“Faith is not certainty, it is the courage to live with uncertainty”
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain
The stories in the Book of Genesis that make up the weekly parshiot of this season are among the most captivating in the Bible, and the conclusion of each week’s reading leaves us wanting more, like a good Hollywood cliffhanger. If you’ve just joined us, we are in the middle of the story of Jacob (Yaakov), the last of our founding fathers.
A brief recap: In Parashat Toldot, Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebecca (Rivka) cleverly obtains the blessing of his father Isaac (Yitzchak), intended for his older twin Esau (Eisav). Eisav was less than enthusiastic, and Rivka tells her younger son that his brother wants to kill him. She says,”Now my son, listen to me. V’kum b’rach l’cha, get up and run away, to my brother Laban (Lavan) in Haran (the family’s ancestral home). Remain with him a short while, until your brother’s fury has subsided” (Gen. 27:43-44 ).
Last week, in Parasha Vayatzei, we read about the trials and tribulation of Yaakov, as he built his family while tending with the evil schemes and trickery of his father-in-law Lavan. He works 14 years in exchange for the privilege of marrying Lavan’s daughters Rachel and Leah. When he completes his term he asks to leave with his wives and children, but is thwarted by his father-in-law, who quotes his own prophetic dream (Gen. 30:27). He then works an additional period in exchange for a share of the livestock business. Jacob, with Divine assistance, is extremely successful, despite the trickery and scheming of Lavan.
In a prophetic dream Yaakov is told by G-d to return to the Holy Land, and gathering up his wives and children, he again runs away. “Yaakov fooled Lavan, the Aramaean, by not telling him he had run away” (Gen. 31:20). Lavan catches up with Yaakov, chides him for running away and they work out a treaty of sorts. Yaakov is greeted by angels as he journeyed from Lavan’s abode towards Israel. He calls this angelic meeting place G-d’s camp, Machanayim.
In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, we find Yaakov preparing for his greatest challenge yet, the inevitable reunion with his brother Eisav. He finds out that his brother is approaching, with a small army. “Yaakov was very frightened, and distressed….” (Gen. 32:8). He was afraid for the safety of his family, and distressed at the possibility of killing others, even in self defense. He sends ahead gifts of consolation, prepares for war, and prays to G-d. After making all possible preparations, Yaakov gives his slower moving entourage a head start.
“He (Yaakov) got up that night……..and crossed over the ford of the Yabok.” Rashi tells us that Yabok was the name of the river. “Vayivateir Yaakov l’vado, and Yaakov remained alone, vayai’avaik, and a man wrestled, with him until daybreak.” (Gen. 32:25)
Yai’avak,Yavok (B and V are the same letter in Hebrew),Yaakov – what incredible use of language! Not only do they sound related, but on a deeper linguistic level they are connected as well. The man, his journey, his trials, all helplessly intertwined.
Our m’forshim, our classic commentators wrestle themselves with the imagery presented here. Rashi teaches that “a man” is none other than saro shel Eisav, Eisav’s guardian angel. Others learn that this was a prophetic vision of the future struggle between Eisav’s alter ego Edom (the Roman Empire) and the Jewish people.
The Rashbam (a grandson of Rashi) has a brilliant read into the proceedings. He draws a parallel to the story of King David fleeing his son Avsholom, noting the middle of the night river crossing, and the association with the place Machanayim. The wrestling match is with none other than G-d, stopping Yaakov from fleeing.
Yaakov fled from Eisav twenty two years earlier, he fled from Lavan, but could not flee any longer. He would not be able to have faith in G-d until he could have faith in himself. He would battle his inner nature, and transform himself in the process. But, there would be a price, a sacrifice. “He (the man) saw that he could not defeat him (Yaakov), and he struck the the socket of his hip. Yaakov’s hip joint was dislocated as he wrestled with him” (Gen. 32:26).
This injury would be a badge of honor, a small price to pay for the realization that Yaakov no longer needs to flee.
The South African writer Alan Paton, in his novel “Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful” tells of a white headmaster, Robert Mansfield who takes action against apartheid, long before the political and social tides turned in that direction. He is visited by a friend, Emmanuel Nene, who offers support, and acknowledges the severe toll the battle of principles must be taking on his friend. He says, ”I don’t worry about the wounds. When I go up there, which is my intention, the Big Judge will say to me, ‘Where are your wounds?’ and if I say I haven’t any, he will say, ‘Was there nothing to fight for?’ I couldn’t face that question.”
Yaakov emerges victorious, slightly wounded, but completely transformed. His opponent begs to be released from Yaakov’s control. Yaakov replies, “…. I will not let you go until you bless me. [The man} said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he replied, ‘Yaakov’. And the man said,’No longer will your name be Yaakov, but Yisrael , ki sarita, for you have wrestled, with G-d, and people, and have prevailed’ “. (Gen. 32:27-29).
Israel, the man, is now ready to be the father of Israel, the nation. Later on in our reading G-d confirms his new status, “Elo-him said to him, your name is Yaakov. No longer will your name be Yaakov, but Israel will be your name, and he named him Israel.”
In our morning prayers, we recite, in the pesukei d’zimrah (verses of praise) section, a few verses from the first Book of Chronicles, recalling the covenantal relationship of the forefathers:
“Remember his covenant forever, the Word he commanded for a thousand generations; that he made with Abraham, that he swore to Isaac. Then, He established it as a chok with Yaakov, to Israel as an everlasting covenant.” (1 Divrai Yamim 16:8-9, also Psalms 105:8-9).
The word chok is used in Torah to describe a law or statute beyond our comprehension, like the Red Heifer, or Shatnez, the interweaving of wool and linen.
Perhaps Yaakov was not at the level to be a partner with G-d, only as Israel could he participate as a “signatory” to the covenant.
Back to our parasha:
“Elo-him said to him, ‘I am El-Shaddai, Be fruitful and multiply, a nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come out of your loins”
Many of our commentators have stated that Yaakov’s ‘hip” was a symbol for his creative and reproductive power. His mortality would become his strength, his vulnerability, the very root of his courage.
May our detractors be humbled before the True Judge, and may our faith be the faith of Israel.
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
–Mark Twain, September 1897