained.

    We see them in their vulnerability. And we make a choice.

    Some of us seize the opportunity to use exploit them. Some people even utilize the opportunity to use them in immoral ways, to abuse them, to pounce on them, to attack them, to hurt them, willingly or unwillingly. Even just to judge them.

    But some of us encounter the same vulnerable people. And our response is: My dear boy, my dear girl, my dear friend, tell me what are you looking for? Let me find out what you are searching for, what you yearn for?

    We each have to make a choice what type of “man” we will be. I can either become a force of Esau, or I can become the angel Gabriel.


    It was the night of Yom Kippur, the holiest night of the year.

    The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe (1745-1812), was praying. Wrapped in his talis and his kitel, he was immersed in his davening, in intimacy with G-d.

    Suddenly, he removed his talis and left the shul. It was shocking.

    The Rebbe went to the home of a mother who had just given birth. The rest of the family went to the synagogue to pray, so nobody was present. The Rebbe kindled a flame, warmed up a soup on the stove, and fed it to the young mother who desperately needed the food.

    I once heard the Lubavitcher Rebbe share this story. And he added: The greatness in the story is not that the Alter Rebbe went on Yom Kippur to save this mother. After all, saving a life override Yom Kippur. The uniqueness of the story is the Rebbe, in the midst of his Yom Kippur prayers, experiencing oneness with the Divine, felt the pain and anguish of the young mother.

    Many spiritual people, when they are immersed in transcendence, they become deaf to the cry of a mother and a baby. In contrast, the Alter Rebbe, as he spoke to G-d on the holiest night of the year, his soul could not calm down till he went to comfort a young mother who yearned for help.