Parshas Vayishlach: On Turkeys and Terror

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By Rabbi Adam Freedman

Turkey Day has come again. And we have a lot to think about at this time of year.

We as a People are most commonly known by two names, “The Jewish People” and “the Children of Israel.” If we look at the source of these two names we find something very appropriate for this time of year.

The word “Jew” actually comes from Judah, one of the Twelve Tribes. He received his name in last week’s Parsha when his mother, Leah, said, “This time let me gratefully praise Hashem.”

You probably see where I’m going with this.

Thanksgiving is at the heart of the Jewish People’s values. It’s the definition of our name. So whether or not you ate turkey on Thursday night, the value of Thanksgiving is one of the defining character traits of our people. Leah named Yehudah after giving birth to the fourth of the Twelve Tribes. She said that God had given her more than her share and she now must be infinitely grateful. As Jewish people, we are always meant to view what we receive in life as “extras” coming from Hashem. Do we truly deserve anything?

The sage Nachum Ish Gam Zu was famous for living this ideal. No matter what trouble faced him in life he always said, “Gam Zu L’tova, also this is for the good.” He truly believed that he deserved nothing and everything that he got was a gift from Hashem. If Hashem decided that it was time for that gift to end, then it must be that He was doing it for the good.

The second name that we are called, “The Children of Israel,” is found in this week’s Parsha. As Yaakov is on his way to face his brother Esav for the first time in over 20 years, he takes his family across the river and returns for a few small vessels that he left on the other side. He finds himself alone and the Sar Shel Esav, the spiritual force of Esav, appears in physical form. The Torah tells us that Yaakov wrestles with him through the entire night until the morning. The angel asks that Yaakov let him go, for morning has come. But Yaakov refuses, intent on receiving a blessing from the angel before he departs. The angel asks his name and he replies, “Yaakov.”

“No longer will you be called Yaakov,” the angel tells him, “from now on you will be known as Yisrael. Ki Sarisa Im Elokim V’Im Anashim VaTuchal. For you have striven with the Divine and with man and you have overcome.”

Now, it’s hard to see this in the English but the word Yisrael, or Israel, comes from the word Sarisa, or strive. One would think that the important verb here would not be strive, but overcome. The striving or the struggle we would think is merely a means to achieve the end. To overcome, or to win.

But we are being told a very deep Jewish ideal here. It’s not about winning. It’s not about overcoming. It doesn’t matter whether you manage to succeed or not. That’s not something within our control. But to keep struggling, to keep trying, to keep going no matter what happens, that is a defining characteristic of the Jewish People. That is what it means to be one of the Children of Israel. The children of strivers. The children of strugglers.

I am assuming that by now, most people have heard about the wedding of Sarah Littman and Ariel Beigel that took place last night in Jerusalem. The bride lost her father and brother two weeks ago in a terrorist attack. Her wedding was meant to be three days later. Understandably, the festivities were pushed off by the Shivah. In an interview with the couple after their tragic loss, they made a remarkable announcement. “We are going to hold the wedding as soon as we get up from Shivah. And anyone who would like to attend is invited.”

There was a video clip from the wedding posted online in which Sarah, the bride, directs hundreds of girls to sing along with her over and over, “Hakadosh Baruch Hu, Anachnu Ohavim Otcha, Hashem we love You!”

I feel that Sarah embodies these two names in the strongest way in our generation. She is a member of “The Jewish People” and one of “The Children of Israel”. Sarah realizes that it’s about the struggle and that no matter what happens we keep going. But not only do we keep going, we keep being thankful. We keep expressing gratitude for the good and for the struggles, and we keep singing to Hashem. Forever.