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The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40-plus-year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.

This week’s column is dedicated in memory of Mrs. Golda Meizlik, a”h. 


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According to Nahmanides, the Book of Genesis, in particular the events in Parshat Vayishlach, foreshadow Jewish destiny throughout the generations. Midrash Rabba says, that Rabbi Judah, the Prince, would study Vayishlach before meeting Antoninus, the Roman Emperor. The verse that epitomizes the symbolism of the Parsha is “And a man wrestled with him,” portending the difficulties faced by the Jewish people throughout our long and difficult exile.

“And he erected an altar and he called E-l Elokay Yisrael” (33:20). Rashi interprets the phrase E-l Elokay Yisrael, as referring to the names by which Jacob called his G-d: E-l, the G-d of Israel (Jacob). The Talmud (Megillah 18a) interprets the verse as saying that G-d called Jacob El. According to this opinion, the verse should be read as follows: G-d, who is Elokay Yisrael, called him (Jacob) El, and the word El is to be treated as mundane, i.e. as any other word in the Torah and not as a name of G-d. A practical ramification of this dispute applies to a scribe writing a Torah, who must have the proper intent (kavanah) when writing any of the names of G-d. According to Rashi, both these names, E-l and Elokay Yisrael, must be treated as holy by the scribe. Failing to have the proper intent while writing either name, renders the scroll blemished (pasul) and therefore, unusable. The Rav said in the name of his grandfather, Reb Chaim Brisker, that the rules relating to a scribe writing the names of G-d in a Torah work both ways. A Torah is considered blemished if the scribe lacked the proper intent for holiness when writing a name of G-d in a context that requires such intent. Likewise, a Torah is considered blemished if the scribe writes a name of G-d with intent for holiness in a context where a mundane context is required. According to Jewish Law, we follow Rashi’s opinion regarding a scribe writing this verse, and treat both names as holy.

To explain the second opinion, that G-d called Jacob by the name El, we need to understand the meaning of the word El. The term El was used previously by Laban, who said that he had the power to harm Jacob, “yesh l’el yadi.” El means power, strength. On the other hand, the word Aytan, a strong bulwark, is often used to express strength. Our rabbis interpret the month of Aytanim as the month in which the great bulwarks of the world, the patriarchs, were born. In the High Holiday prayers we say “Ahavat Aytan, Adonaynu,” G-d our Master should recall the love expressed by the patriarch Abraham, referred to as Aytan (the Rav noted that we must pause between the words Aytan and Adonaynu). In Psalms, Abraham is referred to as Aytan HaEzrachi. Maimonides also refers to Abraham as Aytan (Hilchot Avoda Zara 1:3). If the patriarchs are referred to as Aytanim, why is Jacob referred to as El at this point in the narrative?

Aytan implies a natural, immovable strength, extant from the dawn of creation. The section of Egla Arufa in Deuteronomy uses the term Nachal Aytan, which has two interpretations: a strong moving brook, or a field that is very difficult to cultivate. Something characterized as Aytan can lose its strength if it is moved. On the other hand, something characterized as El, retains its strength even when dislocated. Jacob is considered the chosen of the patriarchs. He accomplished something that neither Abraham nor Isaac did: he twice went into exile: to Laban’s house in Charan and ultimately to Egypt. Abraham and Isaac represent Aytan, they remained firmly rooted in the Land of Canaan. They did not experience extended exile [Abraham’s journey to Egypt was short lived, as related in Lech Lecha]. G-d’s divine direction led Jacob into exile to show that the Jews can endure exile and remain proud, strong, El.

Jewish history is the story of exile. Jacob blazed the trail for the Jews in exile. His experience in Laban’s house provided the Jews with an example of how to withstand an exile that manifests itself in poverty and oppression, galut may’oni. The Jews must also be able to withstand an exile that manifests itself in opportunity and plenty, galut may’osher. He must resist the temptations to assimilate. Joseph was Jacob’s partner or soul mate in exile. He received a double portion in the Land of Israel because he, among Jacob’s children, endured exile the longest. Joseph showed that it is possible to reach the level of Viceroy of Egypt and still remain committed to Torah and Mitzvah observance. He demonstrated how to survive an exile of plenty.

Throughout our history, it would appear that the Jewish people remained more resolute in their faith when enduring exiles characterized by poverty, than in exiles characterized by wealth, which afforded them opportunities to assimilate. The Rav recalled his youth, when Jews faced severely restrictive financial constraints, yet maintained a fierce, unshakeable commitment to Torah and Mitzvah observance. America, to this point, represents an exile of plenty. The massive levels of assimilation among American Jewry, unfortunately indicate that we have not tolerated the exile of plenty well from a religious commitment perspective.

The prophet says Jacob’s house will be a flame and Joseph’s house will be a huge fire that will consume the house of Esau. The Jewish People who survive the combination of exile characterized by poverty, demonstrated by Jacob, and exile of plenty, demonstrated by Joseph, will ultimately persevere and destroy Esau.

Not only were Jacob and Joseph similar in physical appearance, both set examples for us of spiritual survival under difficult circumstances, poverty and wealth. Our rabbis say Jacob feared the legions of Esau. G-d reassured him that through his dynamic strength, El, he would survive his enemies and exile, and therefore, he should not be afraid. Jacob and Joseph, linked by their common experience of the pain of exile, will ultimately combine to destroy Esau.

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Rabbi Joshua Rapps attended the Rav's shiur at RIETS from 1977 through 1981 and is a musmach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan. He and his wife Tzipporah live in Edison, N.J. Rabbi Rapps can be contacted at [email protected].