Weekly Torah Commentary – Toldot November 17, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Haftorah reading: I Samuel 20:18-42

This week’s reading begins by telling us of other sons whom Abraham had by Keturah, his second wife whom he married after the death of Sarah.  We are also told of Abraham’s death and burial;  we read a list of Ishmael’s descendants; and, a description of the birth of Esau and Jacob. Frankly, this reading at first glance doesn’t seem very relevant to where we all live.

So what was Moses’ purpose in writing it?

Moses was writing to a people about to go in and conquer the land promised to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac. The previous generation had the opportunity to conquer that land, but they died in the wilderness because of their unbelief. Now this generation had an opportunity to obey God in His redemptive plan of giving the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. God’s purpose as promised to Abraham will be fulfilled. The question is, will this generation be used of God to fulfill it, or will they, too, be set aside?

I believe that the main point Moses was trying to convey was that God’s purpose according to His choice will stand. God is sovereign; what He says, He will do. But even so, His chosen people must submit and commit themselves to His purpose if they want His blessing.

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Whenever a great leader, who has founded a work or a movement, passes away, there is concern for who will carry on. However, with God’s program, there is no such concern. His purpose is greater than any man. The most certain thing in this world is that God will do what He has said. Nothing can thwart His purpose.

This section of Genesis shows that God keeps His promises. God had promised to make Abraham the father of a multitude of nations (17:4). The list of Abraham’s sons through Keturah, several of whom grew into nations, shows a part of the fulfillment of God’s promise. Even though we don’t recognize most of these names, Israel did. The existence of these nations was a demonstration to Israel that what God promises, He does.

The text goes on to make the point that Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac (25:5). While he gave some gifts to Keturah’s sons, he sent them away.  It is not that he rejected them; rather we learn from ancient records, that Abraham commissioned Keturah’s sons to go to distant lands to teach the people about the one true God – the God of Israel. Isaac, on the other hand, was God’s choice to continue the calling of Abraham, and thus God blessed him after Abraham’s death (25:11). As they were Isaac’s descendants, the generation going into the Land needed to see their part as God’s chosen means of fulfilling His promises to Abraham, and they needed to obey God in taking the promised land.

Then Moses lists the generations of Ishmael (25:12-18). Why? To make the same point–that God’s purpose according to His choice will stand. Abraham had asked God that Ishmael might live before Him (17:18). God denied that request because He had chosen Isaac, but He promised Abraham that Ishmael would become the father of twelve princes, and that He would make him into a great nation (17:20). Moses records the fulfillment of that in 25:18. The point again is, God’s purpose according to His sovereign choice was accomplished.

Moses hammers home the same concept in the account of the birth of Esau and Jacob. If God was going to make a great nation of Abraham through Isaac, then obviously Isaac needed to have children. But Rebekah, like Sarah, was barren. For 20 years there were no children in their marriage. But Isaac prayed and the Lord answered in accordance with His promise to Abraham.

But even in that situation, God made a choice. He told Rebekah that two nations would come from the twin sons in her womb, and that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). Esau became the father of the Edomites. Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, became the father of that nation. It was God’s purpose that Israel’s descendants, those to whom Moses was writing, fulfill God’s purpose according to His choice of Jacob, by conquering the promised land.

So everything in the text is there to make the same point–that God chooses certain people for His purpose and that His purpose according to His choice will be accomplished.

These verses reveal two striking things about God’s choice:

First, God’s choice usually runs counter to man’s wisdom.

If we were going to pick a man to be the father of a multitude of nations, we’d probably run the couple through a fertility test and then pick the one who looked the most promising. God picked a couple who couldn’t produce any children. Then, we’d make sure that his son and his wife were fertile. In God’s sovereignty, the son’s wife was barren. His half-brother, Ishmael, didn’t seem to have any problem producing twelve sons, but Isaac could produce only two, and that only after 20 years of pleading with God. If we had to pick between the two sons, we’d pick the oldest. He seemed to be the strongest. The youngest was a wimp and a deceiver! God picked him. That’s how God’s choice usually runs–counter to man’s wisdom.

If God chose those who were strong in themselves, they would boast in themselves and God would be robbed of His glory. If God chose those who first chose Him, they could brag about their intelligent choice. So God chooses those whom the world would never choose. When His purpose is fulfilled through them, He gets the glory.

Secondly, God’s choice operates on the principle of grace, not merit.

