Friday, November 23, 2007


by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

"When we stand alone, like Ya'aqov, along the banks of life's flowing river, let us wrestle with our higher selves and know that we have the power to turn our lives around and become a blessing for all the ones we love."

Everyone of us is touched by an angel- at least once. Before we are born, our tradition tells us, our souls are taught the entire Torah by an angel in the womb (BT Niddah 30b). And just before birth the angel which is teaching us gives us a tap over our upper lips and causes us to forget everything.

From that moment on, we are bidden to relearn that same Torah. That is why learning Torah so often seems like a deja vu experience. We nod and it makes sense, for something is always understood better the second time around. Just as we are born into the world, and leave the world without any possessions, save for our good name, so too did Yaaqov divest himself of all his worldly goods before crossing over. He was now utterly alone, unprotected by his wealth, by his family, by his externals. All he had was his utmost essence, his essential self, now doing battle with his birth angel. We all face challenges in life. Like Ya'aqov, we essentially face them alone and wrestling in the utter darkness of night.

His striving was his womb education. All he was to experience in life in the Land was a reliving of his strife in the womb- the literal womb now supplanted by the figurative one. Indeed it would be a comfort to him to know that although he was destined to suffer from constant strife, at the same time his victory over the angel would serve to indicate to him his ultimate personal conquest. And as we are taught by Chazal that "maaseh le'avot, siman lebanim," that the experiences of our forefathers are a template of sorts for the unfolding and development of Jewish history, so too we should know by history and by experience that the existence of the Jew is constantly one that is marked by stress and by striving, but ultimately one over which fortune and victory will shine.

Just as on Yom Kippur we know that we are forgiven by G*d for our sins only after first having asked sincerely for forgiveness from our fellow man, Ya'akov himself becomes a prototype for our forgiveness model. Indeed he says (Gen 32:21) "achapra (KaPaR) panav," following his sending of gifts to his brother. Hopefully Esav will forgive him. It was to be a Yom Kippur, a Day of Atonement between himself and his brother. He acknowledged the hurt and the deep pain which he caused his brother. In his growing maturation gained from the experience of leaving home, he now realizes the needless suffering which he had caused his family. He realizes that spiritual growth need not necessarily be gained through causing suffering to others!

Whereas coercion and pain to others is antithetical to spiritual growth, the same does not obtain with regard to self-inflicted emotional pain, that pain which is part and parcel of the process of maturation and spiritual growth. Indeed, that very pain, he realizes, is the stuff by which that very growth occurs. Now that he has sought forgiveness from his brother, the Divine blessing is finally permitted him.

In verse 26 we read "vateyka kaf yerech ya'akov behayavko imo- ....Jacob's hip joint became dislocated as he wrestled with him."

Note the play on words which is very telling. VaTayKAh is similar inspelling to tekiah, the Shofar blast of Rosh Hashana / Yom Kippur. Not only for Ya'aqov was the experience a mini Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur rebirth, but when we ourselves hear the shofar blast we are to become aroused from our soul slumber. Just like Ya'aqov's hip, in a sense we become emotionally "dislocated," as we achieve an awakening in which we realize we are to keep striving and wrestling with our core being to be granted the blessing of a vision of our higher selves, a chance to rescript our future, to make for ourselves a new name.

In last week's parsha, as Ya'aqov was leaving the Land he dreamt a holy vision of a ladder reaching to heaven. Crossing the river that demarcates the holy land is analogous to the experience of dying and rebirth, depending on one's direction. In a sense the sulam, or ladder, was the figurative tunnel which one takes to cross to the other side upon birth or death. His life is portrayed to him when he gets there (Paddan Aram) in unflattering terms. In fact, Lavan, who awaits him, is his ultimate teacher, reflecting back toYa'aqov the very same deceit which he inflicted on his father and his brother.

The name Lavan is related to the word Levana, or moon. And what is the moon but a reflector of the sun's light. It is not capable of emanating its own light. It is capable merely of reflecting back the light from some other source, namely that of Ya'aqov. Indeed Lavan serves in his own life to neatly mirror back to Ya'aqov the negativity of his own behavior, and inflicts midah k'neged midah, or measure for measure, the same deception which Ya'aqov himself inflicted upon others.

Ya'aqov, through this suffering and through experiencing that very same pain which he had caused to others, was ready now to return and to make amends. He is reborn as the dawn arrives, taking the angel's solemn oath to be a striver for his better self. Each of us has a "better self." The true descendants of Ya'aqov are those who are constantly striving to aspire to become their better selves.

Moreover, in the blessing which the man/angel confers upon Ya'akov, whereby he attains a name change reflective of his new spiritual attainment, now becomingYisrael, he says,

"ki sarita im elokim v'im anashim vetuchal..(Gen32:29).....

"You have become great (through having wrestled) with G*d and with man. And you have won."

Note the similarity between sarita and *sherita,* if one were to read the same letters a bit differently, mentally putting the holy dot on the other side of the letter. Thus it now could read , because you *serve G*d.* In other words, ironically, the way for man to rule over G*d, that is, to give honor to his transcendant self, is by simultaneously *serving* G*d. By subjugating one's lower, more selfish and baser instincts, and transmuting them through fealty to a higher subliminal calling, one can call forth and bring to the fore one's higher G*d self. He has overcome G*d in a certain sense by overcoming his own baser self!

