Vayishlach - 5775 (6 December 2014)

Post date: Dec 11, 2014 3:49:26 PM

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. - Reinhold Niebuhr

As Perasha Vayishlach opens, Jacob is in his mid-life. Has been working hard for the last 20 years. Starting with nothing (when he lived with his uncle, Laban), he has worked hard for and feels he earned all that he has. Two beautiful wives and their handmades provided lots of children.

All of a sudden, it’s all at risk. He realizes in stark terms, how vulnerable he really is, how fragile his possessions are, how uncertain his plans for the future, how temporary is his very existence. It could all be wiped out in an instant. (We read later how just two brothers, Simeon and Levi, slaughtered all the adult males in Shechem. Just imagine how easily Esau’s retinue of 400 men could dispatch all of Jacob’s household.)

It is a profound thing to face such danger. There are some who must face that daily, and God help them.

In our story, however, what does Jacob do? He uses his best judgement, separating his “estate” in two, and then he decides he will submit to Esau, give him tons of gifts (hundreds of goats, sheep and cows),, and hope the tribute that he pays to Esau will mollify Esau, and perhaps compensate for the chip Esau has been carrying ever since they were children.

At night, Jacob can not sleep. He has an epiphany, albeit a violent one. The text says that

    1. And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

כה. וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר:

An “Ish”, an unnamed guy came and wrestled with him. Until the break of dawn. They fought. This “Ish” is an example of a random person in the Bible, who changes the direction of destiny. Later, an “Ish” will direct the unassuming Joseph into a trap that eventually leads to the Hebrews’ 400 year sojourn in Egypt. For Jacob, this is a life changing encounter. He eventually calls this place Peniel, the place where he faced God.

Jacob fights with God. At least he thinks so. It’s a curious concept, this fighting with God. Who fights with God? It is the antithesis of “Islam”, literally, “submission” to God. But Jacob fights with God.

Contrast with Abraham: Genesis 17:1

1 Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless.

Abram walks before God, so logically, God is behind Abraham. In essence, Abram announces the presence of God wherever Abram goes.

Contrast with Isaac: Genesis 22:9

9 ... and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

Isaac submits himself to his father, or to God, so he thinks. Adonai yir’eh - God will provide - a sacrifice is what Abraham tells Isaac. Therefore, Isaac must be the thing that God was expecting to be provided. He never struggles with Abraham. He does not fight. He is bound and about to be slain when God interferes! Isaac submits to God, and God protects him.

But Jacob fights. He is all Yetzer HaRaa - some call it the evil inclination, but it can be the independent spirit, the spirit of self-determination. He sees an injustice and he is not afraid to tell God, This is Not Right! Your promise (that You would make my descendents as countless as grains of sand) that promise should mean something! I should not have to pay such a heavy price as annihilation just because of an argument from my youth!

Who are the people who don’t merely accept what “everyone” says, what “god” says, but defy conventional wisdom, who question prevailing attitudes, who are willing to fight the system? These are the Jacobs of today.

31 So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, "I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved."

contrast with Moses: Exodus 33:20

20 But He [God] said, "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!"

Jacob’s encounter with God leaves him injured and hobbled. We read:

33 That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob's hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.

Jacob is the man. This is the highest form of human we strive to be. I say that because in Kabbalah, we learn that we are partners in creation. God started the job, but we are responsible for finishing it. We dare to call ourselves peers with God!

And if we are truly partners, we are bound to get into a fight at some point, and that fight may change us forever. In the case of Jacob, he prevailed, but it altered the course of the entirety of the family line. The entire future of B’nei Yisrael.

This made us, the people Yisrael. The ones who fight, and succeed. But this altercation had major consequences.

Here is something to note. Jacob’s revelation was simple. He realized how fragile everything he had was, how he and all his beloved family, could all be wiped out in an instant. He responded by submitting to his angry brother, but fighting with God.

Jacob actively took charge of whatever he could in his life, even including God.

The Torah does not let you forget that this event was about Jacob facing God. We can interpret that many ways, but no matter which way we see it, it’s important.

And growing up could not be soon enough for Jacob. The next couple of chapters witness some pretty awful behaviors, notably the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah; that was followed by revenge attack of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, who murdered every male in Shechem and whose brothers took as spoils the women and the children and all the wealth of Shechem.

That is followed in the narrative, by the betrayal of Jacob’s son, Reuven, with his concubine, Bilhah:

22 While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine; and Israel found out.

I believe the Torah uses the name “Yisrael” (the one who fights) to allude to the heck which broke loose when Jacob did find out. There are indeed appropriate times to take out our righteous indignation. There are always appropriate places for us to be Yisrael.

I pray that, like Isaac, we learn to accept the things we can not change, and like Jacob, we fight for the things we can change. And, if we must struggle, I pray we have the good fortune to witness justice prevail over prejudice, love over indifference, and truth over fear. Whether as individuals or as a community, if the struggle to make this world better is to succeed, it will change us forever.