One of the most difficult, but most rewarding, truths in the Bible to grasp is that God doesn’t operate on the merit system. He doesn’t choose those who have earned it or who show the most potential. He doesn’t choose on the basis of birth order or strength. If He did, He would have picked Ishmael over Isaac. Ishmael was tough; he grew up by surviving in a hostile desert. Isaac was a mild, blah sort of guy, not noted for much except digging a few wells.

This bothers people, because it humbles our pride, but it’s one of the most rewarding concepts in the Bible to lay hold of. It means that your redemption does not depend on you and your feeble hold on God, but on God and His firm grip on you.  It casts you totally on God and His sovereign grace, which is a good place to be. It floods you with gratitude as you consider His goodness and His mercy in choosing you in spite of your sin.

That doesn’t mean we can do anything we want. While God is sovereign, He has given me the responsibility to obey Him. I can’t presume on being one of the elect and go on living for myself.

Our responsibility is simply to submit to God and seek to obey what His Word clearly reveals, namely, that God’s sovereign purpose according to His unconditional choice will stand. When I quit fighting and submit myself to God and His ways, my relationship with Him flourishes.

The Lord didn’t wave His wand over the land of Canaan so that Israel could move in without any struggle. They had to commit themselves to God’s purpose and fight to get it.

Abraham is the example in our text. He submitted and committed himself to God’s purpose, and God blessed him abundantly. We read that he died “satisfied with life” (25:8). The expression is literally “full of years,” but it means more than just old. It implies that he couldn’t ask for anything more from life than God had given him. The only way you can truly die that way is if you have lived to further God’s purpose.

In Tune with Torah this week = Sometimes it’s easy to look at all the evil in the world and get discouraged because it seems like God’s side is losing badly.  The great truth is that God will accomplish His sovereign purpose. Let us therefore encourage one another to submit ourselves wholeheartedly to our heavenly Father and devote ourselves without reservation to His purposes.

Shabbat Shalom

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Weekly Torah Commentary — Toldot November 12, 2015

Genesis 25:19-28:9

In this week’s Torah reading we learn that after twenty years of marriage, Isaac and Rebekah remain childless. Knowing the divine covenant of which he was an heir, surely Rebekah’s barrenness must have been a concern and yet Isaac knew that his own mother, Sarah, had herself given birth to him after decades of the same frustrating struggle: ‘..Sarah was barren.’

To Isaac’s credit, as well as to Rebekah’s, the Torah makes no mention of Rebekah ever suggesting to Isaac that he do as his father did and have a child by one her servant girls who had come with her from Padan-Aram. Rather, we are told that Rebekah – after years of waiting – asked Isaac to pray for her, which he did. Subsequently, Rebekah is found to be pregnant and only later is it revealed that she is actually carrying twins.

When they are born just minutes apart, the issue of inheritance comes front and center. In a culture where the firstborn had greater privileges as well as more responsibilities, those few minutes were critical, all the more so in light of the fact that we are not just dealing here with the division of an estate and financial benefits, but a Divine covenant that Abraham’s descendants through Isaac were called to be a unique nation with an eternal destiny which included that one day they inherit the promised Land of Israel, albeit through a path of exile and slavery.

Esav and Jacob, raised in the same household and sharing the same DNA, were distinctly different in personality and attitude. Esav was a man of the here-and-now, of immediate gratification of his wants and desires. Patience was foreign to him and indeed, something to be relegated to the ‘absurd’. The very idea of ‘waiting’ for anything was abhorrent to his way of thinking. The notion that according to a promise to his grandfather, hundreds of years of suffering in anticipation of a future reward, seemed to him at best cruel joke or at the very least, the vain imaginings of an old man. Therefore he had no interest in his birthright or its responsibilities so when Jacob had something to offer that granted him immediate gratification for his momentary physical hunger, it was a ‘bargain’. What did he care about abstract visions and diligent faithfulness for some supposed distant promise? For Esav, it was a win-win. Let his brother relieve him of the family ‘burden’; its value was questionable at any rate but what wasn’t questionable was that he was hungry – right now – and he wanted that bowl of lentils. That was far more important than some vague future. And so the narrative concludes with this comment: “Esav despised the birthright.”

Jacob was entirely different. He was willing to sacrifice in the here-and-now, to postpone gratification for hundreds of years and accept almost unimaginable suffering, in order to gain the family’s true treasure: the privilege of being chosen by the Almighty to create a nation uniquely His that would inherit the Land of Israel. With a bowl of stew, Esav freed himself from responsibilities he loathed, and Jacob secured a relationship with the Holy One of Israel that included the gift of the Land of Israel – along with the price he knew would have to be paid for its possession.

