Three QuestionsNovember 12, 2013 - 5:00 am
“He instructed the one in the lead: ‘When my brother Esau meets you and asks, “Who do you belong to, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’”—Genesis 32:17
The Torah portion for this week, Vayishlach, which means “and he sent,” is from Genesis 32:4—36:43, and the Haftorah is from Obadiah 1:1–21.
The Talmud, Judaism’s oral tradition, contains the following story: One time, the son of a prominent Sage became extremely ill and passed away. A few moments later, however, the young man was revived. When the boy came to, the startled people around him asked what he experienced while he was dead. The boy replied, “I saw an upside-down world. Those who are on top in this world were on the bottom in that world, while those who are on the bottom in this world were on top in that one.”
There are several ways to understand these cryptic words. One explanation is that while we live in a world where those with the most money, honor, and physical prowess are considered successes, these standards aren’t worth very much when it comes to God’s hierarchy. By the same token, those who are considered of lower status in this world – the poor, the humble, and the lowly – may have a first-class ticket in heaven. When the Lord determines a person’s stature at the end of their life, it’s their faith, along with their good deeds and character, which counts. Which makes us wonder – perhaps we are the ones living in the upside-down world. In fact, the story ends with the boy’s father saying this to him: “My son, you saw a true world.”
In this week’s Torah portion, when Jacob instructed his servants to send gifts to his embittered brother, Esau, he explained to them that they would be asked three questions: “Who do you belong to, where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?” The Sages explain that these three questions are a hint at the questions we should ask ourselves to keep our lives on track: “Where did I come from, where am I going, and before whom will I have to give an accounting?”
The answers are sobering. “I came from my mother’s womb, I am going to become dust, and I will have to account for my deeds before my Creator.” In other words, “I was born with nothing, I will leave with nothing, and all I will bring with me when I leave are my deeds.”
Our good deeds and merits are our true possessions and the things that truly matter.
Let’s ask ourselves these three questions as we go through this week. In this upside-down world, let us remember where we want to stand in the true world that awaits all who God calls His own.