River of Challenge
RABBI WAGENSBERG ON PARSHAS VAYISHLACH
November 20, 2021
"Rivers of Challenge"
After Ya’akov returned to Eretz Yisrael, he made his way toward Eisav. The verse tells us that Ya’akov got up at night, took his family, “Vaya’avor Eis Ma’avar Yabok” (and crossed the shallow place of the Jabok; Parshas Vayishlach, 32:23). Rashi (ibid) tells us that “Yabok” was the name of a river. In fact, the very next verse tells us that the Yabok was a “Nachal” (stream or river; Parshas Vayishlach, 32:24).
Since we know that every single detail in the Torah comes to teach us a lesson, we must wonder why it was necessary for God to tell us about this river called Yabok. How is this relevant to our lives?
Earlier in our parsha, it tells us that Eisav was headed toward Ya’akov with four-hundred men (Parshas Vayishlach, 32:7). This fact about Eisav’s four-hundred men is repeated a little bit later on in our parsha (Parshas Vayishlach, 33:1).
The Megaleh Amukos (Rav Nasan Nata Shapira, 1585-1633, Poland; Parshas Shemos) says that these four-hundred men represented four-hundred forces of impurity that Eisav possessed. Ya’akov would have to overcome these four-hundred forces of evil.
This information begs us to ask, “Why are there specifically four-hundred impure forces? Why are there not three-hundred or five-hundred forces of evil?” Additionally, “How did Ya’akov overcome these four-hundred forces of evil?”
Since we are getting close to Channukah, we will already begin talking about this most beloved of holidays because it is very much connected to our parsha, as we will soon see.
The Mishna Berura (671:1; Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan Hakohein, 1838 Belarus – 1933 Radin, Poland) says that according to the Gemara and all of the halachic authorities, including the Maharshal (Rabbi Shlomo Luria, 1510-1573, Poland), the text of the first blessing recited over lighting the Channukah candles is, “L’hadlik Ner Shel Channukah” (to kindle the Channukah light).
However, the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534 Jerusalem-1572 Tzfas) in Sha’ar Hakavanos (pg. 108b) says that the text of the first blessing recited over lighting the Channukah candles is, “L’hadlik Ner Channukah,” omitting the word “Shel.” The Arizal says that the reason for this text is that the acronym of the words, “L’hadlik Ner Channukah” is “Nachal” (when the letters are rearranged).
The Arizal says that “Nachal” is a sacred Name of God. Moreover, the word “Nachal,” spelled: nun, ches, and lamed, serves as the acronym for another three words found in Parshas Ki Sisa (34:7) which says, “Notzer Chesed L’alaphim” (God is the preserver of kindness for thousands of generations). This is one of the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy.
Not only does the Arizal maintain that omitting the word “Shel” is the correct nusach haberacha (text of the blessing), but the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu, 1720-1797, Lithuania) in Ma’aseh Rav (paragraph 239) says the same thing. Rabbi Yoseph Caro (1488 Spain-1575 Tzfas) in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, 676:1) also agrees with the text which omits the word “Shel” from this blessing.
Let me be clear. I am not sharing this information in order to change anybody’s minhag (custom). Everybody should continue to follow their custom. If one does not know what his custom is, he should consult with his Rav. After all, the Mishna Berura does say to insert the word “Shel.” However, in this article, we are going to explore the meaning behind the nusach of the Arizal, GR”A, and Shulchan Aruch, who maintain to leave the word “Shel” out.
We are going to begin by sharing a teaching put forth by the Shvilei Pinchas. This teaching is based on a few Talmudic passages which we are going to learn together right now.
The Gemara in Brachos (chap. 9, “Haroeh”, pg. 60b) quotes a teaching from Rebbi Akiva who said that a person should always accustom himself to say, “Whatever the Merciful One does is for the good.” A similar statement was said by a fellow called Nachum Ish Gam Zu. Nachum was his real name but he earned the nickname “Gam Zu” because he would always say, “Gam Zu L’tova” (this too is for the good; it is for the best) no matter what the circumstances were.
