Parshas Vayishlach

There and Back Again, and Every Step Along the Way

One of the most formative and primeval moments in Yakov’s life was when he fled his parent’s home in the aftermath of obtaining Avraham’s blessing from Yitzchak. He could no longer be around Esau, and his mother Rivka told him to run away to her brother’s house, the devious trickster Lavan. Yakov left with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and he would never return home again. Alone and afraid, Yakov slept one night and had this stark vision of a stairway to heaven, with angels climbing and descending over him. When he wakes, he bargains with God to protect him, and which God promises.

It’s a powerful story about God’s presence and power transcending national boundaries, and the special and eternal covenant between God and Avraham’s descendants, and the everlasting gift of the Land of Israel. It also speaks to us by acknowledging the tensions that threaten us in exile, with its all too relatable hard-won struggle of trying to build and secure his family’s future in a hostile world.

The Sfas Emes notes that Yakov’s journey is one we all make, on a personal and national level. We all have to escape Esau’s clutches in one form or another, leaving the safety of our comfort zones, or more accurately, when we realize that the comfort and safety we once knew have eroded, and we need to go someplace else. Yet along the way, and in the darkness, God is there, perhaps even more than before, and we can shine brightest, more than we ever could when things were good.

The Torah tells us how Yakov left Beersheva – וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה, which Rashi comments to indicate that when we leave somewhere, that place loses a bit of its sparkle. The Kedushas Levi teaches that what made it sparkle was us, and we take that with us. The Midrash suggests that the entire Land of Israel was folded up into Yakov’s pocket while he slept, illustrating that the greatness of a place is reflective of the great people who are there. We have got what it takes when we leave and when we arrive, and every step along the way – even in the middle of nowhere.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights this story as critical to understanding what it means to be an upright Jew standing in the face of the adversity of exile. If Avraham’s great test was to leave his homeland – לֶךְ־לְךָ – then this was Yakov’s, and it’s more demanding than Avraham’s journey ever was. God asked Avraham to set out, and he set out with his family, wealth, and great renown. At this moment in Yakov’s life, God has not spoken to him, and he is alone and with nothing. When Yakov sets out, he is a true pioneer in absolute isolation and solitude – וַיֵּצֵא. When we read the story, we can feel Yakov’s loneliness and despair when he asks God to be with him.

At the end of Yakov’s life, he laments the difficulty and misery that every chapter of his life was blighted by. Yet even in what R’ Jonathan Sacks describes as the liminal space, the non-moments in between chapters of Yakov’s life when he was nowhere, he sees visions and grapples with angels, and God promises to keep him safe, watching over him like a parent.

Crucially, R’ Hirsch teaches that it is significant that Yakov has nothing and nobody and finds himself nowhere because Yakov doesn’t need any of that to become who he’s meant to be. He already has it embedded within him, and he carries it wherever he goes.

Moreover, God appears to Yakov and promises to protect him precisely at his lowest point, with nothing and nobody, in the middle of nowhere. Yakov has not yet undergone his transformation to Yisrael; he is not yet who he will become. At this point in the story, having just left his parents’ house, he has only just begun his journey into adulthood. But precisely then, at Yakov’s lowest, God appears and promises to keep him. The Torah tells us nothing about how Yakov earns this remarkable privilege, and perhaps a lesson for us is that not only is God also there in that rock bottom moment but quite arguably that moment most of all.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that this theme precisely tracks the trajectory of Yakov’s life story from a certain perspective. Yakov is born not just a twin, but literally holding on to his brother’s foot, and his childhood is defined by competition with Esau – his identity is in relation to his brother, he must be attached in order to get by, which might shed some light on why Yitzchak might have doubted Yakov in his youth. Yet years afterward, when Yakov and Esau meet up again, Esau offers Yakov to join forces, and Yakov declines in order to travel alone with his own family – Yakov’s ultimate victory over Esau comes when Yakov develops his ability to transcend competition and strife to stand on his own. Esau has no power over Yakov when Yakov can resist not only Esau’s strength but can gracefully decline his diplomatic overtures as well. The crowning struggle of Yakov’s life is in the enigmatic incident at the river, when Yakov fought a mysterious and shadowy figure we identify with Esau’s guardian angel – it’s about whether Yakov can stand alone. But he can hold his own, finally earning the title of Yisrael.

Yakov’s story is his quest to pave his own way, build his own home, and secure his family’s future in a hostile and turbulent dynamic environment. But the catalyst was him all along.

Taking the dream at face value, we might wonder why Yakov doesn’t think to climb the ladder to heaven. But the answer is the same – we don’t need to get to “there.” Because it’s right here, right now, and there is no need to climb the ladder. Yakov actually even goes back to sleep! Yakov can build his family, and they will impact the world through their actions, and he doesn’t need inherited wealth or renown, and he doesn’t need anybody’s help.

The legacy of Yakov is that we have what it takes, that spark within us. And wherever we go, we take it with us. If we’ve been anywhere great, we are a part of what made it so, and if we did it there, we could do it somewhere else. The model of Yakov’s life demonstrates that we can even do it in the middle of nowhere, that humans have a generative capacity to produce and contain sanctity.

