Torah For The Times    

Parshat VaYishlach
Torah Reading: VaYishlach (Genesis 32:4 - 36:43)   
Shabbat Candle Lighting: 4:19 PM 
Shabbat ends: 5:21 PM

Man of the Earth  

Returning the Gifts


We read this week of Jacob’s return from Charan, where he had married, established a family and amassed great wealth. Upon his return to the Land of Canaan, he discovered that his brother Eisav, escorted by 400 armed men, was approaching him menacingly.


In response to the threat from Eisav and his henchmen, Jacob prepared a three pronged approach which included prayer, battle and an elaborate gift. The gift proved effective in assuaging Eisav’s anger, and for the moment there was a rapprochement between the brothers.


The Midrash records an interesting dialogue between an “ama d’arah” and the Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Hoshayah (Ama d’arah is the Aramaic version of “am ha’aretz,” usually translated as “ignoramus,” but more precisely as: “A [member of a] nation of the earth.” It usually connotes an uncouth, earthy or materialistic individual rather than one who is unlearned.): 


A certain Ama d’arah said to Rabbi Hoshayah: “I would like to relate to you one beautiful teaching. Would you repeat it in public in my name?”


 “What is it?” He replied, “All of those gifts that our father Jacob gave to Eisav, the nations of the world are destined to return to King Moshiach in the future. What is this based on? ‘The kings of Tarshish and the Isles will pay tribute, the kings of Sheva and Seva will offer gifts (Tehillim 72:10).’ It does not say ‘will bring’ but rather ‘will return.’


He said to him, “By your life, this is indeed a beautiful teaching that you said, and I will repeat it in your name.”


Focus on the Ama d’arah


Why was it necessary to characterize this individual disparagingly as an Ama d’arah? From his ability to relate a beautiful commentary on the Torah and cite support for this teaching through a rather astute inference from Tehillim, the title of Ama d’arah, with its negative connotation, does not do justice to him. Certainly, the Torah wants us to avoid using unnecessarily negative characterizations of people.  After all, the Talmud relates that the Torah would use a lengthier description of a non-kosher animal to avoid using a pejorative term.


Second, why does the Midrash place so much emphasis on Rabbi Hoshaya’s repeating this teaching in the name of its author? Isn’t that standard procedure? Do not our Sages teach us in Avos: “One who quotes a saying in the name of its author brings redemption to the world?”


Yearning for Moshiach


The following explanation of the Midrash is based on the Shevet Sofer (a 19th century work by a leading Hungarian Talmudic scholar, grandson of the famed Chasam Sofer).


It is axiomatic in Judaism that a Jew must not only believe in Moshiach’s coming but he or she must also yearn for and eagerly anticipate it. We must want, pray and even “demand” Moshiach’s arrival. The importance of desiring Moshiach and Redemption is dramatically expressed in our daily prayer, the Shemoneh Esrei: “Speedily cause the offspring of David Your servant to flourish, and exalt his power with Your deliverance, for we hope for Your deliverance all day.”


The meaning of the words “all day” is that the desire and hope for Moshiach should not just be a fleeting feeling but it must pervade our entire day. Moreover, the Chidah (the great 18th century Sephardic Sage) writes that the desire and hope for Redemption, in and of themselves, hasten its happening. 

One of the questions the soul is asked in the next world, the Talmud states, is: “Have you eagerly awaited salvation?”


Two Moshiach Meditations


The obvious question for many Jews today is how one who does not feel that sense of yearning and desire for Moshiach develop these feelings?


The answer is similar to that proffered when the question asked is about the command to love G‑d. How does one fulfill this commandment if he or she does not currently love G‑d? The answer given in Chassidic literature is that the Mitzvah to love G‑d is actually a Mitzvah to meditate on G‑d’s greatness in ways that will generate feelings of love.


Similarly, for us to develop a desire and anticipation for Moshiach and Redemption it is imperative that we meditate on the subjects of Moshiach and Redemption.


There are essentially two meditations, or two models, for our desire for Moshiach and Redemption.


The more materialistic individual will acquire a feeling for the Redemption when he or she reflects on all of the material blessings that will characterize the Messianic Age. In the words of the Rambam, “All of the delights shall be as abundant as the dust of the earth.” All pain and suffering will cease; illnesses will be cured and nations will no longer threaten our security. Peace will break out throughout the world. How can one not desire such a utopia?


This model for developing a desire for Redemption is, however, not the ideal. The deeper reason for and meditation on the Redemption is that it will restore G‑d’s presence to the world. G‑d’s unity will no longer be compromised. Our world will be inundated with this awareness of G‑d.  The Sages have declared that G‑d, like us, is in exile.  He suffers when we suffer. When the Torah describes the future return of Israel from exile it states “G‑d will return your captives...” The Hebrew term for “return,” Rashi states, actually means “and He will return with your captives” because “G‑d finds Himself dwelling with Israel in the distress of their exile, and when they will be redeemed He would be redeemed with them.”