These two Tzaddikim would witness their challenging situations transform into pleasant ones all because of their attitudes. For example, when the wind blew out his candle, and a cat ate his rooster, and a lion devoured his donkey, Rebbi Akiva did not say, “Oh my gosh, why are all of these terrible things happening to me?” Rather, he said, “Whatever the Merciful One does is for the best.” Lo and behold, the next morning, Rebbi Akiva realized just how fortunate he was. Rabbi Akiva had encamped on the outskirts of a town that was attacked by bandits. Had the candle been lit, or had the rooster crowed, or had the donkey breyed, he would have been noticed by the gangsters and he would have been murdered (Meseches Berachos, pg. 60b).
Another example occurred when the Jews sent Nachum Ish Gam Zu with a chest full of diamonds as a gift to his majesty the king. On the way, Nachum checked into a hotel. That night, the hotel manager robbed Nachum of the diamonds and replaced them with dirt to maintain the same weight so that Nachum would not realize that he had been robbed. When Nachum stood before the king with a gift from the Jews, the chest was opened and they saw that it was filled with dirt. The king was livid. He wanted to kill Nachum on the spot and then do the same to the Jews for mocking him.
Nachum did not say, “Oh my gosh, why is this terrible thing happening to me?” Rather he said, “Gam Zu L’tova.” Suddenly, Eliyahu Hanavi, disguised as one of the officers of the king, said, “Your majesty, I believe that this is the magical dirt of Avraham which he used to win the battle against the four mighty kings. When thrown at the enemy, each particle of dirt turns into arrows and spears which completely overwhelms the enemy.”
The king tried it out and it was true. The king was so pleased with this gift that he filled Nachum’s chest with precious stones for him and the Jewish community to enjoy, and Nachum was sent away with tremendous honor and glory (Ta’anis, pg. 21a). How were these tragic situations transformed into positive ones?
The answer is found in the Toldos Ya’akov Yosef (Rabbi Ya’akov Yoseph Polonoy, 1710-1784, Ukraine; Parshas Noach) who cites his Rebbe, the Ba’al Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael, 1698-1760, Ukraine) who says that in order to sweeten the harsh justice, we must find a kernel’s worth of kindness within the difficult situation, because then, the entire situation can be turned into complete chesed.
The reason for this is because we are supposed to believe with complete faith that Hashem is completely good. As such, we are supposed to believe that no evil can emanate from a God Who is totally good. Hashem only wants to bestow goodness upon His creatures (Tehillim, 145:9). It is just that, sometimes, the good is concealed within a coat of harshness which makes things appear as if there is a tragic situation.
But if a person believes with complete faith that the “evil” is just external, and if a person believes that inside the challenging situation lies a great light of kindness, and if a person merits to find even a kernel’s worth of good within the “bad,” then the external coating of evil melts away, and the person is left with a situation that has been transformed into a positive one.
This was the greatness of Rebbi Akiva and Nachum Ish Gam Zu. They had such a deep-seated belief that evil cannot emanate from a good God that they searched for the good within what appeared to be a horrible situation, and that, in and of itself, turned their circumstances around.
At this point, it is well worth pointing out that Rebbi Akiva and Nachum Ish Gam Zu saw immediate results in those specific circumstances. We may not always witness immediate results like they did. We may never understand how tragic circumstances are really for the best, not in this lifetime anyway. However, the point of those stories is to demonstrate that challenging situations are really good at the core. Maybe, one day, Hashem will show us how.
The Shvilei Pinchas adds to this by saying that we often find two Names of God that are joined together. Those two Names are 1) Havaya, and 2) Elokim. For example, after his prophetic dream, Ya’akov said, “And Havaya will be an Elokim to me” (Parshas Vayeitzei, 28:21). What did Ya’akov mean when he uttered those words?