The holiest person isn’t some saint, the holiest place isn’t the Beis HaMikdash, and the holiest moment isn’t on Yom Kippur.

It’s you, right here, right now.

Becoming Yourself

Deception is one of the recurring themes in Yakov’s life story – both as perpetrator and victim.

Yakov opportunistically bought Esau’s birthright and masqueraded as Esau to get Yitzchak to give him Esau’s blessing. This set a course of events in motion, wherein Yakov had to flee to his cunning uncle Lavan, who deceived Yakov by substituting Leah in Rachel’s place, causing lifelong tension between them and their children; culminating in the brothers’ abduction of Yosef and the subsequent cover-up of Yosef; which ultimately led the family and the Jewish People to the mire of Egypt. Yakov recognized this constant struggle at the end of his life when he met Pharoh:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה:  מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – Yakov said to Pharoh: ‘The days of the years of my journey are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, they have not approached the days of the years of the life of my fathers in their days.’ (47:9)

Yakov recognized his difficulties, and we ought to as well. It is simplistic to dismissively hand wave and whitewash Yakov’s responsibility for the way his life unfolded. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch teaches how important it is to acknowledge how the Torah characterizes our heroes’ flaws proudly, so what we can learn that although perfection is elusive, excellence is not. The Torah suggests that Yakov bore some blame for hurting Esau:

כִּשְׁמֹעַ עֵשָׂו, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי אָבִיו, וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה, גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד – When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried with an extremely great and bitter cry (27:34)

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights that the Torah narrates emotions sparingly, and the Zohar suggests that these tears alone were responsible for thousands of years of suffering.

When Yitzchak was on his deathbed, Rivka knew that Yitzchak could not see Esau for the man he truly was, so she instructed Yakov to act like Esau, and Yakov got Esau’s blessing:

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ, הָאֱלֹהִים, מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן, וְתִירֹשׁ יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ לְאֻמִּים – הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ; אֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר, וּמְבָרְכֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ – May God give you of the dews of heaven, and the fats of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let people serve you, and nations bow down to you. Lord over your brother, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be every one that curses you, and blessed be every one that blesseth you. (27:28,29)

This is the big blessing of the story that Yakov fought for, and it is a little underwhelming. R’ Jonathan Sacks sharply notes that this blessing for wealth and power is clearly not the blessing of Avraham’s covenant, which is about family and the Promised Land. Yishmael received blessings of power and wealth, and Esau could as well.

If we read the story closely, once Yakov and Rivka’s ruse was discovered and had Yakov had to flee, his father Yitzchak blessed him one last time, transparent with who he was speaking to:

וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ, וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ; וְהָיִיתָ, לִקְהַל עַמִּים. וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ אֶת-בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ–לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת-אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לְאַבְרָהָם – May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of people; and give you the blessing of Avraham – to you, and your children together; that you may inherit the land of your residence, which God gave to Avraham. (28:3,4)

By imparting Avraham’s blessing to Yakov with no pretenses, the Torah suggests that the entire ruse and struggle was entirely unnecessary, and the strife and deception that characterized Yakov’s life began with an honest misunderstanding.

God’s blessing is abundant; not exclusive or zero-sum. Yishmael and Esau can also have Gods’ blessing; it will not detract from our own.

Perhaps when Esau and Yakov met again years later, Yakov had learned this lesson, and that was why they could reconcile:

קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי אֲשֶׁר הֻבָאת לָךְ, כִּי-חַנַּנִי אֱלֹהִים וְכִי יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל; וַיִּפְצַר-בּוֹ, וַיִּקָּח – “Please take my blessings that I gift to you; because God has been gracious with me, and I have enough,” he urged him; and he took it. (33:11)

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the material gifts to Esau were the literal return of the material blessing – קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי – and bowing to Esau showed his deference to Esau’s place; acknowledging the wrongdoing of their youth. Instead of trying to usurp Esau’s position in the family and take his blessings; Esau could be Esau, and Yakov could be Yakov – וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו, יֶשׁ-לִי רָב; אָחִי, יְהִי לְךָ אֲשֶׁר-לָךְ.

Only once Yakov fights off the specter of trying to be like Esau does he earn the name and title of Yisrael, which has a connotation of straightness.

Perhaps the lesson is straightforward. We each have our own blessings, and we mustn’t seek our brother’s blessing. His blessing is his, and yours is yours.