In these two brothers’ attitudes we are faced with an issue that every human being must resolve: what fundamental outlook dictates my daily life?

Do I – like Esav – prefer immediate gratification of my wants and desires, living for today’s pleasure more than tomorrow’s opportunity? Is that my general way of life? Are my practical, daily decisions birthed out of impatience? Are my physical needs or wants more in control than the principles of maturity, integrity and responsibility that of necessity will require self-discipline and self-control?

Or do I – like Jacob – live my life on the basis of God’s eternal Word? Are His commandments and His promises near and dear to my heart? Dear enough to me that patience, sacrifice and personal responsibility have value in my thinking? Have I learned that the path to maturity involves choosing to guide my decisions by God’s word more than by my transitory wants? Is this what I’m teaching my children? Even more, is this what I model to my children and my grandchildren?

Our society prizes an affluence defined in terms of money, homes, possessions and luxuries – all of which we will leave behind sooner or later. The greater ‘affluence’ which, by the way, we will not leave behind but take with us into the world to come, is defined by such virtues as kindness, integrity, moral purity, self-discipline, compassion, humility and love of our fellowman. These, in fact, are the true ‘affluence’ of a life well-lived before God and man.

In Tune with Torah this week = a simple question: which ‘affluence’ do you choose?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Chayei Sarah November 6, 2015

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

This week’s Torah portion focuses on the story of how Rebekah became Isaac’s wife. Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, went to the area where Abraham’s relatives lived and in a series of remarkable events obviously directed by the God of Israel, he is made to know that Rebekah will be the perfect match for his master Abraham’s son. After negotiating with her family, Eliezer brings Rebekah back with him. After hearing how God had directed his father’s servant in finding Rebekah, Isaac receives her. The Torah describes that moment for us:

Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he married Rebekah. She was his wife, and he loved her. Then Isaac was comforted after the death of his mother. (Genesis 24:67)

Let’s think about this for a minute. Rebekah has grown up in her parents’ home and to this point we can only assume she’s had a ‘normal’ life. Without the benefit of knowing any later events, think of Rebekah getting up that morning, completely unaware that her entire life’s course would change that very day. She had no foreknowledge that Abraham’s servant was en route to their home. Remember – no phones, no fax machines, no internet!

She went about her ‘normal’ day, like any other day. When it was time to draw water at the well, she made her way there as she had so many times before. Seeing a stranger with an entourage of camels and servants, she understood they were travelers. Her upbringing had taught her to be kind to strangers and she did what came naturally. She offered Eliezer a drink of water and declared she would draw water for the camels as well – all ten of them!

Friends, this was no small task! It’s a known fact that a thirsty camel can drink up to 25 gallons of water or more at one time. These camels had been traveling for several day, laden with goods and gifts. Other servants accompanied Eliezer as well.

Let’s suppose that the camels only drank 10 gallons of water (most likely a gross underestimate). That means that this young girl with a bucket, drew out well over 100 gallons of water from the village well in order to provide hospitality to this caravan of strangers. And all this was BEFORE she knew anything about the reason for their presence!

Eliezer had prayed and asked God for a very specific sign – that the young woman whom God had chosen for Isaac would offer him water and to the camels as well. Rebekah didn’t know that. She did what she’d been taught to do – and her entire life and destiny was sealed by that selfless, exhausting act.

I wonder sometimes whether in the course of hauling more and more water, she wondered if the camels would ever be satisfied. Did she stop and wipe the sweat from her brow as she prepared to lower the bucket again? It was, after all, the Middle East where all this was happening. It was a tiresome, difficult task which Rebekah did willingly and kindly. In so doing, she embraced unknowingly the destiny for which she was born.

We sometimes think that the great moments of our lives are defined by a heroic or unusual event. The truth is that most of the time we have no idea until much later the power of an act of kindness and/or faithfulness. Our responsibility is simply to choose to do right, to be gracious to stranger and friend alike and only later it may be revealed that the most mundane service we provided was in fact the moment when our destiny became attainable.

In Tune with Torah this week = never underestimate the power of an act of kindness and hospitality towards others. Do what is right because it’s the right thing to do and leave the results to God.

Shabbat shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vaiera October 30, 2015

Genesis 18-22

“Take your son, your only son, the one you love – Isaac – and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” This is one of the most famous events in Torah and also one of the most enigmatic.

At first glance it seems like a horrific ‘test’ and how could God ask such a thing of Abraham? Did He not miraculously give him this beloved son?

And why did God need to ‘test’ Abraham at all? Doesn’t God know the human heart better than we know ourselves?