Havaya is the Name that always represents kindness and compassion, whereas the Name Elokim is the Name that always represents strict and harsh justice. When these two Names are combined, the message is to always find the Havaya (kindness) within the Elokim (harshness). This means to say that we must believe that everything that Hashem does is for the best.
This is what Ya’akov Avinu prayed for. He meant to say, “For me, I want to live my life in such a way that I will always search for the Havaya within the Elokim.” This idea will help us appreciate the following Midrash.
In Bereishis Rabba (Parshas Vayechi, 98:3), Elazar ben Achoi says that it was Ya’akov Avinu who instituted the recitation of Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad (Parshas Vaeschanan, 6:4).
The Tzlach (Tziyun L’nefesh Chaya, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, 1713 Poland-1793 Prague; author of the Noda B’Yehuda; he named the Tzlach after his mother whose name was Chaya) in Meseches Pesachim (chap. 4, “Makom Shenahagu”, pg. 56a) explains what the Shema sentence means.
When we say the words, “Shema Yisrael,” we are calling out to every Jew, including ourselves, that we must believe with complete faith that “Havaya Elokeinu,” meaning, that there are Havaya (compassionate) times, and there are Elokeinu (difficult) times, but “Havaya Echad,” meaning that ultimately, they are all compassionate.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that it is no longer shocking that it was specifically Ya’akov who instituted the recitation of the Shema. This is because Ya’akov was the one who accepted upon himself the responsibility of always trying to see the Havaya within the Elokim, as we mentioned above. Therefore, it was specifically Ya’akov who instituted the recitation of the Shema so that all of his descendants (that’s us) should repeat this lesson to themselves a number of times throughout the day.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that Ya’akov Avinu taught this lesson to his family. As they approached Eisav, they had no idea what to expect. There could have been an all-out war. There was a possibility that many members of Ya’akov’s family, if not all of them, would be slaughtered by Eisav and his army. Imagine how frightened they must have been. Imagine the anxiety that they were probably going through.
Yet, Ya’akov taught them how a Jew is supposed to approach challenging moments like the one that they were facing. Ya’akov told them to look for the Havaya within the Elokim. Where do we find that Ya’akov told them about this outlook? The answer is when the verse said, “Vaya’avor Eis Ma’avar Yabok” (and he crossed the shallow place of the Jabok River).
The word “Yabok” is spelled: yud, beis, and kuf. The numerical value of “Yabok” is 112. The number 112 is a propitious number because it is the same gematria as the Names “Havaya Elokim.” Therefore, when it says, “Vaya’avor,” it does only mean that Ya’akov “passed over” a river, but it also means that Ya’akov “passed on” the message of “Yabok = 112 = Havaya Elokim” to his family, teaching them to always focus on the kindness within what appears to be tragic.
This is why Hashem recorded Ya’akov’s crossing this river in the Torah and this is why Hashem included the name of this river in the Torah. It was to teach us this very lesson contained within “Yabok.”
We find another source which shows how Ya’akov personified this teaching about finding the good within the bad, or shall I say, about finding that the bad is really good. That source is a pasuk from last week’s parsha which says, “Vayeitzei Ya’akov” (and Ya’akov departed; Parshas Vayeitzei, 28:10).
In his sefer, Imrei Noam, the first Djikover Rebbe, Rabbi Meir Horowitz (1819-1877, Ukraine; Parshas Vayeitzei, #13) cites the Megaleh Amukos who says that the word “Vayeitzei,” spelled: vov, yud, tzadi, and aleph, serves as the acronym, in order, of the words, “Vayar Ya’akov Tzuras Aleph” (and Ya’akov saw the shape of a letter Aleph). The meaning of this will be understood as we proceed.
The Toldos Ya’akov Yoseph (Parshas Bereishis, #1) quotes the Ba’al Shem Tov who explains the verse, “Amar Oyeiv Erdof Asig Achaleik Shalal” (the enemy declared, “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide plunder”; Parshas Beshalach, 15:9) in the following way. The first five words of this verse begin with the letter “Aleph.” The reason for this is to teach us that even when we are going through difficult times, such as is described in this verse which talks about the entire Egyptian army racing towards the Jewish people to slaughter them, we must believe with complete faith that the “Aleph” is with us.
