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Parshas Vayishlach (5770)

Thinking out of the Box

In this week’s exciting Torah portion, we find our forefather Jacob making all types of preparations in advance of his meeting with his feared twin brother Esau: “But he got up that night and took his two wives, his two handmaids, and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.” (Genesis 32:23)

Rashi, in his commentary to the Torah, quotes a fascinating Midrash which says the following: “And where was Dinah? [Jacob’s twelfth son Benjamin had not yet been born, but his only daughter Dinah should have been mentioned.] [Jacob] put her into a chest and closed it over her, so that Esau should not set his eyes upon her. This is why Jacob was punished, because he withheld her from his brother – although [had Dinah married him] she might have returned him to virtuous conduct - and she fell into the hands of Shechem.”

Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the “Alter from Slabodka”, in his commentary Ohr HaTzafun, asks how is it possible that Jacob was punished for not giving his daughter Dinah to his brother Esau for a wife? After all, Esau was what we would call today a “spiritually challenged” person, to say the least (see Rashi’s commentary to Genesis 25:29), and not exactly the kind of guy you would want your daughter to come home with. And even on the off chance that Dinah might have motivated Esau to change his ways if they got married, it is certainly understandable that Jacob would want to hide her in a box, where his brother wouldn’t be able to set his eyes upon her and possibly take her away with him.

Rabbi Finkel explains that Jacob’s “sin” was not in his actions – what he did was the right thing to do under those circumstances. Rather, it was in his thoughts - in the way he hid Dinah from Esau - that he sinned. He should have felt more compassion for his brother, more sadness that he wasn’t able to give Dinah to his brother which might have helped him improve his errant ways and become closer to G-d. When Jacob was closing the box over Dinah (kids, don’t try this at home!), he hammered in those nails with a bit too much satisfaction when instead he should have been wishing that he could have done more for his troubled brother Esau.

This is such a powerful lesson for the Jewish people in the era in which we live. You see, we are all busy with our own cozy little “chests” – inside of which we have our families, our communities, our Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools, our synagogue memberships, our Chanukah parties and Passover Seders, our UJA fundraisers, etc. – and for the most part we’re happy.

But we need to think out of the box. Maybe we have it good – we might have had a solid Jewish education and even gave our kids one. We know what an esrog and a pair of Tefillin look like. We are familiar with basic Biblical personalities like Abraham, Joshua and Queen Esther. We can expect that our children and grandchildren will be Jewish and proud of it. But there are so many Jews out there – I would say the majority of the Jewish people – who are “spiritually challenged” and who have virtually no Jewish connection whatsoever.

Most Jews in North America today couldn’t name two out of the twenty-four books of the Torah if they tried. They likely wouldn’t know a Sukkah from a Sandak. In the U.S., one out of every two Jewish marriages is to a non-Jew. The rates of affiliation with synagogues and other Jewish institutions are at all-time lows. Ignorance and apathy abound. Even identifying with Israel has become increasingly unpopular these days – especially among young Jews on university campuses. And it is only going to get worse.

So what are we doing about it? Maybe we can’t all send our daughters and sons out to all those “lost” Jews in the hope that they can teach them about the beauty and wisdom of our amazing Torah and Jewish heritage (although, to be sure, there are some wonderful Jewish organizations like Aish HaTorah, Chabad, etc. who do just that – reaching out to hundreds of thousands of unaffiliated Jews wherever they can be found). Or maybe we don’t feel so confident and secure in our own Judaism yet to be able to go out and share it with others. Sometimes we need to “hammer in those nails” and strengthen our own tight-knit Jewish community – to withstand the onslaught of values coming into our homes and lives that are very different from our own - even if it means that others who are far from Judaism and a Jewish community and who could really use a helping hand might lose out.

But it doesn’t mean that at the same time that we go on with our own Jewishly involved lives we shouldn’t also feel some measure of pain and sadness that so many Jews out there are missing out on all the beauty and joy of living a full Jewish life. And we can also pray to G-d every day that all those precious Jews – our “cousins” - one day find their way back to their own beautiful heritage and ultimate destiny. [Need I mention as well that it certainly wouldn’t hurt for all of us to support – morally and financially - all those devoted and passionate Jews and Jewish organizations that are willing to go “out there” and share their Judaism with other, less knowledgeable Jews.]

We have a tradition that right before the Messiah arrives, G-d Himself will seek out all those Jews in the Diaspora who have lost their connection to Judaism and “take each and every one by the hand” and bring them back to Israel and to the Jewish people (see Rashi’s commentary to Deuteronomy 30:3). Until that happens, we have to do our part to make it happen. Let’s get to it!

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