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Filet Mignon Not Kosher, Why?

We are all familiar with the famous event recounted in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach. The Torah captures our patriarch, Yaakov, in a wrestling match, a battle royal if you will. However, the outcome and lesson(s) of this contest are more significant than any steel cage or mixed martial arts bout.

Yaakov was finally returning home after being away some 34 years. The circumstances under which he left home were less than optimal. His older brother, Esau, had threatened then to kill him. Esau became enraged at that time with Yaakov first for having sold his birthright as the first born son to him when they were teenagers, and years later for Yaakov’s usurping the blessing their father, Yitzchak, had planned to bestow upon Esau. When their mother, Rivka, heard of Esau’s murderous intention, she and Yitzchak told Yaakov to leave and go live with his uncle, Rivka’s brother, Laban. On his way to Laban in Padan Aram, Yaakov stops 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 11 sons. Now, after all this time, Yaakov was returning home.

The night before Yaakov was to finally reunite with Esau, the Torah tells us 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.” (Bereisheit, 32:25) A simple yet annoying question begs to be asked. If Yaakov was alone, how could there be a man there to wrestle with him? Was he alone or wasn’t 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 match, a strange mitzvah resulted. “Therefore the Children of Israel may not eat the sinew in the hindquarters of an animal… until this day.” (Bereisheit 32:33) Practically speaking, until more recently when the art of removing the prohibited sinew has become more common place, fillet minion was never kosher.

Needless to say this entire event needs some explanation. Furthermore, what important lesson(s) is being conveyed for all humanity to glean? While there may be many explanations, let me share one possibility that I heard many year 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 in his own personality. Only then would his former way of relating to Esau be permanently altered for the better. Only then would this meeting and all future encounters with Esau not provoke his 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 in which Jews find themselves in around the world and/or 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 when meeting 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, individually, to look at our own behaviors and interactions with others. When attempting to make reconciliation don’t look to find the fault lying with adversary as much as to look at our own personality. What can one do, to change their own behavior that will produce a positive outcome with whomever one is engaged with at the time? Such introspection may produce painful but necessary internal changes of one’s personality.

As an additional benefit of this process, overcoming internal obstacles, greater metaphysical knowledge may be gained as well. 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 any intellectual investigation into certain areas of knowledge. The offers proof that internal conquest also removes intellectual 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.

Whether or not this process produces some temporary physical ailment is not the measure of the success of the introspection. The true measure is the ability to make the internal change. The mitzvah not to eat the sinew of the hindquarter of a kosher animal serves as a constant reminder of this truly perfecting human process.

May Hashem grant each of us the strength and ability to endure this process. The rewards are very great indeed!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan