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This Issue's Halacha Article

Parshat VaYishlach

14 Kislev 5768

November 24, 2007

Vol.17 No.11

In This Issue:

Unfinished Business

by Rabbi Darren Blackstein

Upon the arrival of a newborn, parents face the responsibility of naming their child. There are many factors that people take into account when contemplating the name that they will give to this child. After all, the child will be known by this name for the rest of his life!

Will this child bear the name of a dearly departed loved-one? Will this child carry on a name presently used? Perhaps this child will acquire a name based upon the closest Chag or based upon the phonetic tastes of the parents! The one common denominator that is shared by all of these expressions is a desire for the child to aspire to some values associated with the name or with people bearing that name. This notion may be expressed as a Tefillah by the parents that the child should carry on certain values and traditions somehow represented and embodied by the name. The quality of omniscience gives Hashem an advantage not enjoyed by man: Hashem knows us in some way even before we are born. Hence, when Hashem gives a name, it is a true reflection of the person as opposed to a hope as to whom he might be. This intimate knowledge also gives Hashem the insight to change a name when He sees fit. The change may be warranted by a transformation in status, an accomplishment, or a challenge to be embraced. Either way, when Hashem makes the change, we can be confident that it is a true reflection of some aspect of that person's essence.

In Parashat VaYishlach, Yaakov struggles with an angel, and when the battle seems to reach a stalemate, the angel injures Yaakov. When Yaakov demands that the angel bless him, it informs Yaakov that his name no longer will be Yaakov. Instead, he will be known as Yisrael, because he "struggled with the Divine and with men and has overcome" (Bereishit 32:29). Yaakov then asks the angel for its name and it blesses Yaakov. Yaakov proceeds to name the area where this event took place. Rashi points out that the name Yaakov is based on the word for some type of deceit, which alludes to the acquisition of the blessings from Yitzchak in what appeared to be an unorthodox manner. This implies that now, Yaakov has developed to the point where he has come into his own, disassociated from the previous act of deceit. This change in character is denoted by his struggle with the Divine and with man. Yaakov suffers a physical wound and files no complaint. Rather, he expresses curiosity as to his attacker's name, wanting to learn more as he embraces this bizarre event. Yaakov emerges physically wounded but spiritually intact. Only after such a challenge does he merit the alternate name that is symbolic of his character development. Yaakov has dealt with challenges and has emerged from them all the better. To this end, we read of his naming the place where this challenge took place. He wants the name to reflect what that place stood for in his experience.

Every discipline has its nomenclature. We love to give names, and we refer to them all the time. Ironically, the very names we go by are not given as a result of having witnessed our accomplishments, but are given to us by people who hope and pray that our character will rise to the challenge of the name. On the other hand, we believe that things are "meant to be" in this world. This lack of coincidence would then have us recognize a type of Divine involvement in the names we are given. Having Hashem involved, at least indirectly, would lead us to see that our names also may reflect our essence and that we can aspire to the goals set out for us by our names. May we all, as Yaakov did, demonstrate to Hashem and to ourselves that we are able to perform this internal Kiddush Hashem, to act in a way that truly brings the character of our names into the lives that we lead.

Thanksgiving Troubles

by Moshe Kollmar

Many observant Jews in America celebrate Thanksgiving. A Halachic question has arisen as to whether such celebration is Assur. In order to determine this, one must look into the day's history. Thanksgiving was celebrated first in July of 1623. It was not celebrated nationally until 1789, when Congressman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey proposed a resolution in Congress for George Washington to set Thanksgiving as a national holiday for that year (and that year only). After much debate, it was instituted as a national holiday. President Lincoln declared another national Thanksgiving in 1863, and it has been celebrated ever since.

The main question concerning observance of Thanksgiving is whether it is considered a religious holiday. The fact that the government defines the celebration as secular means nothing, as Chanukah, among other days, also is considered a secular holiday by the government. In this regard, there is a Machloket between Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Rav Moshe Feinstein, and Rav Yitzchak Hutner.

