Weekly Torah Commentary. – Vayishlach December 1, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Haftorah reading: Obadiah 1: 1-21

What do you do when you find yourself between a rock and a hard place? I’m talking about those times in life when there seem to be no good options. Your current job is almost unbearable, but there are no other jobs available—and you do need the paycheck. You need knee surgery, but you don’t have health insurance. You may or may not be between a rock and a hard place right now, but at some point in your life, you will get in on the experience.

What do you do when nothing seems to work and you don’t know what to do?

That’s where Jacob was in our Torah reading this week.

For the last 20 years he has been working for his uncle, Laban, in Mesopotamia. It has been a cat and mouse relationship: Laban constantly cheating Jacob; but Jacob coming out with increase anyway.  He had made a deal with Laban to work for Rachel’s hand in marriage. He worked the 7 years, and instead of giving him Rachel, Laban gave him his other daughter, Leah. So Jacob worked for another 7 years for Rachel. I cannot imagine the emotional pain and rejection Leah went through, but that’s for another time. After those 14 years, Jacob worked for Laban another 6 years for flocks and other livestock. During that time both men are manipulating and maneuvering. All that was stressful, but bearable.

Then Jacob overheard Laban’s sons saying how much they hated Jacob and he realizes Laban has also turned completely against him. The situation is no longer tolerable or even safe. The relationships have turned completely sour. Jacob has to leave and God gives him the go ahead to do so (Genesis 31:3).

Jacob cannot risk even telling Laban that he’s leaving so he sneaks out with his family and possessions. When Laban finds out that Jacob has gone, he is furious and pursues him. There is no telling what Laban would have done to Jacob, except that God intervened. In a dream God told Laban to not to harm Jacob. Still the bridges have been burned. Jacob cannot go back.

So Jacob proceeds to his homeland in Canaan. But there is a problem with that too. The reason Jacob had spent those 20 years with Laban is that he had to flee from Canaan because of his brother’s fury against him.

So here is Jacob’s situation. Behind him is Laban—the proverbial rock. He can’t go back there. In front of him is Esau, the proverbial hard place. He is terrified of what Esau will do—so much so that encountering a host of angels at the border of Canaan does not alleviate his fears. Consistent with his nature, Jacob develops a plan to appease Esau. He sends messengers ahead to ask favor and friendship of Esau. Maybe over time Esau’s anger has cooled. Maybe Esau will let him return unharmed. But the messengers come back with an alarming message. Esau is coming to meet you and he has 400 warriors with him (Genesis 32:6). Jacob realizes: “This does not sound good. This sounds like a disaster about to happen. And I don’t know what I can do about it. I can’t go back to Laban—that door is shut. I don’t have men to fight Esau’s warriors—all I have is a few servants, women and children. If I flee to the left or right, they will easily overtake us.”

What do you do when Esau is coming at you with 400 warriors, you have burned the bridges behind you, and there’s no place to go?

Jacobwrestles

Jacob does two things.

First, he PLANS. He divides his family and flocks up with the possibility that some might escape Esau’s attack. And he sends lavish gifts ahead to Esau with the outside chance he might be able to appease him—but Jacob’s schemes will not change Esau’s heart—and down deep Jacob knows that.

Secondly, Jacob PRAYS with intensity and fervor.    Five things happen as a result.

(1) God engages Jacob. We think of Jacob wrestling with the Angel; but verse 24 tells us that God was the initiator. God Himself is wrestling with Jacob. What is the struggle? Jacob is contending for blessing. God is contending for change in Jacob so that Jacob can receive the blessing He has already planned to give him.

When we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, God is not trying to withhold blessing from us. He has situated us in a pressure cooker that will prepare our hearts to receive the blessing we need. We try to fix the circumstances. God is wanting to fix us.

God is dealing with Jacob’s self-sufficiency. God is wearing Jacob down and teaching him the absolute necessity of God-reliance. How does Jacob ultimately prevail here? By coming to the end of himself and discovering that God is all he needs.

Have you set your heart upon the things of God as the number one priority in life? If so, you have made a giant step in the right direction. There may still be a lot to learn; there may be some hard places along the way. But at least you’re headed in the right direction.

