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Parshat Vayishlach (5769)
This week we read of Yaakov's (Jacob's) battle with an angel that resulted in his name being changed to Yisroel (Israel).
But this does not seem to make sense. How can a person fight, no less win, against an angel? And after he won why didn't he get a bit more than just a name change? Couldn't he have just changed it without going through so much trouble?
Also, this coming week many Jews will celebrate the Chassidic holiday "19th of Kislev" when the originator of the Chabad Chassidic movement, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, was miraculously let out of prison where he had been falsely incarcerated for treason under punishment of death.
Is there a connection?
To understand this here is a story.
Some 350 years ago Judaism seemed to be in its death throes. Almost two thousand years of wandering, suffering, dashed hopes and unanswered prayers began to take its toll and a lot of Jews simply wanted 'out'.
It was in these desperate times that a holy man by the name of Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem (a.k.a. Baal Shem Tov) began teaching new ideas called Chassidut. Chassidut was designed to make Jews happy by teaching them how good and close G-d and His Torah are to all of us.
It caught on like wildfire and in just a few years half of Russian and Polish Judaism became his followers ('Chassidim').
But success also brings enemies. The elite Torah scholars of the time rose in protest! They felt threatened by this new movement and devoted themselves heart and soul to oppose and destroy it in any way possible.
They called themselves 'Misnagdim' (opposers) and their war was especially directed against Rebbi Shneur Zalman who founded the branch of Chassidim 'Chabad'.
Rebbe Shneur Zalman wrote a book called "Tanya" that explained such 'forbidden' ideas as the 'One'ness of G-d, the uniqueness of the Jews, the G-dliness of the Torah and its Commandments and why this physical world is 'higher' than heaven.
They branded the Chassidim as maniacs, heretics and dangerous enemies of mankind who deserved excommunication, corporal punishment and worse.
The Misnagdim went so far as to slander the Rebbe and have him arrested and almost executed by the Russian Government for treason (his miraculous exoneration became the Chabad Holiday of Yud Tet Kislev which we mentioned previously). Unexplainably, ultra-orthodox Jews who had been examples of brotherly love and objective thinking became consumed with hatred.
The Jews of Lithuania were fervent Misnagdim and the city of Globak was one of the most fervent in Lithuania. There lived a very wealthy Torah Scholar by the name of Rabbi Shraga who, besides being a leading figure in the town and in the movement, was a strong willed person with unbounded hatred for the Chassidim.
So it was no wonder that when his brother, Zelig, went 'over' to 'visit' the Chassidim in the city of Liozne (where the Chabad Chassidim were) and came back several months later with a very positive report….. it wasn't taken well.
Zelig was an simple, easygoing fellow that was more philosophical than practical. He really believed that the worst that could happen when he came back with praises of the Chassidim was that he would be ignored.
But it wasn't so.
When he returned to Globak and began telling people what he thought about the Chassidim he was escorted into a side room of the synagogue by several strong young men and given such a severe lashing that a few weeks later he passed away and was buried in the worst area of the cemetery!
But no one in the town, including his brother, felt any regret. Exactly the opposite! In their minds Zelig was a deviant; a sick criminal and a threat to Judaism. They were certain that their actions and quick thinking saved thousands of families from being lured into apostasy and eternal damnation; Zelig's violent death would discourage anyone from making the same horrible 'mistake' in the future.
But in fact it did the opposite.
Shraga had a 19 year old son by the name of Mordechi. A few months after this incident Mordechi disappeared and left a note to his parents telling them that he had decided to exile himself to a place of Torah (Avot 4:14) (A common practice in those days; people would leave the 'comforts' of home, family and friends and wander to distant places to learn Torah) and they shouldn't worry.
But, in fact his uncle Zelig's death awakened something in him more than just curiosity; the desire to be a Chassid.
Two years later in the middle of the night, Shraga's other son (who we will call Yehuda) heard a knock at the window and turned to see Mordechi standing outside.
He let him in, they hugged for a long time but when Mordechi told him where he had been Yehuda jumped back as though bitten by a snake. He looked at his brother in horror but the horror faded when Mordechi began to explain some of the ideas he heard there; how every Jew is holy, G-d loves all mankind, creates the universe constantly, the Torah and its commandments connect to the Creator.
Mordechi saw that Yehuda wasn't going to turn him in and he pulled out a small page and gave it to him.
Upon was written in Hebrew.
"If this person comes into your camp, don’t kill him."
Mordechi explained, "Take this. It's from the Rebbe. Before I left there I went in to him for a blessing because I was afraid that they would kill me like they did uncle Zelig and he gave me this. It seems that it's working. At least you didn't kill me."
Yehuda had to think fast; memories of uncle Zelig's death danced in his mind. If anyone discovered them it might mean big trouble. He told Mordechi to go to the synagogue adjoining their house and wait inside until he thought of something.
