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Friday, 8 December, 2017 - 2:44 pm

A zoo-keeper noticed the orangutan was reading two books: The Bible, and Darwin's Origin of Species. Surprised, he asked the ape, "Why are you reading both those books?"

"Well," said the orangutan, "I just wanted to know if I was my brother's keeper or my keeper's brother."

In two consecutive Torah portions, Vayishlach (last week) and Vayeshev (this week), the term "Eesh," meaning "man," is used. Yet Rashi's commentary, based on the tradition of our sages, varies from one extreme to the other on this word.

Last week, in Vayishlach, we read, "And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn." Rashi explains that this “man” was none-other than Esau's guardian angel. This week, however, the meaning changes.

We read in Vayeshev how Joseph was sent by his father, Jacob, to visit his brothers and seek their welfare.  A man found him, and behold, he was straying in the field, and the man asked him, saying, "What are you looking for?"

"I am looking for my brothers. Where are they pasturing?"

Who was this mysterious man, “Eesh,” who encountered Joseph at that vulnerable moment? Rashi says it was the angel Gabriel.

But wait! In Vayishlach it says that Jacob remained alone and a man wrestled with him. In Vayeshev, Joseph was alone, lost in the field, and, again, a man encountered him and asked what he was looking for. The same exact word is used in both cases to describe this person: Eesh. So why, in Vayeshev, does Rashi see him as the angel Gabriel, and in Vayishlach as Esau’s angel?

In Vayishlach, “Jacob remains alone,” in the middle of the night. He had been away from home for 34 years and was dealing with a world-class crook. In Vayeshev, Joseph, a young 17-year old, was also lost. His mother had passed on, and his father had told him to go to his brothers who despised him. He was unaware of it, but this journey would take him to slavery, prison, and complete alienation from his entire family.

Both were deeply vulnerable. Father and son. Jacob and Joseph. Both met a man who appeared out of the blue.

Context is always the key. The word may be the same, “Eesh,” but the question is, what does this “Eesh,” this man, do?

This is the difference. In Jacob’s case, the man saw a lonely man in the night and pounced on him. In Joseph's case, what did the man do? "He asked him, saying, 'What are you looking for?'"

You see the difference? He did not pounce on Joseph. He did not exploit him, or manipulate his moment of weakness toward his own goals. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to help. He asked the young lad: What are you looking for? You are a dreamer. I see you are searching for something. What is it you seek? How can I help you, dear boy?

And Joseph told him, “I am searching for my brothers!” I want a relationship. I am searching for love. For belonging. For understanding. For unity. For understanding.

Rashi is simply mirroring the context of the narrative. When a man, encountering a vulnerable person, seizes the opportunity to attack him, Rashi says that man is an angel of Esau. But when a man, encountering a vulnerable person, seizes the opportunity to offer a loving hand, a guiding heart, to see how he could aid his search for family, Rashi says this must be the angel Gabriel!

The lesson to us is clear. We all encounter, daily, weekly, or monthly, a person, whether a child, teen, or adult, who is “alone.” We see them in their vulnerability, and we make a choice. Some of us seize the opportunity to use them for our benefit. Some even take the opportunity to use them in immoral ways, to abuse or attack them, to pounce on them, willingly or unwillingly. But some of us encounter the same vulnerable people, and our response is: My dear child, my dear friend, my dear person, what are you looking for? Let me hear what you need, what you yearn for, what are your deepest fears and causes of anxiety?

Rashi says, we each have to make a choice of what type of “man” we will be. I can either become a force of Esau, or I can become the angel Gabriel.

In November 2016, tragedy visited the city of Ashdod in Israel. A Chassidic Jew, Rabbi Moshe Dovid Israel, passed away in the local hospital after a protracted illness. It was a tragedy because of a life lost, because he was still young, only 43 years old, and had left behind a grieving wife and two young children. It was a tragedy because Reb Moshe Dovid’s own father had been killed in a car accident years earlier, as a young man.

Nevertheless, despite his personal loss, and despite the great suffering he experienced during his own illness, Reb Moshe Dovid remained a man of fortitude and quiet faith. Family, friends, colleagues, and members of his Chassidic community recalled him as a kind man with a big heart. He always had a friendly and encouraging word for those around him, and had become a treasured presence in his community.

His passing was noted with sadness by the local press, which published the heart-rending image of Reb Moshe Dovid’s 10-year-old son sitting Shiva, surrounded by a Minyan of somber-looking Chassidim clad in black; but private catastrophe though it surely was, this was not the kind of story that attracted national media attention. In its own terrible way, the agony of terminal illness tends to blunt the sharp shock of death.

Thus it was to the surprise of the family when, amongst the few Chassidim sitting around the little boy, an unexpected face entered. In a society that has become increasingly divided by labels–religious, secular, ultra-religious–and mutual alienation, with its splintered constituent groups and communities, each claiming their own enclave in which to retreat, an obviously irreligious person would stick out in that kind of crowd. And yet, a young fellow showed up, asking for a Kippah at the front door. He apparently knew no-one and was unrelated to anyone there. With his borrowed Kippah on his head, he sat down among the others who had come to comfort the Israel family.

After a few moments, one of the nearby visitors politely asked this unfamiliar person if he had known Reb Dovid Moshe. No! He said.

Had ever met him before, or had he perhaps worked with him?

The answer was in the negative. "So what brings you here?"

“I live in another city, in Rishon Letzion, and someone sent me that picture of the young boy, the orphan, sitting by himself,” he explained simply. “It just made me so sad and made me feel so bad for him. I said to myself that I had to come over, to share in his pain, and try to cheer the young boy up.”

Did he need more of an excuse than that? A sentiment as pure and heartfelt as that is all it takes to melt away labels, enclaves and politics, and partisanship. Our powerful sense of humanity, of our peoplehood and shared identity, is enough to dissolve any illusion of division.

On his way out, the young secular Jew stopped by the donation desk that had been set up at the front of the house to solicit support for the widow and her two children. This visitor signed to deposit 200 shekalim directly to the family each month for years and years to come, and with that, he left the house.

Perhaps he left something else behind as well, a message that is important as it needs to be heard: For the Jewish people, there is no such thing as a private tragedy. When we hurt, and when we are happy, we share each other’s pain and joy. We support each other, celebrate together, and lift each other up.

This young man is a modern “Eesh” who is like the angel Gabriel. Many hear about such situations by reading the paper or watching the news. We sigh and move on. But this Jew got into his car, drove into a Chassidic enclave where he knew he would stick out, and sat down just to tell a little child that he was thinking of him. Then he pledged money to this family for years.

May we all strive to add more light every day by helping another person.

Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Chanukah,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky
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