(2) The Angel touched Jacob’s hip-socket and threw it out of joint, signifying the breaking of Jacob’s self-reliance. From that day forward, Jacob walked with a limp. In the natural, he leaves the encounter weaker than before. If you’re going to war with Esau, you don’t want to be hobbling around out there with a limp—not naturally speaking anyway. If you go on with God, you may lose some things that you were relying on quite heavily. It has cost me some things to get where I am today. But I have gained some things far more valuable.

(3) God presses Jacob for a confession. “Jacob,” verse 27, “what is your name?” The name Jacob means “schemer, trickster.” “For you to advance in my plan, you need to acknowledge the problem. The problem is not Laban; the problem is not Esau—the problem is something in you that needs to change—and I’ve wrestled with you to bring about that change. The manipulating, scheming Jacob dies right here, right now. You shall no longer live as “Jacob.” This is a watershed moment in your life. “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel”. Israel means “Prince of God” or “God-governed.”

So, what has happened here?

(4) In this struggle, God has brought Jacob up from one level to a higher level. The end result of this terrible struggle in prayer is that Jacob has become a better man. This is not about Jacob wrestling a blessing away from a reluctant God. God had always intended the blessing for Jacob. This is about God taking Jacob through a process of humble and serious prayer.

Effectual, fervent prayer happens in the struggles of real life. Desperation is the fuel behind the kind of praying Jacob did this night. God Himself led Jacob to a tight spot so that Jacob could wrestle through his issues and prevail.

This night was one of three or four watershed moments in Jacob’s life. He walked away with a limp but with far less cockiness.

(5) God answered Jacob’s request. Esau did not attack Jacob; he received him with open arms. By God’s grace Jacob prevailed in prayer, and Genesis 32:29 ends with the statement, “And he (God) blessed him there.” God changed Jacob and God changed Esau.

In Tune with Torah this week = What do you do when you find yourself between a rock and a hard place? You pray, humbly, seriously and with a heart ready to repent. God brings us into those tight places so we will pray, so that He can prepare us for spiritual promotion and through it, increase His blessing on your life.

Shabbat Shalom

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayishlach December 16, 2016

Torah reading: Genesis 32:4-36:43

Haftorah:  Obadiah 1:1-21

Obadiah, the shortest book in the Old Testament, is an amazing little book whose theme is the pronouncement of doom against an ancient and long-forgotten nation, Edom. Written millenia ago, nevertheless, this book while appearing to say on thing on the surface, has a deep message for the 21st century reader.

obadiah

Obadiah was one of the minor prophets, a contemporary of Jeremiah.  The name Obadiah means “the servant of Jehovah;” he fulfills the position of a servant. He comes and delivers his message, then fades into the background; that is about all we know of the man behind this book.

The book of Obadiah tells the story of two nations, Israel and Edom, the country to the south of Israel. Through this ancient land of Edom the Israelites marched as they came into Israel out of the captivity and slavery of Egypt. As they came into the land they had difficulty with the Edomites who were enemies of Israel from its very beginning.  Why?

Behind the story of these two nations is the story of two men, twins actually, Jacob and Esau. Jacob was the father of Israel, and Esau, his twin brother, became the father of the Edomites.  Jacob and Esau were in perpetual antagonism. According to Genesis even before they were born, they struggled together in their mother’s womb. That hostility marked the lives of these two men, and, subsequently, the lives of their descendants, the two nations of Israel and Edom.  From Genesis to Malachi the struggle and antagonism between them continues.

What is so important about these two men and these two nations? That is precisely what the book of Obadiah explains to us.

God is a great storyteller. He uses pictures so that we can understand truth more easily, more graphically. We like to have a picture. We would rather see something than hear it, so God has many pictures. He has taken these two men and the subsequent nations that came from them and used them throughout the Bible as a consistent picture of the conflict between the natural man and the spiritual man — Jacob and Esau, Israel and Edom.

