Parshas Vayishlach – Using the Past to Appreciate the Present


פרשת וישלח

In the beginning of this week’s parsha, we find Yaakov and his large family making their way back to Eretz Canaan after more than twenty years in Aram Nahara’im. And just as Yaakov’s departure so many years before was made under the threat of Eisav’s wrath, once again Yaakov stood in fear of Eisav, who threatened to uproot his family – the fruit of his labor of so many years.
Upon arriving at the ירדן, the border of Eretz Canaan, Yaakov prepared for his inevitable “reunion” with his older brother. He began with an attempt at appeasing Eisav, by humbly preparing a gift that would express his peaceful intentions. And so he spent hours preparing a parade of valuable gifts for Eisav to feast his hungry eyes on. And yet, being fully aware of the danger Eisav posed, Yaakov also made plans for escape by dividing his family into two camps, hoping for at least a partial salvation.
And then Yaakov turned to Hashem in supplication, and it is some of his words that we will study tonight. As he approached the ירדן, he called out to Hashem: במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה ועתה הייתי לשני מחנות – “With my walking-staff I passed over this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (ibid 32:11).
When we study these few words, we should ask ourselves the following question: Why did Yaakov not say more simply, “Many years ago, I left my father’s home”? Why did he choose to mention the ירדן that stood before him? And why mention the walking-staff that had surely long been discarded a long time ago?
Years ago, Yaakov had forged this same river, from the opposite side. “I remember passing through this area,” thought Yaakov to himself. “These familiar stones on the river edge, and the Sycamore trees growing on the bank of the river! I’ve been here before.” But Yaakov didn’t suffice with these faint thoughts that I’m saying to you now. No, he took this opportunity to a completely new level. Instead of wasting the opportunity with empty reminiscing of yesteryear and superficial feelings of deja-vu, Yaakov used these sights, and the memories that they awakened of twenty years previous, for the service to Hashem. And by studying the words of Yaakov, we can get a glimpse into his mind, and begin to understand what this עבודה was.
Now, I always tell you that we are not מלאכים, we’re not angels, who can serve Hashem with intellect alone, without the stimulation that the outside world provides. There’s a reason why Hashem made us with eyes and ears. There’s a reason why Hashem made a world that is full of His creations. And that’s because man is expected to use the stimuli of the world around him to become more and more aware of Hashem. Those who want to become great and succeed in this world, will be wise enough, alert enough, to use all of the opportunities available to them.
And Yaakov understood how to use this world. And therefore, he was alert to any opportunity that would present itself. It was now more than twenty years since Yaakov had made his way across the ירדן in flight from Eisav. And he now found himself at the same river-crossing once again. This time however, his situation was very different than many years before. And he was wise enough to fully utilize the opportunity of this contrast.
Seeing the familiar ירדן, and the raging waters that he had crossed so many years before, was used by this tzadik to become ever so greater. Yaakov thought back to that day when he had passed these same landmarks, and contemplated the circumstances that he found himself in now, compared to then. במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה – “With my walking-staff I passed over this Jordan,” said Yaakov. “That’s all that I had, my walking-staff and the clothes on my back. I had nothing. Even what I had left my home with, had been taken away from me by Eliphaz, and I was left penniless. And I was still a bachelor, with no wife, and no children. And I wasn’t a young man anymore.”
Now, Yaakov didn’t know what was going to happen in Charan over the next twenty years. He didn’t know about the parshas that we have already read so many times. All of us here were not worried in the least bit as we read of the lonely Yaakov passing over the river, because we already knew all about Rochel and Leah and the שבטים. We knew about Yaakov’s many children and servants, as well as his herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. But Yaakov didn’t know about that yet. And therefore, those lonely days of traveling into the unknown, crossing rivers and deserts, were a most difficult time.
