Beresheit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Abraham began the Jewish journey, Isaac was willing to be sacrificed, Joseph saved his family in the years of famine, Moses led the people out of Egypt and received the Torah. Joshua took the people into the Promised land, David became its greatest king, Solomon built the Temple, and the prophets through the ages became the voice of God.
So why are we called the House of Jacob, the children of Israel? As we read the life of Jacob in the Torah, in some ways it appears to be less illustrious than the heroes mentioned above. At times he seems gripped by fear and some of his actions raise eyebrows.
Perhaps the easiest way to answer the question we have posed: Why are we called the children of Israel? is to ponder the idea of a journey.
The faith of Judaism is the faith learned and developed through a journey. It begins with the departure of Abraham and Sarah from their “land, birthplace and father’s house”. As a people we are defined by the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses. In fact, that journey is recorded in very specific detail in parsha Massai so that every generation would remember it. Moses warned, “When you have children and grandchildren, and have been established in the land for a long time, you might become decadent” (Deut. 4:25).
Therefore Israel is enjoined to always remember its past, never forget its years of slavery in Egypt, never forget on Sukkot that our ancestors once lived in temporary dwellings, never forget that it does not own the land – it belongs to God – and that we are merely there as God’s “strangers and sojourners” (Lev. 25: 23).
Why? Because to be a Jew means not to be fully at home in the world.
To be a Jew means to live with the understanding that there is a tension between heaven and earth, between creation and revelation, between the world that presently is and the world we are called on to repair; between exile and home.
Since we can describe ourselves as a combination of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, we live with the constant reality of making choices and decisions that will make us grow into our magnficient calling and destiny, or, if we choose wrongly, will cause us to shrivel into petty and self-absorbed creatures obsessed by trivia. Life as a journey means striving each day to be greater than we were the day before, individually and collectively.
If the concept of a journey is a central metaphor of Jewish life, what is it about Jacob’s journey that makes us in every generation the “children of Israel”?
Jacob experienced his most intense encounters with God – they are the most dramatic in the whole book of Genesis – in the midst of his journeys, alone, at night, far from home, fleeing from one danger to the next, from Esau to Laban on the outward journey, from Laban to Esau on his homecoming.
In the midst of the first he has the blazing epiphany of the ladder stretching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, moving him to say on waking, “God is truly in this place but I did not know it… This must be God’s house and this the gate to heaven” (Gen. 28:16-17). None of the other patriarchs, nor even Moses, has a vision quite like this.
On the second, in our parsha, he has the haunting, enigmatic wrestling match with the man/angel/God, which leaves him limping but permanently transformed – the only person in the Torah to receive from God an entirely new name, Israel, which is interpreted, “one who has wrestled with God and man” or “one who has become a prince [sar] before God.”
Jacob’s meetings with angels are described as “a chance encounter,” as if they took Jacob by surprise, which clearly they did. Jacob’s most spiritual moments are ones he did not plan. He was, as it were, “surprised by God.”
Jacob is someone with whom we can identify. Not everyone can aspire to the loving faith and total trust of an Abraham, or to the seclusion of an Isaac. But Jacob is someone we understand. We can feel his fear, we can understand his pain at the tensions in his family, and sympathize with his deep longing for a life of tranquility and peace.
It’s not just that Jacob is the most human of the patriarchs but rather that at the depths of his despair he is lifted to the greatest heights of spirituality. He is the man who encounters angels. He is the person surprised by God. He is the one who, at the very moments he feels most alone, discovers that he is not alone, that God is with him, that he is accompanied by angels.
Jacob’s message defines Jewish existence. We journey through life, restless, rejected by one country after another with only brief periods of peace in our history. But in our darkest hours, we have found ourselves lifted by a force of faith we did not know we had, surrounded by angels we did not know were there. If we walk in the way of Jacob, we too may find ourselves surprised by God.
In Tune with Torah this week = look back at your life’s journey and note the many times when God was at work though you didn’t realize it til later. Thank Him for your personal journey, confident that He who has cared for you and led you thus far, will not every leave you alone in the future.