Obadiah first turns the spotlight on Esau, who typifies a fleshly man concerned primarily with his personal wants, desires and passions.  The trouble with Esau, the prophet says, is this (verse 3):

The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, whose dwelling is high, who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’  1:3

Esau’s problem is a self-focused pride or conceit.  Proverbs 6:16 says: “There are six things which the Lord hates, seven which are an abomination to him.” And what is number one on the list? A proud look. And everything else that follows is a variation of pride. Those that are swift to run after mischief, he that spreads lies and slander and discord among brothers; all these things are manifestations of that single basic evil, human arrogance or conceit. Man’s undisciplined ego evaluates everything only in terms of its importance or its un-importance to oneself.  Esau typifies the character that thinks the universe revolves around him or her.

Here is the man who says, “Nobody can touch me. Who is going to upset me? My plans are all laid out. I am able to carry through what I set out to do.” This attitude of self-sufficient ability is a mark of pride. And the Lord says to Esau/Edom: “though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, yet I am able to bring you down.”

Here is the man who says, “I don’t need God. I can run my own life without God, in my own wisdom, my own strength, my own abilities, my own talents — that is enough. that is all I need to make a success in life.”

Esau/Edom is condemned for yet another type of arrogance. Look at verse 10:

For the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever.

Violence is a fruit of arrogance and conceit that is centered only on self and strikes out against anything that dares to challenge its supreme reign in life.

Obadiah’s prophecy also condemns Esau/Edom for indifference towards others.

On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like on of them. vs. 11

One of the character traits of Esau/Edom is an inability to have empathy or compassion towards others; to be unmoved by the pain or suffering of one’s fellowman.

There is yet another form of pride that we read about in Obadiah (verses 12,13):

But you should not have gloated over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune;
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin;
you should not have boasted in the day of distress.
You should not have entered the gate of my people in the day of his calamity;
you should not have gloated over his disaster in the day of his calamity;
you should not have looted his goods in the day of his calamity. Obadiah 1:12-13

Gloating over the misfortune of others is abhorrent to God and should be to us. What is behind this perverse delight we take in another person’s failure or his faults? It is Esau in us. In our pride and unconcern we don’t care what happens to someone else, as long as everything is all right with us. How selfish can we be?

The prophet goes on to say at the end of his short book that God has determined destruction for Esau but triumph for Jacob, who typifies the spiritual man, focused on God and caring towards others.  The message is clear: he who lives for himself will suffer loss in the kingdom of God; he who spends his life loving God and serving others pleases God in this life and looks forward to life in the world to come.

Application:

Selfishness in its various forms is a challenge for all of us.  If our goal in life is to honor God and to walk in His ways, selfishness is an “enemy” within that we must conquer.  Part of our responsibility to obey the commandment – ‘You shall be holy as I am holy‘- involves a day by day decision to live a life that reflects God’s generosity, kindness and love towards us by showing those same attitudes in our relationships towards others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayishlach December 5, 2014

Genesis 32:4-36:43

In this week’s reading, the brothers, Jacob and Esau, meet again after a separation of twenty two years. Years before, Esau had sworn to kill Jacob in revenge for what he saw as the theft of his blessing. Is he still angry enough to kill? Jacob sends messengers to let his brother know he is coming. On their return, they inform Jacob that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. We then read:

Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. (32:8)

Jacob is in the grip of strong emotions. But what is the difference between fear and distress? Could it be that he was in fear of being killed? And distressed that he might have to kill his own brother in self-defense?

The difference between being afraid and distressed is that it is one thing to fear one’s own death, quite another to contemplate being the cause of someone else’s. Jacob was distressed at the possibility of being forced to kill even if that were entirely justified by the concept of self-defense..

At stake is a moral dilemma. A dilemma is not simply a conflict. There are many moral conflicts. May we perform an abortion to save the life of the mother, for example? When two duties conflict the higher value, once determined, takes priority. An answer is forthcoming.

A dilemma, however, is a situation in which there is no right answer. I ought not to do A (allow myself to be killed); I ought not to do B (kill someone else); but I must do one or the other. The fact that one principle (self-defense) overrides another (the prohibition against killing) does not mean that, faced with such a choice, I am without inner qualms. Sometimes being moral means that I experience distress at finding myself in the position to even make such a choice. Doing the right thing may mean that I do not feel guilt, but I may still feel regret that I had to do what I did at all.