And Yaakov contrasted those difficult days with his situation now. Back then, he crossed over alone. And now he was loaded down with wealth. The wealth of righteous wives, many children, as well as herds and flocks. “I was lonely back then. And afraid. And I didn’t know what would be! And now look at me! ועתה הייתי לשני מחנות. I have become two camps. . It’s remarkable, Hashem, what You’ve done with me!” And these weren’t hollow thoughts. Yaakov felt it! It was real!
Yaakov achieved perfection through this, and in doing so is teaching us how to do the same. One who wants to be a success in this world will always seek out any stimulus available in order to become more and more aware of Hashem. And utilizing the device of associating events with specific places, for the purpose of better remembering the kindness of Hashem, is a most important method for achieving the greatness of gratitude. And that’s what Yaakov did here when he saw the ירדן. Before he even began his supplications to Hashem, he put his mind to appreciating his change of fortune.
And we find that Yaakov’s attitude of using the association of certain places in order to bring forth genuine feelings of gratitude to Hashem, was actually an explicit command of Hashem. After crossing the ירדן, Hashem tells Yaakov the following: קום עלה בית אל ושב שם – “Arise, go up to Beis-El, and dwell there” (Bereishis 35:1).
Here Hashem commands Yaakov to make the trek back to Beis-El, the place from where he had set out so many years ago. “And dwell there,” does not mean that he should make his residence there, because we soon read (35:16) “And they journeyed from Beis El…” So what was the purpose of this detour? ועשה שם מזבח לא-ל הנראה אליך בברחך מפני עשיו אחיך – “Build there an altar to the G-d who appeared to you when you fled from Eisav your brother” (ibid.) The command to travel to Beis-El was only to “dwell there” for a short time, for the sole purpose of remembering and contemplating all that Hashem had done for him since he had fled from Eisav.
It was not enough for Yaakov to merely proceed on his journey home and think about the חסדי השם. Hashem wanted more than that. Hashem demanded from Yaakov that he should detour to Beis-El, to visit the place that would cause him to vividly recall the beginning of his long journey to Charan, and the difficulties that he had been beset with. Seeing Beis-El would make it easier for him to stimulate his memories and his emotions, in order to feel true gratitude to Hashem. The sight of the place where he had to gather rocks around himself as a protection from the wild animals; where he had lied down to sleep as a lonely man, would stimulate his memories. And that would awaken an intense feeling of gratitude for what Hashem had given him since that night spent in Beis-El.
At Beis-El, Yaakov built an altar and spoke to his family and retinue, and he related at length the wonders and kindness of Hashem which he had experienced since fleeing for his life from this very place. ואעשה שם מזבח לא-ל העונה אותי ביום צרתי ויהי עמדי בדרך אשר הלכתי – Yaakov understood the purpose of going to Beis-El. It was to remind him of all the kindness that Hashem had done for him since that painful day when he was last in Beis-El: his journey to Padan Aram and the vision of the ladder, his experiences with Lavan, the acquisition of his wives, and the birth of his family, how he was rescued from Lavan’s vengeance, the vision of the angels when he forsook Lavan, his encounter with the angel during that long night, how he was rescued from Eisav and his army, how he was rescued from the peril of destruction caused by his sons’ attack against Sh’chem, all the wealth he had gained, as well as the prophecies and promises of Hashem. That’s what Yaakov did during those few days he spent there. And Yaakov did all this in Beis-El, in order to contrast his present success and happiness, with the difficulties of the past that he had once experienced at Beis-El, and therefore engender an even stronger feeling of gratitude to Hashem.
And that’s when this place received its eternal name of Beis-El. ויבא יעקב לוזה… ויבן שם מזבח ויקרא למקום א-ל בית-אל כי שם נגלה אליו האלוקים בברחו מפני אחיו – “And Yaakov came to Luz…and he built there an altar and he called the place Beis-El because it was there that Hashem revealed Himself to him when he fled from his brother” (Bereishis 35:6-7). This barren mountain would have been forever the forgotten city of Luz. But Yaakov changed all that. By using the mountain top to remember all that Hashem had done to him since he ran away from Luz, to leave Eretz Canaan, Yaakov transformed the place from Luz to Beis-El. It was now a place dedicated to Hashem.
