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To Eat or Not to Eat, That is the Question

I came into the world as an SOB. I am living my entire life as an SOB, and I will die an SOB… son of a butcher! I am very proud of my father, who was also an SOB, and his career in the meat and food industry. This status, bestowed on me from birth, gives me a little insight into the issue of filet mignon. Is it kosher or not? I will get back to that, later.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, captures our patriarch, Yaakov, in a mysterious wrestling match, a battle royal of sorts, if you will. Needless to say, the outcome and lesson(s) of that contest are more significant than those of any WWE steel cage match or mixed martial arts bout we can watch on Pay Per View.

Yaakov was finally returning home after being away some 34 years. The circumstances under which he had left home were less than optimal. His older brother, Esau, had become enraged with him at that time. Following his mother Rivka’s plan, Yaakov usurped the blessing their father, Yitzchak, wanted to bestow on Esau. That event in turn brought to Esau’s mind a much earlier teenage incident between the brothers. Esau, despairing of his life at that time, sold his birthright as the first born to Yaakov.

Overhearing Esau’s murderous intention now, to kill Yaakov sometime in the future, Rivka and Yitzchak tell Yaakov to leave home, go live with his uncle, Rivka’s brother, Laban, and find a wife from his family. On his way to his uncle Laban in Padan Aram, Yaakov stops and enrolls at the graduate school, the Yeshiva of Shem and Eiver. He stays there learning for 14 years before traveling on to his uncle’s home. While living in Padan Aram for 20 years, Yaakov married Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah who collectively bore him eleven sons and one daughter. Now, after all this time, Yaakov was returning home.

The night before Yaakov was to finally reunite with Esau, the Torah tells us, in fear he took his family and possessions and brought them across the Yabok River. Then the Torah says, “And Yaakov was alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” (Bereshit, 32: 23-25) A simple yet annoying question begs to be asked. If Yaakov were alone, how could there be a man there to wrestle with him? Was he alone or was not he alone?

 Furthermore, the Torah tells us that at the end of this encounter, Yaakov suffered an injury to his hip or leg that made him limp for a while. As a consequence of the outcome of this event, a strange mitzvah resulted. “Therefore, the Children of Israel may not eat the sinew in the hindquarters of an animal… until this day.” (Bereshit 32:32-33). Note, it is the sinew that is prohibited to be eaten, not the meat.

An aside here in the dvar Torah, where my status as an SOB is relevant. This prohibited sinew, the sciatic nerve and adjacent prohibited fat, runs through the hindquarters of the cow or lamb in the “tenderloin” area. This area of muscle is not used much during the animal’s life. So, while it is very lean, it is also very tender. This section of the animal comprises only about 2-3 % of the animal’s meat, thus also making it an expensive non-kosher cut.

The kashering process whereby this sinew and surrounding fat are removed is called “nikkur,” meaning “tunneling.”  The process is labor intensive. Until more recently, when the art of removing the prohibited sinew and fat has become more efficient and common place, filet mignon was never kosher. Good news! Though expensive, kosher filet mignon is available on the market today. Google Bakar Meats and watch Rabbi Jonathan Benzaquen, a former student of mine who is specially trained in the nikkur process, demonstrate a delicious recipe for preparing filet mignon.

Now, this encounter of Yaakov  needs some explanation. Furthermore, what important lesson(s) is being conveyed? While there are many explanations, let me share one  that I heard many years ago from my principle teacher and rosh yeshiva, HaRav Yisroel Chait.

 In fact, Yaakov was alone. On this night, the night before Yaakov would finally face Esau, he could not sleep. Yaakov was wrestling with himself. He was confronting his own internal conflict, one that he knew had to be worked out before seeing Esau again. Even though Yaakov sent Esau gifts, prepared for war, and prayed to God, he still had to work out issues within his own personality. Only then would his former way of relating to Esau be permanently changed and improved. Only then would this meeting and all future encounters with Esau not provoke hostility toward Yaakov.

What does this event have to do with us today? Our rabbis relate that before Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, the author of the Mishnah, would meet with his Roman counterpart, he would study this specific Torah portion in depth. Successful diplomacy demands that our leaders, then and now, prepare themselves both intellectually and, as importantly, psychologically for the encounter. The conditions our fellow Jews, and as well the country of Israel is in of late both here in America and around the world, the very future of Judaism’s existence may well hang on the success of these encounters. A lot was riding on how Yaakov would resolve his internal issues with Esau and a lot is riding today on the minds and shoulders of our Jewish leaders as they meet with both friends and foes.

That this encounter of Yaakov with himself should produce a mitzvah is now not strange. In fact, it serves as a constant reminder for each of us to look at our individual behaviors and interactions with others. When attempting to make reconciliation, do not look to find the fault lying with adversary as much as to look at our own personality. What must I do, for example, to change my own behavior that will produce a positive outcome with whomever I am engaged? Such introspection may produce painful but necessary internal changes of one’s personality that lead to the positive outcome sought in the negotiation.

As an additional benefit of overcoming internal obstacles, greater metaphysical knowledge may be attained. New philosophic vistas may emerge once certain psychological blocks are removed. Sometimes an emotion or false sense of self may mislead a person into thinking something is true when it is not or may prevent intellectual investigation into certain areas of knowledge. In short, internal conquest of our personality can remove intellectual barriers as well as emotional barriers.

At the end of the narrative, we are told that God changes Yaakov’s name to Israel. This new name indicates that Yaakov also made important metaphysical advances in his knowledge and relationship with God once his internal conflict was resolved.

The mitzvah not to eat the sinew of the hindquarter of a kosher animal serves as a constant reminder of this necessary, perfecting human process. May Hashem grant each of us the strength and ability to engage and endure this process. The rewards are very great indeed!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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