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Sunday, 4 January, 2015 - 6:50 pm

The Israelis and Arabs realized that, if they continued fighting, they would someday end up destroying the whole world. So they decided to settle their dispute with an ancient practice: a duel of two, like David and Goliath. This "duel" would be a dog fight.

The negotiators agreed each side would take 5 years to develop the best fighting dog they could. The dog that won the fight would earn its people the right to rule the disputed areas. The losing side would have to lay down its arms for good.

The Arabs found the biggest, meanest Dobermans and Rottweilers in the world. They bred them together and then crossed their offspring with the meanest Siberian wolves.  After the 5 years were up, they had a dog that needed steel prison bars on its cage. When the day of the big dog-fight finally arrived, the Israelis showed up with a very strange-looking animal, a Dachshund that was 10 feet long!

Everyone at the dogfight arena felt sorry for the Israelis. No one there seriously thought this weird, odd-looking animal stood any chance against the growling beast over in the Arab camp. All the bookies took one look and predicted that the Arab dog would win in less than a minute. As the cages were opened, the Dachshund slowly waddled toward the center of the ring.  The Arab dog leaped from its cage and charged the giant wiener-dog.

As he got to within an inch of the Israeli dog, the Dachshund opened its jaws and swallowed the Arab beast whole in one bite. There was nothing left but a small puff of fur on the ground.  The stunned crowd of international observers, and media personnel let out a collective gasp of disbelief and surprise.

The Arabs approached the Israelis, muttering and shaking their heads in disbelief. "We do not understand," said their leader, "Our top scientists and breeders worked for 5 long years with the meanest, biggest Dobermans, Rottweilers and Siberian wolves, and they developed an incredible killing machine of a dog!" The Israelis replied. "Well, for 5 years, we have had a team of Jewish plastic surgeons from Boca Raton working to make an alligator look like a Dachshund."

This week's Torah portion Vayechi tells the story of Jacob's final conversation with his children. In astonishing candidness, moving prose and profound vision, Jacob speaks and blesses each of his sons, heart-to-heart, just moments before he is about to pass on to the next world.

This is why we are dumbfounded by his parting message to his two sons Shimon and Levi, in which he only reprimands them. How terrible the disappointment must have been for the two sons Shimon and Levi? They had come to their father’s bedside together with all their brothers with the expectation that they would receive the old patriarch’s blessing, just like the rest of their brothers, but all they received were harsh words. Are they to be deprived for all eternity of the patriarchal fortification which the other tribes received?

To understand this, let me introduce one of the most enigmatic Talmudic stories. Of more than one thousand Rabbis cited in the Talmud, only one became a heretic Elisha ben Abuya.

Elisha was one of the outstanding Jewish sages of the Second Century, a contemporary of the great Rabbi Akiva and the teacher of Rabbi Meir, who became one of the leading scholars of his generation.  Elisha moved so far from Jewish tradition that his colleagues stopped referring to him by his name, but called him Acher, “the other”, the outcast, the alien. Only his student Rabbi Meir remained loyal to the man who had once been his master, sought out his company and still believed that he might one day repent.

ONE Shabbat, Elisha publicly desecrated the holy day by riding a horse. Walking alongside him was Rabbi Meir. Heretic teacher and faithful disciple travel together along the road arguing and debating Jewish law.  Rabbi Meir, the pious Jew, was so immersed in the conversation that he did not notice they were  nearing some 3000 ft. beyond the city limits, beyond which one is forbidden to walk on Shabbat. “Acher”, the apostate,turned to his teacher and said: “Rabbi Meir, turn back. I have measured the distance we have walked by the paces of my horse, and we have reached the Shabbat limit. Beyond here, you are forbidden to walk.” Rabbi Meir replied:  “You too turn back.” Elisha replies with a staggering acknowledgment of his personal tragedy:

“I cannot turn back,” says Elisha. “One day I was riding on my horse. It was Yom Kippur, which in that particular year fell on Shabbat. I was roaming behind the Holy of Holies, when I heard a heavenly voice saying: “Turn back to me, O lost children, except for Acher.’ Thus, Elisha concluded, G-d forgives all who repent, with one exception: Elisha. I, says Elisha, who knew so much and yet sinned so much, caused great damage.  For me, there is no way back.