And now we come back to the words of the Ramchal (Derech Eitz Chaim) that we quote here so often: מה עשו הראשונים אבות העולם שכך חשק השם בהם – “A man must always think the following thought: What was it that our Avos did that caused Hashem to love them so much?” And therefore, when one studies the words of Yaakov, as we are doing now, he should be saying to himself, “How can I walk in the footsteps of my great Zeideh, Yaakov?!” If you want to become great as well, then Yaakov Avinu has paved the path before you.
So as you pass by your old neighborhood where you lived as a child, don’t just walk by and ignore the opportunity for greatness. And truthfully, even a quick and superficial thought is a waste of a good opportunity. שב שם, says Hashem. “Stop, and dwell there.” שב שם means that Hashem wants you to take the time to stop and think. You’re so busy with life, that you’re missing out on the true purpose of life. Greatness is achieved in the mind, and to accomplish that, you are going to have to remove the shackles of laziness that are holding you back from perfection.
As you pass by your old house, you think: “Thirty years ago, I was living here with almost nothing. I was a teenager with nothing at all.” Or, as you pass by your first apartment where you lived when you got married, you should stop and think: “I remember walking in and out of this home, and I was then a young man with a new wife, with nothing much else.” You’re thinking: במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה, “Twenty years ago, I passed through those doors, and all I had was the bare minimum. A wife, some furniture.” A wife is much more precious than a walking-staff, but at that point in your life, that’s all you had. And now your a man with everything. Do you realize how much you’ve gained, how much Hashem has given to you in these twenty years?! If you think about the details you could go out of your mind with gratitude! It’s only because we walk through life without thinking, that we don’t appreciate the chesed Hashem.
And so, you use the device that Yaakov has taught us, of making use of the places you pass, to remember your past, and contrast it with where you are now, and with what you have achieved. You were a little boy growing up in your mother and father’s home; you were a teenager in that house; a young newlywed in that apartment. And now you’re a family man. You have children, grandchildren, a family and home of your own, a job. ועתה הייתי לשני מחנות. And think about that. Think about what you’ve become since then. “I have this child, and I have that child. I have a car now, and my own home to live in. I have this and I have that. Thank you Hashem for all this happiness.” And that’s using the עבודה of Yaakov Avinu, walking in his ways of using the places you pass to grow great in gratitude to Hashem.
When you pass by the corner on Coney Island Avenue where you used to stand all day on erev Sukkos selling esrogim, don’t lose that opportunity. It’s an empty corner now; all you see there now is a mailbox, or a bum smoking a cigarette. But שב שם! Stop, and dwell there for a few minutes. I know most of you think that it’s a waste of time to spend a few minutes thinking about these things. But Yaakov taught us that it’s time well-spent. So don’t just pass by without thinking, like a thick-headed fool. You should think, and better yet, you should say with your mouth: “I was standing right here, making a few dollars selling esrogim to passersby so that I could have some extra money in my pocket.” במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה. “And now, where am I? I’m on the way to work. I’m a professional, I have an income. I have a decent job, I’m making a living, doing my best to support a family.” ועתה הייתי לשני מחנות. “I’ve come so far. Ay, yay, yay! You’ve given me so much!”
And passing by your old mesivta is another great opportunity. “Back then,” you think, “I couldn’t make a leining on a piece of Gemara. Every Rashi was a difficult project. I had no Torah; I was raw material.” במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה. “I had almost nothing. And now, הייתי לשני מחנות. “I’m going through mesichtehs, finishing Shas. Tosfosen, and maybe even a Sheiv Shmatsah once in a while. I’m filling my mind with the thoughts of Hashem. Thank you Hashem for guiding me in the right direction.”
And when a woman passes by a Beis Yaakov school, she should never neglect the great opportunity for achievement. “I was a young girl, a teenager, and I hadn’t even the inkling of what the future held for me.” במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה. “And now, You Hashem, have guided me and made me into an אם הבנים שמחה, a happy mother of children. Back then, I was busy with only myself, because I had nothing else. And now, הייתי לשני מחנות.”