A moral system which leaves room for the existence of dilemmas is one that does not attempt to eliminate the complexities of the human life. In a conflict between two rights or two wrongs, there may be a proper way to act but this does not cancel out all emotional pain. It is indicative of Jacob’s greatness that he was capable of moral anxiety even at the prospect of doing something entirely justified, namely defending his own life at the cost of his brother’s. A person or a nation capable of feeling distress, even in victory, is one that knows the tragic complexity of moral life.

In Tune with Torah this week = in the complicated times of life, are we the kind of people who seek to choose the higher ground and establish priorities while maintaining a sincere love towards our fellow man? Imagine yourself in Jacob’s shoes. How would you have felt?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Toldot November 21, 2014

Genesis 25:19-28:9

The critical event regarding the birthright which Jacob purchased from Esau in exchange for a bowl of red lentils is one of the most well known accounts in the Torah. But does the story focus equally on the relationship of Isaac and Rebecca as it does on Jacob and Esau?

Several commentators suggest that perhaps the communication between Isaac and Rebecca during their married life was less intimate than between Sarah and Abraham. We get a hint about the strained communication to follow when Rebecca saw Isaac “meditating in the field” at which point she “covered herself with a veil.” Was she in awe of Isaac? Did she feel she was unworthy to be his wife, and from then on that sense of inadequacy dictated her communication or lack of it?

The Sages suggest that at a series of critical moments in their married life we see a failure of communication. It quite possible that Rebecca never told her husband what she heard from God before the twins, Esau and Jacob, were born, in which God told her “the elder will serve the younger.” If Isaac knew this, he may well not have favored Esau.

The failure to communicate had its consequence. Many years later, when she heard that Isaac was about to bless Esau she resorted to deception; she told Jacob to pretend he was Esau. Why not simply tell Isaac that Jacob was chosen by God to be blessed? Was she afraid to acknowledge that she’d kept the prophecy to herself all these years? Was she afraid that Isaac would be angry?

Had she spoken openly to Isaac on that day, Isaac may well have responded in a way that would have changed the entire course of their, and their children’s, lives. The entire deceit planned by Rebecca and carried out by Jacob would not have been needed. At its root is the sad truth that she and her husband did not enjoy open communication. The consequences were painful.

The elderly Isaac felt betrayed by his younger son, Jacob. He “trembled violently” when he realized what had happened, and said to Esau, “Your brother came deceitfully.”

Esau’s sense of betrayal produced such a violent hatred toward Jacob that he vowed to kill him. Rebecca was forced to send Jacob into exile and for the next twenty years did not see the son that she so loved. As for Jacob, the consequences of the deceit lasted a lifetime, resulting in strife between his wives, and between his children. “Few and evil have been the days of my life,” he said as an old man to Pharaoh. Four lives were scarred by one act which may not even have been necessary in the first place.

There is always a price to pay for a failure to communicate. The Torah shows us real life, among real people with real problems. Communication matters. In Genesis 2,the phrase “And man became a living soul” can just as correctly be translated “and man became a speaking soul.” Life is about relationship. And human relationships only exist because we can speak. We can tell other people our hopes, our fears, our feelings and thoughts.

Parents, clear and kind, strong and honest communication is essential in the home between yourselves and between you and your children. Open and respectful communication is what makes families, teams and corporate cultures healthy. Each individual needs to understand the values and behaviors they are expected to exemplify. When a child or an employee does well, there should be sincere praise given. When constructive criticism is required, it must be given with courtesy, making clear that it is not the person who is being criticized but their action.

Honest, open and respectful communication is not just about speaking; it is equally about listening! Parents, employers, friends, co-workers – we must all learn to gift one another with attentive listening as the occasion arises. My late husband used to say, “God gave us two ears and only one mouth; perhaps that means we should listen twice as much as we speak.”

In Tune with Torah this week = we can derive a couple of lessons from this week’s reading: 1) the importance of good communication between human beings is essential to stable society and a stable home.
2) If we find ourselves struggling to communicate, this is the time to humble ourselves before God, asking for His help as we strive to improve our skill in communicating effectively with those we love.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayishlach November 15, 2013

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.