Parashat Hashavua Vayishlach 2011

Drash on Parashat Vayishlach
Rabbi Gary J Robuck
North Shore Temple Emanuel
Chatswood, NSW, Australia

“He was overweight and middle-aged.  He wore round, owlish glasses, which hovered below a balding head. Day after day, he was found in his office, together with his tiny staff, grappling with a blizzard of paper. He was an active little man, who appeared to work more than 14 hours every day while always managing to remain good tempered.”

He was also a Captain in the M16 British Intelligence Agency posted to Berlin during WWII.  As a super spy, Frank Foley “convinced scores of German snoops to become double-agents and persuaded leading German scientists not to pass on essential data about atomic and rocket advance to their Nazi master”.

Frank Foley is the subject of a recent book written by British journalist Michael Smith, who said of him: “He ignored all the rules to help Jews leave the country, sometimes demanding to be let into concentration camps to get them out, occasionally hiding them in his own home, and using his Secret Service skills to provide them with false papers and passports.  Day and night, he was at the disposal of those who sought help.  He issued visas of all kinds and thereby assisted in the liberation of many from the concentration camps.”  Among those who were sheltered in Foley’s own apartment was Leo Baeck, head of the Association of German Rabbis.

The author was impressed with more than just his subject’s acts of daring; he was also impressed with his humanity.  He writes:  “Before all else, Foley was humane.  In those dark days in Germany, to encounter a human being was no common occurrence. His work in Berlin was a stupendous act of humanity, born not out of political necessity but out of a moral imperative.”

Like you, I imagine, I have been struck by this largely untold story.  Yet, what is it about what Frank Foley did – like so many other Righteous Gentiles – that is most remarkable?  What he did, I submit, is to see the Divine in others, at a time when the guns of war and the fury of hatred threatened to obscure its image.

Seeing the Divine in others has its origins not with Frank Foley, of course, but in this week’s Parashat Vayishlach, when Yaakov Avinu is discovered wrestling with a being throughout the course of a long, sleepless night. At its end, something interesting occurs which, if we’re not careful, might sneak under the radar and escape our attention.

In chapter 32:31, a triumphant though somewhat gimpy Yaakov is heard to remark: “I have seen a Divine being face-to-face.” This is intriguing because the Torah only a few short verses earlier described this “being” not as some angelic creature, but as an “ish” (man).

Likewise, when Jacob is reunited with his brother Esau in chapter 33 once the air has been cleared  and the suspicions each brother held towards the other allayed, Jacob states: “If you would do me this favour, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

In both instances what is most important is not the wrestling or the reunion, but the way Yaakov succeeds in seeing the neshama – the heart and the soul of the other person, the Face of God – in the other.

In the latter case, he no longer views Esau as an “intimidating rival” and he doesn’t try to trick him or to take unfair advantage of him.  Yaakov comes to see his brother as a reflection of God, and therefore deserving of careful handling.

It is not something that comes easily to Yaakov, who worked his way to the top through deception and manipulation of his father and his brother.  Only after a night of bitter struggle, at which time his name is changed to Yisrael, does he at last get it: he understands that every being is created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God) and is not placed on earth solely for our convenience or to do our bidding.

Martin Buber, who united a unique form of religious existentialism to Jewish spiritualism, articulated this idea best of all.  In his classic work I-Thou, he taught his readers that every relationship that we enter into in which we regard the other as like unto God is “a glimpse through to the Eternal”. It is through these relationships that “one becomes who he or she is meant to be”.

Our communities are filled with people who see only the worst in others, ascribing to them sinister motives, putting them down and writing them off for one reason or another.  Our tradition is emphatic, however, that this not be the case.  A Chassidic source, Or Ha-Ganuz l’Tzaddikim, expresses it this way:  “When you see any person, you are to imagine the being of God and God’s light flooding through the person to you.”  So too when you see a holy book or the holy letters and words within, or when you see the skies, imagine that they are the “shields” or “screens” through which God’s light is flooding.

The Baal Shem Tov also encouraged his followers to look at the other with charity in our hearts, because if we look closely enough, we will see God. “When one looks well, with his mind’s eye, on all the things before his eyes, on their inner essence and their vitality, and not their surface and external side along, the person will not see anything but the Divine power within them … and when one listens well to the inner voice … one will not hear anything other than the voice of God.”

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