Hutner maintains that because the original Thanksgiving is of idolatrous origin, and has been celebrated annually somewhere ever since, it is considered a semi-religious holiday and its celebration is Assur, as is eating turkey on that day, as doing so is a religious observance of an idolatrous holiday. Celebration of Thanksgiving, according to Rav Hutner, is a violation of the Issur of Chukat Akum, imitating the gentiles. The other extreme opinion is that of Rav Soloveitchik, who holds that observance of Thanksgiving is completely permissible. He told his students that after giving his Shiur on Thanksgiving, he himself would go home to "celebrate" it. Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin agrees, arguing that because many secular people celebrate Thanksgiving, it is considered a secular holiday. Rav Moshe Feinstein takes a middle approach. He feels that Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, but he still prohibits its annual celebration because he feels that it is considered an irrational act of the surrounding culture, which is forbidden to imitate. However, he permits observance of Thanksgiving provided that one deliberately not celebrate it once every few years, which will alleviate the concern that one has added another holiday to the calendar. Additionally, Rav Moshe rules that eating turkey on Thanksgiving is completely permissible.

Whichever opinion one chooses to follow, he should be cognizant of the other views and not criticize those who adopt a different approach. Moreover, just as Rav Soloveitchik did not cancel his Shiur on Thanksgiving, so too we should not let the celebrations interfere with our obligation to study Torah daily.

[Editor's note: Rav David Bleich, in a conversation at Yeshiva University, reported that he attended an Agudath Israel convention, held on Thanksgiving many decades ago, at which turkey was served. Rav Bleich defended this action by noting that the Puritans, who established Thanksgiving, were pure monotheists, and thus Thanksgiving is not of idolatrous origin.]

Wait a While

by Avi Levinson

Parashat VaYishlach recounts Yaakov's reunion with Eisav. Afraid Eisav will seek vengeance for his pilfering the Berachot years earlier, Yaakov decides to send Eisav a gift of many flocks of different animals, hoping that his show of magnanimity will assuage Eisav's anger. Yaakov gives his messengers one peculiar instruction: "VeRevach Tasimu Bein Eider UVein Eider," "And leave some space between each flock" (32:17). Why does Yaakov insist that his flocks be separated by species?

Rashi answers that Yaakov was trying to make his gift look more impressive. If all the animals came in one jumbled mass, Eisav would not be so influenced. Because he left space between different flocks, Yaakov made it seem as though his gift was much larger than it truly was, by which he hoped to better calm Eisav. The differentiation by species was convenient, so he divided them that way.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch proposes a different answer. He explains that Yaakov was making use of a "deep psychological insight" into anger management. If someone is angry, it is unwise to attempt to calm him down all at once. A better tactic is to attempt to assuage his anger piecemeal. As such, if Yaakov had sent his entire gift at once, it might have calmed Eisav somewhat but would not have assuaged his anger altogether. Therefore, Yaakov divided his gift into portions so that Eisav's wrath slowly but surely would be cooled.

Rav Hirsch's insight is true not only vis-à-vis other people, but also regarding ourselves. Rav Yissocher Frand explains that one of the most effective ways to avoid getting angry is to delay reacting to the slight or incident that is the cause of the potential rage. Be it for two minutes, two hours, or two days, stepping away from the situation is a good method to avoid flaring up. In fact, Rav Eliyah Lopian once waited two weeks to discuss a problem with his son, lest he burst out in anger during the conversation.

Rav Paysach Krohn points out that we daven every day that we be spared from situations that might lead to stress and anger. In every weekday Shemonah Esrei, we recite, "VeHaseir Mimenu Yagon VaAnachah," "Remove from us sorrow and sighing." If Chazal felt it important enough to include this prayer thrice daily, it must be a very significant point. Obviously, the best way to avoid anger is to evade situations that might involve tension or high emotions; we daven that Hashem not send us any tests ("Lo LiYdei Nisayon"). But if we are forced into such circumstances, we should be sure to remember that Yaakov understood that postponing our reaction is an excellent way to stay in control.

Staff at time of publication:

Editors-in-Chief: Gilad Barach, Jesse Nowlin

Executive Editor: Avi Levinson

Publication Editors: Shlomo Klapper, Gavriel Metzger

Executive Managers: Shmuel Reece, Dov Rossman

Publication Managers: Ilan Griboff, Yitzchak Richmond

Publishing Manager: David Bodner

Business Manager: Doniel Sherman, Charlie Wollman

Webmaster: Michael Rosenthal

Staff: Shimon Berman, Jonathan Hertzfeld, Benjy Lebowitz, Elazar Lloyd, Josh Rubin, Josh Schleifer, Aryeh Stiefel, Daniel Weintraub

Faculty Advisor: Rabbi Chaim Jachter