Mordechi did as he was told. It was almost midnight and the room was abandoned, only him and G-d. He stood for a while then opened his prayer book to say the evening prayer and before he knew it he was in a different world. He was singing to the Creator. Words of longing, trust, hope and love were in his mind and on his lips. He was swaying back and forth, singing a slow Chassidic song with his eyes closed in devotion.
The sweet singing from the synagogue next to his house woke Shraga from his sleep.. He sat up, listened for a few minutes washed his hands, got dressed and followed the sound like a baby to its mother's voice. He had to find what it was.
In moments he was peeking into the window of the Synagogue but the light was too dim. Suddenly his son Yehuda 'happened' to walk by pretended to also listen and finally told him that he recognized the voice. It was that of his brother, Mordechi.
Shraga waited for him to finish praying, ran into the room and shook his son's had warmly. But when Mordechi revealed that he had been by the Chassidim his father just stood in wide-eyed disbelief and then moved a few steps back so as not to come too close to a suspected heretic.
But he listened to what his son had to say.
It seems the letter of the Rebbe was working. Shraga gave his son a room in his house so he could do what he wanted and didn't tell anyone what had happened. His opposition was wearing away but he was a long way from being a Chassid.
Until the argument.
It wasn't so clear exactly what they argued about but one thing led to another and Shraga's wife demanded a divorce. Shraga, not one to back down, countered that nothing would please him more and announced that they would go to Vilna, the seat of great Talmudic scholarship, and officially separate.
But his wife refused. She wanted a divorce but the only one she would accept to do the ceremony was none other than Rebbe Shneur Zalman the head of the Chassidim!! Where she got this idea from was also not clear but she was adamant!
At first Shraga refused. He explained passionately, tried to appeal to reason, to loyalty, to mercy but for naught.
He was trapped!
Two weeks later they were standing before the door of the Rebbe, the door opened and they entered. Immediately when Shraga looked into the Rebbe's eyes he knew that this was a true Torah genius and when the Rebbe began speaking he was overwhelmed with his holiness.
The Rebbe heard their claims and complaints and within just moments made them see that that there was absolutely no substance to their argument what so ever. In fact he left them wondering if perhaps the only reason they fought was to bring them to the Rebbe.
Shraga and his wife left the room feeling that it was their wedding day when suddenly Shraga remembered his brother Zelig and he began to cry.
He went back to the Rebbe's door and knocked. A voice from inside the room told him to enter. When he did and closed the door behind him the Rebbe said.
"Nu! You are a Talmudic Scholar. When your brother, Zelig, came back from here, did you have any indication or support from the Talmud that it was permissible to beat him? To kill him?"
Shraga was crying and shaking his head 'no'.
"Nu" Continued the Rebbe, "You are a Talmudic Scholar. Can you find in the Talmud how to get forgiveness for such a murder?" Shraga was really crying now.
"Well," Replied the Rebbe, "I can."
"It says in the Tractate Baba Basra (3b) that King Hordus killed the wise men of Israel because he thought they were his enemies. But when realized he was wrong he was filled with remorse and asked Rabbi Baba ben Buta what he could do to be forgiven. The Rabbi answered: 'You killed Torah scholars and extinguished the light of the world. Therefore you must rekindle the light of the world.' Hordus took the hint and began to beautify and decorate the Holy Temple in Jerusalem until it was the most beautiful building in the world. So too in our case" Concluded the Rebbe. "You extinguished a light so you must kindle a light. You killed a Chassid, so build a synagogue in Globak for the Chassidic community… and see to it that there is a flourishing community."
Rabbi Shraga became an ardent Chassid of the Rebbe and followed his advice. He built what was for several hundred years, until the destruction of WWII, the most magnificent Synagogue in Globak and perhaps in all Lithuania. Built for the Chassidic community that grew there due to his generosity.
This answers our questions.
The 'angel' of Asav is really the power behind all the pleasures and pressures of this world both inside and outside of us.
While Jacob is the ability of man to wrestle with, defeat and even transform these urges and pressures to good.
Just as, in our story, the Rebbe transformed the world outside him and Shraga his internal world.
And this is the connection to Yud Tes Kislev, the holiday of Rebbe Shneur Zalman's redemption from imprisonment and death.
This is the holiday that began the true spreading of Chassidut in preparation to bring the Messiah (Moshiach). As the Baal Shem Tov was promised; that when your teachings (Chassidut) are spread out and learned by everyone; then the Messiah will bring total redemption; the power of Yaakov will transform the world (Asav) into blessing and joy.
This is what is implied by the name change; Yaakov implies wrestling, while Yisroel implies the days of Moshiach when we will defeat and even transform the Creation so it reveals the Creator.
It all depends on us (with the help of G-d) to do all we can, even one more good deed, word or even thought can bring...
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