This story seems to contradict one of the most important tenets of Jewish faith that the power of repentance is never taken away from us.  Did G-d really reject Elisha for eternity?  The answer to this question was intimated by the third Chabad Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek. He noted that one must look if G-d called  the wayward sage Elisha ben Abuya, his real name, or by Acher, his pseudonym?

It is in this variance, where we discover the essence of the narrative. The voice declared, “Turn back to me, O lost children, except for Acher.” But what the Jewish heretic heard was “Turn back to me, O lost children, except forElisah ben Abuya.” The voice “Turn back to me, O lost children” was certainly directed to Elisha ben Abuya. The Divine Presence was pleading with him to return. The sharp "except for" was to Acher. G-d meant to challenge Elisha to cast off “Acher,” the Other One, the foreign personality, the false identity. What G-d was saying to him is that “You are not Acher.” The source of your conflict stems from the fact that you have identified your essence as “Acher.” The tragedy is when we begin to identify the wrong we have done with our essence; when we replace our souls with the identity of “Acher.”  Come to me O lost child, leave Acher behind! You are not Acher. You are my beloved child; stop thinking of yourself as “Acher”. Sadly, Elisha made a mistake. He thought that he and Acher were one and the same, and consequently could never make peace with himself.

This is the story about each of us. Sadly, many look into the mirror and see ourselves as “Acher”—as unworthy people, disappointments to our parents, to our people and to G-d. Many of us carry an internal story, telling ourselves, consciously or subconsciously, that we are not good enough.

This is a mistake. That same heavenly voice that spoke to Elisha on Yom Kippur calls to each Jew, saying: You are my child! You are part of Me. You are Divine. To speak bad of yourself is to shame your Creator who thinks the world of you. Whatever wrong we have done, it does not damage our essence and hence we can always make amends.

The Israeli General and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was a secular Jew, and profoundly so. On June 8th 1967, during the Six Day War, the Western Wall was liberated.  As Dayan approached the Kotel, tears came to his eyes. An Israeli newsman asked him, “General Dayan, Why are you crying?  Are you a born again Jew? This Wall means nothing to you.” Dayan responded, “Yesterday I was the most secular Jew in Israel. Tomorrow I will be the most secular Jew in Israel. But today I am as holy as the holiest Jew in Israel.”

Back to Jacob. In his blessing to his two headstrong sons, he gave them profound reassurance. Shimon and Levi! Your self-image is wrong, he told them. Do not think of yourselves as violent, deceitful people. Violence and deceit are a craft stolen from Esau. Do not despair. You have it in your power to purge yourselves of this external façade and resume your honored place among the other tribes of Israel. It is a difficult thing to do, but I give you my blessing that your efforts should be blessed with success.

A story: Two boys were expelled from school for pulling a nasty prank on one of their teachers. As time went by, one of them became a notorious criminal, while the other became a great sage.

Years later, the principal had occasion to meet the sage. “Tell me,” he said. “You both started from the same point. How come you are a sage and your friend is a criminal?”

“It’s very simple,” the sage replied. “When we were expelled, my friend’s father ranted and raved at him and punished him severely. He told him how terrible he was. But my father said to me, ‘You are such a beautiful soul, your core is sacred, pure and perfect. What you have done is so out of character!’ You know what? My father meant it. And I realized he was right. I never did such a thing again.”

We must always be aware of our quintessential essence, which is as perfect and beautiful as can be.

The inner Jacob within the Jewish soul will forever remain pure and loyal to G-d. Their sins, Jacob says, are an expression of their external layers of self, it never involves and consumes their core being!‫

Shabbat Shalom and Chazak Chazak Venitchazek,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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