But I must tell you that Yaakov, while standing on the edge of the ירדן, did much more than what we have spoken about until now. So pay attention well as I explain to you the words of Yaakov, and the additional lesson we should learn from them.
Listen carefully to Yaakov’s words. במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה ועתה הייתי לשני מחנות – “With only my walking-staff did I pass over this river so many years ago. And now I have become two camps” (ibid.) “Hashem, I left with nothing, and now I have amassed so much, that I am capable of dividing my family and possessions into two camps. I cannot just sneak into the land, and quietly make my way home. I have a large camp with me! And therefore, it is because of my fear of Eisav and my planning our escape in trepidation about the future, that I realize how much I have been given by Hashem. ועתה הייתי לשני מחנות. I have become two camps!
Hashem, You have given me so much that I need to split my family and possessions into two camps. You’ve given me more than I could have ever wished for.”
Yaakov did not merely use the sight of Beis-El and of the river crossing as his only stimuli. He did much more than that. Yaakov, at this moment, was not experiencing the regular happiness of having a large family, and reminiscing about his change in fortune, there was danger in the air! Just as so many years before, Yaakov had escaped from Eretz Canaan to avoid the murderous rage of his brother, he was now judiciously and carefully planning his imminent return, having just heard of Eisav’s burning desire to extract his revenge.
And unlike twenty plus years before, when he was alone and able to stealthily make a quick escape, the burden of a family now made that impossible. Yaakov had passed over this part of the ירדן many years before during his successful attempt to escape the clutches of Eisav, and back then, Yaakov didn’t have much with him. And for the lone traveler who is unencumbered with family and possessions, it is quite easy to cross the ירדן. A grown man can make his way across by swimming, or upon a raft made of some loose logs. No heavy packages to lug, no women and children to secure safely for the river crossing. Years ago it had been easy for Yaakov to make his way across the river.
Had Yaakov now been burdened down with only one wife, a child or two, and a few sheep and cows, he would have had a much simpler time escaping and hiding from Eisav and his army of four-hundred men. He would have been able to quickly and quietly make his way over the ירדן, and make his way home to his father Yitzchok. Even had he had to hide for some time, a man and a small family could easily hide in the woods or a cave, biding their time carefully, waiting for the opportunity to escape Eisav’s wrath.
But things are much more difficult when you are responsible for four large families, as well as the wealth of animals, goods and supplies that Yaakov was caring for. And it wasn’t easy to cross over the ירדן with such a large group. It is not an easy task to divide up a large camp into two self-sufficient groups. Sufficient food and utensils must be allocated, and the division of labor is completely overturned. It was a very difficult moment for Yaakov.
But Yaakov used that encumbrance, that extra difficulty, to become more and more appreciative of Hashem’s kindness. All of the added planning, and the added difficulty that his large family and wealth caused him, were used by Yaakov to become more and more aware of the kindness of Hashem. “Yes, it’s davka because of all the extra good I have, that I have this extra burden.” He used his troubles and his fears, and his extra burdens to stimulate himself in a positive way. He didn’t complain about his heavy burden. As he crossed over the river, he didn’t allow the difficulties of crossing with such a large camp to dissuade him from using his mind to grow great. Just the opposite! The burdens caused him to realize how much he had. And he used the stimulation of these difficulties, to engender in his mind more and more gratitude to Hashem. And Yaakov grew great because of these thoughts.
And this program for perfection that Yaakov is teaching us, is something that we all can use as well. So many of the difficulties and day-to-day struggles that we all face, are actually wonderful opportunities for greatness. Do you know how many people would love to go through your regular everyday burdens?
Here’s a man, whose shopping cart is loaded down with groceries at the supermarket. Children eat, you know. And the more children, the more he’ll have to shop. And food costs money. And so, this man is grumbling in his mind about the difficulties. It’s expensive, and it’s time consuming. And he has to work hard to pay the bills. It takes time to go through the aisles, and wait on the long lines; and he’s rushing to get to work.
