To Seek the Blessing

With the celebration of Thanksgiving fresh in ourminds, the Torah reading this week reaches the climax of the Story of Jacob. I see a connection. In my mind these two seemingly different topics dovetail beautifully.

Life can often be very difficult. In 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Governor Wilbur Cross of Connecticut appealed to the indomitable human spirit in his Thanksgiving proclamation: “It has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator… for the blessing that have been our common lot … for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long search after truth; for liberty and for justice… that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our harvest Home.”

With these mighty words Governor Cross looked beyond the ravages of the Great Depression that affected every citizen and inspired people to seek and find the blessings in their lives. It was the same quality exhibited by our patriarch Jacob who also overcame trial and tribulation to seek and find a blessing from God.

But, you might ask, “A blessing! What right and what hope should Jacob have had to seek a blessing from God?”  Had he not taken advantage of his older brother Esau to extort the lion’s share of the family inheritance from him?  Had he not stood before his blind father swearing he was Esau in order to steal his father’s blessing?  

People fairly ask: “Why does an unsavory character like Jacob become Israel, the namesake of the Jewish people?  Why do you take your name from a trickster and a thief?”

It is a good question, and it has good answers.

First of all, Jacob paid and paid for his evil deeds.  We would not be wrong if we counted the years after he left home as twenty years of hard time in the Laban Penitentiary in Haran. Laban tricked him time and again, and “often,” Jacob exclaimed, “scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night.  Sleep fled from my eyes.”

Second, he honestly and eagerly sought Esau’s forgiveness, and he did not merely attempt to placate his brother with empty words.  The size of the gift Jacob insisted Esau accept-and to his credit Esau was reluctant to do so — more than compensated his brother for the loss of the birthright inheritance.

And last and most important, Jacob is our role model and our namesake because despite every reason for doing so, he refused to give up hope. 

He stumbled and fell, as we all do.  He paid for his misdeeds many times over.  And when it seemed that all was lost, he wrestled with everything he had been and everything that he had done.  He proclaimed to the Eternal One  in the midst of his struggle, “I will not let You go until You bless me.” (Genesis 32:27)

Though the encounter left him wounded, he wrenched genuine blessing from the depths of his anguish and found the ability to face the future with courage and hope.  In that, I submit, he is a wonderful role model for all of us!

Jacob Becomes Israel

After twenty long years of exile Jacob decided to travel home even though he knew Esau had vowed to kill him and was on his way to meet him with a regiment of 400 men. As he prayed to God for help, Jacob acknowledged that he was “unworthy of all the kindness” that God had showed him (Genesis 32:11).

On the night before he met his brother, Jacob struggled with everything he had been and hoped to be.

It was a life-altering struggle. After he wrestled with God, his conscience, and all he had done to Esau, he emerged a new man with new determination. He resolved to reconcile with Esau and to ensure they could cooperatively co-existeach in his own land. He also limped on an injured hip to teach us that truly coming to grips with God–and the way God wants us to live–involves pain as well as progress and reward.

With whom did Jacob struggle on that eventful night?

Was it an angel, his conscience, or did he struggle with God? Perhaps it was the spirit of his brother Esau, or a combination of the above. We cannot be sure. We can be sure that after the struggle, Jacob awoke a new man with a new name. He became Israel, which means “one who struggles with God.” Only after that night did Jacob begin to realize his full potential as a covenantal partner with the Almighty.

Note that the name Israel does not mean to believe in God or to understand everything about God. It means to struggle with the idea that despite all the evil and immorality we see in the world, there is a good, caring God who implores us to use our talents to make the world a better place. The invitation to that struggle–to and the way each of us can use our talents to make a better world–emerges from the Hebrew Bible, but is open to all of us whether we identify with a particular religion or not.

After the struggle, Jacob knew that Esau prepared to wage war (Genesis 32:7), but he prepared to make peace. He sent his brother a generous offering (Genesis 32)an abundance of cows, bulls, goats, camels, ewes, rams, and donkeys. Through this gesture, Jacob endeavored to return to his brother the material value of the birthright he had wrested from him long ago (Genesis 25:29).

With this offer Jacob, who is now Israel, was saying, “I acknowledge and regret the pain I caused you.” The gift was so substantial and so sincere that by the time Esau and Jacob met, Esau abandoned the course of violence that he had planned for twenty years. The two brothers embraced, as brothers should.

Jacob’s growth and development make him worthy to bear the name Israel.

In his transformation, he becomes a worthy role model for us. The Hebrew Bible knows no perfect people. All of its characters have significant flaws. Jacob grows through the mistakes of his youth and becomes the responsible leader of our people. He blesses Joseph’s sons and brings them into the Covenant of Abraham. Although he lives as a pensioner in Egypt for seventeen years, he makes his son Joseph swear that he will ensure his burial not in a foreign country but in the land God promised to his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, the land that Abraham purchased at an exorbitant price in the sight of all the people of Heth long ago.




A Lovers’ Quarrel

Quick Comment Parashat Va-yishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

FullSizeRenderRabbi Beth Davidson and I

Rabbi Beth Dina Davidson and I worked together (she was the first female rabbi in the history of Nashville Tennessee) for six years. We shared similar perspectives on almost every important issue, and enjoyed a wonderful partnership.

Our patriarch Jacob was the one subject on which we could never agree.

For me this week’s Torah portion culminates 20 years of change in which Jacob grows from a self centered knave willing to cheat and steal to get what he wants into ישראל (Yis-ra-el) Israel, the one worthy to carry on the Covenant God first made with Abraham.

For Rabbi Davidson, though she acknowledges he did some good things, Jacob never changed. He always remained the selfish manipulator willing to do whatever it took to accomplish his ends.

When Rabbi Davidson invited me to serve as scholar-in-residence in her current congregation, we led Torah study together on Shabbat morning. We decided to consciously model our disagreement about Jacob to an eager group of participants.

We saw the session as an opportunity to show how two individuals who are avid students and lovers of Torah could disagree sharply about one of Torah’s most significant figures.

I will always treasure Rabbi Davidson’s comment that, “Your chapter about Jacob in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives makes your case for him as strongly as possible. But I still disagree that his character changed as you contend.”

The word Yis-ra-el means “One who struggles with God.

I know that my book’s chapter on Jacob is much stronger because of the “struggles” Rabbi Davidson and I shared while we worked together. When two people deeply love Torah, our disagreement about Jacob proves for me both the value of “struggle” and the conclusion of our Sages about sincere disagreements: “Both are the words of the living God.” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b)