The letter Aleph represents Hashem because when the letter Aleph is spelled out, aleph, lamed, phey, it spells the word “Aluph” (chief in command), which represents the Alupho Shel Olam (the Chief in Command of the world); God. The letter Aleph was emphasized five times to teach us to remember that Alupho Shel Olam is with us even in our darkest hour.
Although the letter Aleph represents Alupho Shel Olam, the letter beis represents a concealment of Alupho Shel Olam. This is because there are two alephs in a beis (aleph is numerically 1, and beis is numerically 2. Therefore, there are two alephs in a beis). Yet, we cannot see the alephs within the beis because the aleph is covered over by two layers. Since a beis is numerically 2, it represents that the beis covers over the aleph with two layers.
It follows that the letter gimmel [numerically 3] covers the aleph with three layers. This process continues until you reach the letter taf (the last letter which is numerically 400) which covers the aleph with four-hundred layers of concealment.
However, our purpose is to peel away those layers of concealment to reveal the Aleph that is hidden. Not only can we find the Aleph inside of the taf, but there is even more Aleph to be seen in a taf because there are four-hundred alephs within a taf. This teaches us that we can see Alupho Shel Olam four-hundred times over even in the “tafest” (most difficult) of situations.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains the coded message in the word “Vayeitzei” which was, “Vayar Ya’akov Tzuras Aleph.” Ya’akov was forced to leave the home of Yitzchak and Rivka which was a home permeated with such holiness that the Shechina resided in it. Not only did Ya’akov have to leave a place of upmost kedusha, but he was traveling to a very dark and unholy place of Lavan the trickster.
Ya’akov was concerned that he would get caught in the traps of Lavan because there was so much Hester Panim (Divine concealment) there. In order to rescue himself from such a fate, Ya’akov etched the shape of a letter Aleph on his inner mind so that he would always concentrate on Alupho Shel Olam Who would be with him every step of the way.
Since Ya’akov constantly connected to Alupho Shel Olam, even in the most trying set of circumstances, he was able to nullify the external coating of harshness and his situation was transformed into pleasantness. By the time Ya’akov left Lavan’s home, he was married, he had built a righteous family, and he was extremely wealthy. Ya’akov’s potential tragedy was turned into a very productive life.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that now we can understand why there are specifically four-hundred forces of evil which were at Eisav’s disposal. It is because this teaches us what Eisav’s power was. Eisav would tear people down by causing them to give up hope due to four-hundred layers of concealment which made their situations seem insurmountable. Just as the letter taf represents four-hundred layers of concealment, so did Eisav possess the power of four-hundred, dragging many people down into the pit of darkness where they felt alone and abandoned.
The way in which Ya’akov overcame those evil forces was to concentrate on the Aleph – Alupho Shel Olam that he had branded onto his inner mind.
By the way, the Shvilei Pinchas points to a Gemara in Baba Kamma (chap. 4, “Shor Shenagach Dalet v’Hey”, pg. 41b) which tells us that Rebbi Akiva (together with Shimon Ha’amsuni) would expound on every word “Es” in the Torah. The rule of thumb regarding the “Es” word is that it always comes to include something that is not apparent in the text.
The Shvilei Pinchas suggests that one common message that every “Es” carries is the connection between the Aleph and the Saf (or Taf). Since the letter “Es” is spelled: Aleph Saf, it teaches us that there is Aleph/Alupho Shel Olam in even the “Tafest” times.
The Shvilei Pinchas goes on to say that it is not surprising that Rebbi Akiva preoccupied himself with the study of the word “Es” because the Arizal (Likkutei Torah, Parshas Vayechi) says that Rebbi Akiva was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Ya’akov Avinu. We find scriptural support to this idea from the Bracha that Ya’akov gave to Yoseph just before he died.