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

Fighting the Darkness Alone

During Yakov and his family’s escape from Lavan’s house, they had to navigate their way across a river. During the crossing, some of the family’s articles had been left on the wrong side, so he sent his family ahead in the dwindling light while he stayed back to retrieve what been left behind. Alone as darkness fell, he was accosted by and fought with a mysterious figure, whom we identify as Esau’s guardian angel, one of the defining moments in Yakov’s life:

וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב לא יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם. –  Yakov was alone, and a man grappled with him until daybreak. When the stranger saw that he could not overcome him, he struck Yakov’s hip and dislocated it as he grappled with him. He said, “Let me go, dawn is breaking!” – but Yakov said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” He said to him, “What is your name?” and he replied, “Yakov.” He said, “No longer shall your name be Yakov, for your name is Yisrael, because you have mastery with God and men, and you have prevailed.” Yakov asked, and said, “Now tell me your name” and he replied, “Why is it you ask my name?”‘ and blessed him there. (32:25-30)

The imagery of this iconic battle is that it takes place in the dark of night until dawn’s early light. Darkness is not just a description of the battle environment; it’s a description of the battle itself. Most humans are afraid of the dark, at least to some degree; our sight is the sense we depend on the most, and we cannot see well in darkness; therefore, a lack of light makes us feel very vulnerable to danger.

The Mesilas Yesharim says the trouble with darkness is not just that you won’t see something dangerous, but that you can mistake something dangerous for something safe!

In the darkness, we are surrounded by the sea of the unknown, with all sorts of hidden threats lurking in the shadows in the corner of our eye. But when dawn comes, and it surely will, the darkness dissipates, and the shadows disappear. The light of reality dispels the darkness of the unknown, and the shadowy figures can’t stand to be caught in the daylight.

When Yakov asks the figure for his name, Yakov gets an evasive non-answer, “Why is it you ask for my name?” R’ Leib Chasman intuitively suggests that this the nature of the formless enemy we fight in the battles of our minds. The Gemara teaches how at the end of days, Hashem will slaughter the Satan, and the righteous will cry because it was this gargantuan mountain they somehow overcame, and the wicked will cry because it was a tiny hair they couldn’t even blow away. The very idea of the Satan is a shorthand for what we really fight – a flicker of our reflection, constantly in flux.

The Steipler teaches that the battleground of our struggles is in our minds. Whether we’re dealing with fear or fantasy, our minds can paint such vivid pictures that do not correlate with reality. Our fears amplify how bad things can be, and our fantasies amplify how good things will be; neither include any of the pathways, tradeoffs, or consequences of reality. When someone returns home after a long time away, they might hope to finally get along peacefully and happily with their family; a newlywed couple might hope it’ll be plain sailing to happily ever after, but we all know how naive that is. Reality is much harder than the illusion of fantasy, but the difference is that it is real.

We should expect to trip, stumble, and make mistakes along the way, and we might even get hurt too. But we should remember that as much as Yakov was permanently injured in his encounter, he still emerged as Yisrael, the master. It is the human condition to fight and struggle, but we can win.

The Hebrew word for grappling is cognate to the word for dust because the fighter’s feet stir up dust when fighting for leverage and grip – וַיֵּאָבֵק / אבק. The Midrash suggests that the dust kicked up from this epic struggle rose all the way to the Heavenly Throne.

R’ Tzvi Meir Silberberg highlights that the Midrash doesn’t say that the victories go up to Heaven, perhaps because our victories are personal and not always within our control.

It’s important to note that Yakov doesn’t even really win – he holds out for a stalemate while seriously injured. The victory – וַתּוּכָל – is in staying in the fight and not giving up – וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ. Our biggest tests, if not all of them, are when we are alone. This theme repeats itself with Yosef, home alone with Potiphar’s wife. About to give in to an almost irresistible temptation, he sees his father’s face, reminding him that his family heritage is that he has what it takes to stand alone and not give up. This characteristic is also highlighted in Bilam’s reluctant blessing to the Jewish People – הֶן־עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן.

It’s our lonely struggle that ultimately endures and carries the day.

How To Be Humble – Paying It Forward

Humility is one of the defining features of what it means to be a good person, and it was a characteristic closely associated with Yakov. When Yakov took stock of the blessing he had received, he recognised that he did not deserve the extent of what he had:

קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ – I am diminished from all the kindness You have done Your servant. (32:11)

Humility means having the measure of what you are and where you stand. Humility does not mean downplaying yourself or your achievements. There is a required dose of arrogance is absolutely necessary to have confidence and pride in yourself.

The tension between humility, arrogance, and confidence are ever-present. Curiously, the Gemara cryptically sets an oddly specific ratio of an eighth of an eighth. Yakov’s admission

The Vilna Gaon notes that Yakov’s admission is the eighth pasuk in the eighth parsha. Yakov does not believe his merits are worth what he was given, and our perspective should be the same.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the number eight is where natural and supernatural meet. Seven is a cycle, and eight is a restatement of what came before, an octave higher. It is a renewal of the wavelength of relationship. This is what Bris and Yovel signify. Eight makes the seven that come before meaningful.

We must not get carried away with what we have, and what we have achieved. All that we are exists for us to help those around us. But even if you do focus on everyone else, and acknowledge that your talents and achievements are from God, it is still possible to get caught up in why you specifcically have the gifts you do.

This is the second eighth. It is not enough to acknowledge your gifts. True humility is recognition that the fact of the gift is itself a gift, and not because you deserve it.

So pay it forward.