Now, most people will fail to use this opportunity for greatness. But the thinking man, the one who knows why he’s in this world, will not allow such an opportunity to pass by. And so, this man, waiting on line, looking at his cart full of food, will learn the lesson of Yaakov Avinu, and think to himself: “Many years ago when I would go shopping, it was so easy, so simple. A few items in the cart, and I was set for the week. Some canned tuna fish, crackers, a milk, and I was set.” You know that a bachelor doesn’t need much to get by. Things were much simpler that way. An unmarried man doesn’t even need to have placemats for the table in the kitchen. I knew a man, a unmarried fellow who lived on his own, who told me that he would just open up his big phone book, and use that as a placemat. And he would flip the page for every meal. One page for fleshing, and then turn the page again for milchig. He was living a bachelor’s life.
Back then it was במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה. It was just Yaakov and his walking-stick. It was just the bachelor, his frozen blintzes and his telephone book. And now והייתי לשני מחנות. Yaakov had to make plans to protect a large family. Large enough to separate into two camps. Similarly, the father of the large family, has to fill up two food carts with much more food than the man with no children. And it takes time, and money and effort. But the wise man will use these difficulties, to recognize how much he has gained over the years. Yes, it would have been easier if he only had himself to worry about. And those are exactly the thoughts that the wise man uses. He says ועתה הייתי לשני מחנות. All of my hard work, my bills, my צער גידול בנים, is all because Hashem gave me so many gifts.
And the opportunities for this achievement are endless. It may be when you are waiting impatiently in the doctor’s office with a few children who are complaining. It’s no fun sitting in the waiting room. But it’s most definitely an opportunity. And most people waste the opportunity with worthless thoughts. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with looking into a sefer. Wonderful! Wonderful! But what about all those minutes that you’re not doing that?! You can achieve great things waiting in the doctor’s office. You know that when you had no children, you didn’t have to wait in the doctor’s office with children. Think about that for a few minutes. Let it sink into your head. The daily burden that you carry is the result of the happy gift of children.
It could be as you try to figure out how to fit a large brood of children into an apartment with only a few rooms. Sometimes it’s difficult to have a home full of children. A child is not a pet that you can put into a cage and forget about. Children fight, they scream, they break things, they get sick. And your house is a noisy and crowded place. And as you stand there listening to the yelling, you can take a minute and say, ועתה הייתי לשני מחנות. “Boruch Hashem I have these troubles.”
It may be as you try to figure out how to get all your children, and all the suitcases, up to the country for the summer. Or how you will juggle the bills of paying for the summer camps. All of these are your own ועתה הייתי לשני מחנות. And they are your opportunities for achieving perfection in gratitude to Hashem. Because you are training yourself to take even the encumbrances of life, the difficulties that make the man of the lazy mind feel overwhelmed and even unhappy, and you are using those difficulties to remind you of the kindness that Hashem has bestowed upon you.
And all these lessons that we learn from Yaakov Avinu, are the ideals that we are supposed to live by. That’s why we are taught all of these lessons in the Torah. So that we should say ואעשה כן גם אנכי – “And I want to do like Yaakov did, and become great like Yaakov did.” And using the various places that you see and you pass, to recall what you had once been, and all of the kindness that Hashem has bestowed upon you since then, is the first lesson that we learn from Yaakov. And then to use all of the “burdens” and “difficulties” that come along with the gifts of Hashem, in order to stimulate our minds to remember His kindness, is the second lesson we learn from Yaakov Avinu.
And by following in the path of Yaakov, you’ll become a happy person. If you use the opportunities that daily life presents, you’ll recognize the endless benefits that Hashem has bestowed upon you. And by breaking the habit of walking through life without thinking, and using these methods to grow great in gratitude to Hashem, you will become the success in life that is your true purpose in this world.
Have a wonderful Shabbos