Ya’akov said, “Midei Avir Ya’akov” (from the hand of the mighty power of Ya’akov; Parshas Vayechi, 49:24). When you take the letters of the words, “Avir Ya’akov” and rearrange them, they spell, “Rebbi Akiva.” This hints to us that Rebbi Akiva was the might of Ya’akov. One of Ya’akov’s “powers” was that Rebbi Akiva would be his gilgul.
Since Ya’akov trained himself to always search for the Havaya within Elokim, it is not shocking that Rebbi Akiva, his gilgul, would busy himself with the study of the word “Es” which serves as a constant reminder that the Aleph exists within the Taf. Rebbi Akiva simply continued the holy work of his previous transmigration, Ya’akov Avinu.
The Shvilei Pinchas goes on to explain that the Name “Nachal” represents the level of recognizing that the Aleph is found within the Taf. We can see this from the acronym of Nachal which is “Notzer Chesed L’alaphim.” This does not just mean that Hashem is the preserver of kindness for thousands of generations to come. Rather, it also means that Hashem will preserve kindness for thousands of generations (L’alaphim), for those who always seek “Alaphim” (the Alephs; the Alupho Shel Olam) in every situation that life throws at us.
Ya’akov Avinu overcame Eisav’s four-hundred forces of evil not just by engraving the shape of a letter Aleph on his mind’s eye as we mentioned above, but he also concentrated on combining the Names Havaya and Elokim to constantly remind himself that Havaya is inside of every Elokim, or better yet, that every Elokim is actually Havaya.
We see that Ya’akov did this from the word “Yabok” which equals 112, which equals Havaya Elokim. Since the verse says “Vaya’avor,” it tells us that Ya’akov was Ma’avir (passed on) this message to his family. This is how Ya’akov did not get sucked into Eisav’s trap of concealment and loss of hope. It was by connecting to God by being reminded that Hashem is with us always and by remembering that whatever happens is somehow for the best.
The Shvilei Pinchas adds that there is yet another set of words which are hinted at by the word “Nachal.” “Nachal” also serves as the acronym of, “Nafsheinu Chiksa LaHashem” (our soul longed for Hashem; Tehillim, 33:20). This teaches us that once we are reminded of the fact the Aleph is always with us (Notzer Chesed L’alaphim), we should then long, hope, yearn, and depend on Hashem (Nafsheinu Chiksa LaHashem).
The Shvilei Pinchas says that we can now delve a little bit more into the nusach haberacha, “Lihadlik Ner Channukah,” without the word “Shel.” When the Chashmonaim (Hasmoneans) waged war against the Yevanim (Syrian Greeks), The Jewish people were going through a very difficult time. The Jews were few and weak, whereas the Greeks were strong and many (taken from the text of the Al Hanisim prayer).
But the reason why the Chashmonaim, a bunch of Kolel guys, deserved to have such an incredible miracle performed on their behalf on the battle field by God, was because of their Emunah (faith) and Bitachon (trust) in Hashem. They truly believed that the Alupho Shel Olam was with them, even as they stood opposite the entire Greek army of trained soldiers.
We know that the Chashmonaim had this faith because Yehuda was called a “Maccabee.” The Degel Machaneh Ephraim (Rabbi Cahim Ephraim Sudilkov, 1748-1800, a grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov) at the end of Parshas Miketz (divrei Hamaschil “Isa”) quotes Sefer Yosifun (the Book of Josephus; born as Yoseph ben Matisyahu. He was a general of the Jewish army. However, he surrendered to the Romans, defected to Rome, and became a Roman Jewish historian, 37 C.E.-100 C.E.), who says that the reason why he was called Yehuda Maccabee was because when he went out to battle the Greeks, he would constantly cry out, “Mi Kamocha Baeilim Hashem” (who is like You among the mighty Hashem; Parshas Beshalach, 15:11; Shiras Hayam). The acronym of this verse is: mem, chaf, beis, and yud, which make up the word “Maccabee.”