And looking at it another way, it is a Divine confessional of reciprocal responsibility, a coming-full-circle of Ya'aqov's "preconditions" for serving G*D (Gen 28:20,21). Like the medieval "lord of the manor" who rules his subjects and commands their fealty by virtue of his fulfilling their needs, i.e., by each serving the other, the early/young Ya'aqov's sense of his deity fits this model. This idea is then conflated into unique expression at the time of the wrestling through the word play of sarita/sherita. As he has conquered his demons in the darkest hour before the dawn, the "sarita" now becomes "sharita," as he is now free to serve G*d now fully unencumbered. The way is clear for him now to dedicate himself to a "sharita" life of service.
Heretofore his life was devoted to paying Lavan back for his two wives. Only now that he is back home can he manifest his life's true destiny.

Ya'aqov himself had a deja vu of sorts upon his return to the Holy Land. Just as he was born in a state of wrestling with his brother Esav in the womb, just *prior* to birth, so too does he now prepare to wrestle with him again as he re-enters the land, as his re-entry to the Land is a form of rebirth for him. But whereas at the time of his actual birth he indeed was literally wrestling with his brother in the womb, this time, as he is figuratively reborn, he now wrestles with the man/angel just prior to his crossing the river of life, the Yabbok River, a tributary of the Jordan.

He wrestled his brother in life and won. And now his wrestling with the man/angel, from which he has emerged victorious, has indeed supplanted that wrestling which he engaged in with his brother. As this new wrestling partner, the G*d partner, has now supplanted his wrestling with Esav, it was now clear there could be no more strife between them. His fraternal conflict was decreed for a purpose by heaven. But as there was no longer a purpose for it, there was no longer any need for the conflict to sustain itself. It was now transcended. Finished. Hence the new peace between them. As he had finally transcended his issues with his brother, and had now finally sublimated them to a higher level, his strife with Esav was now pointless.

And yet it was held in abeyance, always on call to be resummoned. For whenever Israel was now to respond to the call of her lower self, and was to engage in sinat chinam, or gratuitous hatred, Chazal - our sages, may their memory be for a blessing, teach that the old rivalry would reemerge. That is why Ya'aqov hesitated to firmly reestablish the familial ties, in his begging off Esav's invitation to visit his Seir homestead. And besides, he had his business now in the holy land, having finally crossed over once more. He was wary.

Perhaps he foresaw the irredendist potentiality for failure and trickery, as exemplified in the Shechem narrative. Edom, the nation of Esav, was seen in perpetuity to be the figurative nemesis of Israel. The final vainquishing of Esav would coincide with the Messianic Age, which would itself only be precipitated byIsrael's vainquishing of her own tendency to gravitate to her lower self. Only through Israel's conscious manifestation of Ahavat Chinam, of gratuitous love for her fellow Jew and for her fellow man, could this Messianic Age, the y'mot hamashiach, finally come about.

Meanwhile, until we arrive collectively at that glorious and wondrous time, let us heal the rifts between our own siblings, both biological as well as societal. Let us strive to transcend the pain of earlier years which only serve to cripple us and prevent us from growth. Let us examine ourselves internally, and hold up little Lavan mirrors to reflect back, however painful it may be, the truth of our own actions by which to light the way and guide us along the path to make amends and to do a true teshuva. When we stand alone, like Ya'aqov, along the banks of life's flowing river, let us wrestle with our higher selves and know that we have the power to turn our lives around and by so doing become a blessing for all the ones we love.
Shabbat Shalom.Good Shabbos.

© 2000 - 2007 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen Melman, z"l

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua
(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)

Dedications are available.

My band, Niggun, is available for all simchas.
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When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.- Abraham Joshua Heschel
The whole world is a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is to not be afraid.
-Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
"The greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor." - Aish Kodesh
"As you want G*d to give you a chance, give everyone else a chance to also begin again." - Shlomo Carlebach

About Me

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I played violin with Reb Shlomo and studied under him for over nine years at hundreds of concerts and learnings. Shlomo wanted to give me smicha before he passed. Deepest influences: My father,obm, who was a great scientist and human being, and my grandfather, obm, who was a great Torah scholar who was a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva and taught in Slobodka in Russia before WW1, and was also personal friends with the Chafetz Chaim and came to America in 1914. He knew the Talmud by heart! You could stick a pin in a word and he could tell you what word was on the other side! And my mother, Esther bat Baruch, z"l, who was a scholar of classical Hebrew and Tanach and who gave me a love for the language. And her mother, Anna (Sucher) Deutsch, who was born in Horodenka, spoke six languages, and shared her aged wisdom and eternal sweetness with me. I studied at Brandeis, Hebrew College, Pardes as well as seven years at The Metivta/ITJ earning my Advanced Semicha (yoreh yoreh)under Rav Halivni. What's truly amazing is that Shlomo and Rav Halivni each received semicha from Rav Hutner! But my deepest influences of them all are my sweetest sweetest girls who have taught me the most!