Parashat VaYishlah: Yaakov Abinu and the Power of Torah
We read in Parashat Vayishlah of Yaakob’s prayer before his feared encounter with his brother, Esav. In this prayer, Yaakob acknowledges that he feels unworthy of all the kindness Hashem had bestowed upon him, noting, "I crossed this Jordan River with my stick, but now I have become two camps" (32:11). Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains this to mean that when Yaakob fled from Eretz Yisrael, he placed his stick in the Jordan River and the waters split.
This miracle is of course reminiscent of the miracle that would occur much later, when Yehoshua led Beneh Yisrael across the Jordan River into Eretz Yisrael, as described in the Book of Yehoshua. When the Kohanim, who were carrying the Aron, placed their feet in the waters of the Jordan, the waters formed a wall, allowing the people to easily cross. The root and source of that miracle was Yaakob Abinu, who split the Jordan River when he left Eretz Yisrael. We indeed find a close association between Yaakob and the Aron carried by the Kohanim. In the previous Parasha, Parashat Vayeseh, we read that when Yaakob woke up after his famous dream, he exclaimed, "Ma Nora Ha’makom Ha’zeh" – "How awesome is this place!" (28:17). If we spell the word "Nora" backwards, we arrive at "Aron." (It should also be noted that the holy books comment that the divine Name of "Nora" is used in reference to the attribute of "Tiferet," which was embodied by Yaakob Abinu.) The Aron transported by the Kohanim thus represented Yaakob, and in the spirit of "Ma’aseh Abot Siman La’banim" – the actions of our patriarchs established the model of what would happen to their descendants – the river split for the Aron just as it split for Yaakob.
We can develop this concept further in light of the comments of the Or Ha’haim (Rav Haim Ben Attar, 1696-1743) regarding another episode involving the splitting of a river. The Gemara in Masechet Hulin (6) tells that Rav Pinhas Ben Yair once needed to cross a river, and as soon as he reached the riverbank, the waters split so he could cross. Behind him there was a non-Jewish traveler who also needed to cross the river, and so in order to make a Kiddush Hashem, Rav Pinhas had the river split a second time to help that traveler. The Or Ha’haim raised the question of how Rav Pinhas Ben Yair was able to perform this great miracle twice with such ease. The Midrash relates that when Moshe Rabbenu wanted to split the sea to rescue Beneh Yisrael from the pursuing Egyptians, the sea initially refused. It argued that as it was created on the third day of creation, whereas mankind was not created until the sixth day, it could not be expected to alter its course for the benefit of human beings. Hashem had to intervene and specifically instruct the sea to split. Why, the Or Ha’haim asked, did Moshe have a hard time splitting the sea just once, while Rav Pinhas Ben Yair split the river twice without any protests or difficulty?
The Or Ha’haim answered that Moshe Rabbenu split the sea before the Torah was given. The Torah has the special power to overcome the laws of nature, and thus after the Torah was given, the sea and river no longer had any argument. When confronted by the power of Torah, the river retreated.
The Or Ha’haim’s insight also explains the splitting of the Jordan River by Yaakob, and in the time of Yehoshua. Yaakob, the "dweller of tents," represented Torah. He arrived at the banks of the Jordan River with seventy years of intensive Torah study behind him, and it was with this power that he was able to split the waters. In the time of Yehoshua, too, it was the Aron, which contained the tablets representing the Torah, that split the sea. The power of Torah allowed for overturning the laws of nature without any obstacles, and without necessitating G-d’s direct intervention as was needed in the time of Moshe Rabbenu.
Even before Matan Torah, Yaakob Abinu was capable of performing great miracles through his power of Torah. The miracle that was difficult for Moshe Rabbenu proved effortless for Yaakob, who possessed the unique power of Torah obtained through his extraordinary diligence and devotion to its study.