This teaches us that the Makabim (Maccabees) always remembered that Hashem was with them even in moments of great concealment. This meaning of Maccabee is well-known. However, there is another meaning behind the word Maccabee which is less known.
The Shela Hakadosh (Rabbi Yehoshua Horowitz, 1555 Prague-1630 Tzfas) on Meseches Tamid (Torah Ohr, #4) says that when the letters which make up the word “Maccabee” are rearranged, they also serve as the acronym for the words, “Baruch Kivod Hashem Mimikomo” (blessed be the glory of Hashem from His place; Yechezkel, 3:12).
This teaches us that the Maccabee philosophy was that Hashem was with them “Mimikomo,” from his place,” meaning, that no matter what places they found themselves in, the Macabim knew that Hashem was with them. They trusted that there was good behind their bleak situation. This belief caused the exterior layer of devastation, which was manifest in the Greeks, to melt away.
Now, we know that it is a Mitzva to light the Channukah candles at nighttime (Shabbos, chap. 2, “Bameh Madlikin”, pg. 21b), just as the Menorah in the Beis Hamikdash was lit at night. These Channukah candles at night teach us that even when we experience our darkest hours, Hashem is there illuminating the way for us.
We also know that, preferably, we should light the Channukah candles outside the front door of our homes (if halachically appropriate; Meseches Shabbos, chap. 2, “Bameh Madlikin”, pg. 22a, Rabba). Channukah candles outside our homes teaches us that even when we are far from home, away from our comfort zones, Hashem is illuminating the way for us.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that now we can understand why the Arizal, Vilna Gaon, and Shulchan Aruch maintain that the nusach haberacha is, “Lihadlik Ner Channukah.” It is because the Channukah candles are meant to remind us that Hashem is with us even in the darkest of places, and even in the furthest of places. Therefore, the appropriate blessing would be, “Lihadlik Ner Channukah,” because its acronym is “Nachal,” which is meant to remind us of the words, “Notzer Chesed L’alaphim,” which teaches us that Hashem has preserved kindness for thousands of generations (L’alaphim) for those who always look for the Alupho Shel Olam (L’Alaphim) in every situation.
The plural “Alaphim” does not mean to indicate that there are many Alupho Shel Olams, rather it just means to say that we can find the One Alupho Shel Olam again and again and again, working behind the scenes.
The acronym “Nachal” from “Lihadlik ner Channukah” is also supposed to remind us of the words “Nafsheinu Chiksa La’Hashem,” to remind us to always hope for Hashem because He is right there with us.
Perhaps we could suggest one practical exercise from this teaching which may sound a little strange at first. At least once a day, in the middle of the day, let us say out load two words from this week’s parsha. They are: “Nachal Yabok.” Let us not just say these words but think about the meaning behind them.
Let us remember that “Nachal” means that Hashem will reward those who search for Him (Notzer Chesed L’Alaphim), and that we should always hope for His salvation (Nafsheinu Chiksa LaHashem). Let us also remember that Yabok means that there is Havaya in every Elokim (112).
Just by saying these words out load and just by concentrating on their meaning, we will be able to strengthen our awareness that God is always with us and that everything is somehow for the good. This itself can transform a harsh situation into a compassionate one.
So, may we all be blessed to cross all 400 Nachal Yaboks – or shall I say, may we all be blessed to cross over all 400 Rivers of Challenge throughout the courses of our lives, with strength in the knowledge that the Alupho Shel Olam is always with us, and may we tap into that Aleph with the understanding that even difficult situations from Elokim stem from Havaya, and therefore they are all good; in order that Hashem preserve His kindness for us for thousands of generations to come, and defeat our enemies, and remove our loss of hope by illuminating us with the holy Channukah lights, which will make Ya’akov Avinu, Yehuda Maccabee, Rebbi Akiva, and Nachum Ish Gam Zu so very proud of us.