By Rabbi Moshe Mayerfeld
Author Elizabeth Fischel says: “Siblings define their rivalry in terms of competition for the gold cup of parental love. It is never perceived as a cup which runneth over, rather a finite vessel from which, the more one sister drinks, the less is left for the others.”
The Torah as a guide for living is full of great contentions between siblings. Perhaps the greatest conflict is in this week’s portion of Vayishlach. After the cosmic battle for the blessing, Jacob runs away from his brother, Esau. After many years, the two are finally reunited. In preparation for this showdown, Jacob sends a peculiar message to his potential attacker, Esau. “I have lived with Lavan and I have stayed until now.”
Rashi explains that Jacob is subtly telling his brother two things. First, that he has been working hard for his father-in-law and has not become a great prince or a leader of any nation. Don’t attack me, for I am still ‘just’ your brother. Second, even after living in this wicked environment, he has remained an observant Jew, keeping all the commandments.
How are we to understand the paradox inherent in this, in that the former statement shows great modesty, humility and subservience, while the latter shows haughtiness and pride? Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe, was a great Chasidic rabbi and leader in the 18th century. He used to teach about the duality of life, which helps us understand Jacob’s message to Esau.
There are two Jewish precepts which seem to contradict one another. Abraham tells God: “I am but dust and ash.” Yet in the Talmud, it teaches that we must say: “The whole world was created just for me.”
The rebbe reconciled these contradictory teachings by advising people that they should go through life with these messages on two pieces of paper, each in a different pocket.
The challenge in life, he said, is to know when to pull out which piece of paper. When something needs to be done in the family or the community, there is no room for humility, get the job done!
However, when it comes to the publicity and honours people need to remember their origins and their human failings. Jacob tells this to Esau in one sentence: “Yes Esau, I am both humble and accomplished. I am not a gloried leader, but I am also able to do what is right in challenging times.”
It is a worthwhile eternal message. Shabbat Shalom.