When we meditate on this notion that G‑d too suffers in exile, it can help us experience a profound desire to see an end to our Heavenly Father’s pain. Indeed, a sensitive child often will care more for the suffering of a beloved parent than for his or her own pain and suffering.

The meditation that focuses on the Divine and spiritual rather than the material benefits of the Messianic Age is an elevated meditation and is the hallmark of the more spiritually sensitive individuals.


We can now better understand the dialogue between the Ama d’arah—the materialist and Rabbi Hoshayah.


The Rabbi Hoshaya and Ama d’arah Approaches


The name Hoshaya is cognate to the word in Hebrew that means salvation. This particular Sage personified the ultimate reason for the desire for Redemption and salvation—for G‑d’s sake. His name exemplified his life’s desire and passion to bring about the salvation for G‑d’s sake, consistent with the Chassidic interpretation of the verse in Tehillim that “Deliverance belongs to G‑d.”  Not only is G‑d the source of our deliverance, but our quest for deliverance is primarily for G‑d’s sake.


Thus, the materialist, knowing Rabbi Hoshaya’s passionate desire for Redemption for G‑d’s sake, wanted to know if he would tolerate the first approach to developing a desire for Redemption; one that would appeal even to the most materialistic individual.


He therefore presented the idea that in the Messianic Age we will have all of Jacob’s wealth returned to the Jewish people. TheAma d’arah felt that the prospect of regaining that wealth, emblematic of the incredible affluence that we will enjoy in the future, could make even the most materialistic and crass person develop a longing for the Messianic Age. Accordingly, he asked Rabbi Hoshaya, the Redemption obsessed sage, whether he would accept that approach as legitimate and quote him. By quoting him—the materialist—it would help other people lacking in spirituality gain some appreciation for Moshiach.


Rabbi Hoshaya’s response was a clear yes. Although he maintained a far more sophisticated approach to Moshiach, Rabbi Hoshaya knew that it was important for everyone fervently to want Moshiach, irrespective of their motives.


One may suggest that the desire and eager anticipation for Moshiach, for any reason, can not only hasten Moshiach’s coming but also alter the consciousness of a person with a limited and Galus-tainted mindset.  Whereas previously the person concentrated on material matters, now his focus has changed and he is thinking about Moshiach instead. This shift alone may be enough to make the person more sensitive to and appreciative of the spiritual benefits of Redemption.

This assertion is soundly based on two factors:


First, the person is engaged in a Mitzvah— the longing for Moshiach. Every Mitzvah refines us and allows us to grow to the next level.


Second, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught that a person is situated where his will is situated. If one wants to be in Eretz Yisrael with Moshiach in the rebuilt Beis Hamikdash, then that is where he or she is. Thus the desire for Redemption, for any reason, means that the person’s will is in a good and holy place; a place that transcends the stifling and desensitizing parameters of exile.  Once a person is in that uplifting atmosphere and “lives with Moshiach,” he or she starts the process of spiritual liberation. In this liberated state the Jew develops an even more sophisticated appreciation for Moshiach.


For the Moshiach-Challenged


Rabbi Hoshaya’s consent to repeat the Ama d’arah’s teaching in his name served a dual purpose. First, Rabbi Hoshayah wanted even the most uncouth and “Moshiach-challenged” individual to feel that Moshiach is important on a very personal level.   Second, he also made it clear that this avenue of approach, wanting Moshiach for the sake of material gain, is the lower, “entry” level for the ama d’arah and that one should ideally aspire to the higher, more spiritual reason for wanting Redemption.


This view echoes the Rebbe’s interpretation of the Rambam’s description of the delicacies of the Messianic Age: “as abundant as the dust of the earth.” By comparing the delicacies to dust, the Rebbe explains, the Rambam was attempting to convey a paradoxical message concerning the material blessings of the Messianic Age. For the materialists, it was important that they know there will be no shortage of their most cherished delicacies. For the Rabbi Hoshayas of the world, it was important to underscore that these delicacies will be of no real value; they will be regarded as no more than the dust of the earth. The ultimate “delicacy” of the Messianic Age will be to bask in the unrestricted G‑dly light and immerse oneself in the sea of G‑dly knowledge; as Isaiah (11:9) foresaw “And the entire world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the sea is covered with water.”


Moshiach Matters


If the Jewish people begin now to rejoice already in the Redemption, out of absolute trust that G‑d will speedily send us Moshiach, this joy in itself will (as it were) compel our Father in heaven to redeem them from exile.