Traditional interpretations and commentaries on this passage abound. Let’s take a bit of a different look at it.

Historically we know that child sacrifice was not rare in the ancient world. It was sadly commonplace among the pagan societies. It is looked upon with horror throughout the Bible. How, then, could Abraham be commanded to do what his descendants were commanded NOT to do?

Abraham was chosen to be a father. “For I have chosen him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.”

To understand the binding of Isaac we have to understand something about the world of that time. Before cities and civilizations, the fundamental unit was the family. Each family had its own gods which usually included the spirits of dead ancestors. The authority of the father was absolute over his wife and children. As long as the father lived, the children were ‘property’ rather than persons in their own right. When the father died, the authority went to the firstborn son – whether he was righteous or not.

The Torah directly opposes this worldview. It includes no sacrifices to dead ancestors and communicating with the dead is explicitly forbidden. And succession does not automatically pass to the firstborn as it did with the pagans; not to Ishmael but to Isaac; not to Esau but to Jacob; not to Reuben but to Levi for the priesthood.

The entire story of Isaac is a direct contradiction to the prevailing thought of the time that children are ‘property’. Consider: Isaac’s birth is a miracle, as was Samuel’s some centuries later. When her son is born Hannah says, “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” This passage is parallel to the message from an angel telling Abraham to refrain from killing his son: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son” (the statement appears twice, in Gen. 22:12 and 16).

The test was not whether Abraham would literally sacrifice his son but whether he would surrender Isaac completely to God, whether Abraham would relinquish ‘ownership’ over the son he had longed for and recognize that Isaac is an individual with his own life to lead, his own calling and relationship with God to pursue.

What God was doing when he asked Abraham to offer up his son was not requesting a child sacrifice. He wanted to change the worldview and establish a non-negotiable law that children are not the ‘property’ of their parents but a blessing from Hashem to be nurtured, taught and led to fulfill their unique calling and destiny according to the will of God.

Is this not why three of the four matriarchs were able to have children only by divine intervention? God wanted us to know that children are a gift from Him, not simply a biological accident or event.

It’s very interesting to note that at the birth of the very first human being, Cain, Eve says, “With the help of the Lord, I have acquired a man.” It’s clearer in the Hebrew than in the English translation. What she was really saying was ‘I have purchased with my effort and pain a child for myself.’ That child became the first murderer. Not a very good ending to that story!

The Torah presents the birth of the individual as the central figure in the moral life. Because children – all children – belong to God, parenthood is not ownership but guardianship. Abraham, called to be not only a parent to his son, but to become the ‘Father of many nations’, had to learn by means of an event he would never forget that as much as he loved Isaac, he did not own him. He was to teach his son the ways of God but also give him space to develop a personal relationship with God and fulfill his calling and destiny without any ‘micromanagement’ from Abraham.

The Torah underscores the truth that the integrity of each of us as an individual moral agent in our own right with the capacity and opportunity to develop a personal relationship with God Himself is paramount.

In Tune with Torah this week = if you are a parent, how are you handling the choices and decisions your children make which may not be what you would desire for them? Are you allowing them the space to be individuals? Even at the cost of watching them struggle through circumstances you think you could have prevented? That child of yours has a path of his or her own; it’s not yours, it’s different. Abraham teaches us to celebrate the differences, always keep in mind that your child is God’s first, and you are God’s
‘nanny’ for a few years. The binding of Isaac was in fact a test of UN-binding. Would Abraham let Isaac go – to pursue his own calling?

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 – Chayah Sarah Nov. 13, 2014

NOTE: Though I wrote and hit the command to “Send” last Friday, for some reason last week’s commentary showed up today! I apologize for the delay. You get two this week!

CHAYAH SARAH
Genesis 23:1-25:18

This week’s reading deals with two major issues: the death and burial of Sarah, the wife of Abraham; and the search for a wife for Isaac. The events are covered in great detail, more so than many other events.

Certainly the acquisition of a burial plot for Sarah is of great significance for it becomes the first step in the acquisition of the land of Israel by Abraham and his descendants. Abraham purchased the field and the cave. When he takes possession of it, he establishes a foothold in the promised Land.

Next we turn to the process of finding a bride for Isaac. At first glance it seems that the amount of detail is disproportional but then again, the extensive detail indicates the importance of this event.

And Abraham said to the oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he had, “Put, I beg you, your hand under my thigh. And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live. But you shall go to my country, and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” (Genesis 24:2-4)

Eliezer, the servant, was Abraham’s trusted companion, the man whom Abraham had earlier imagined would perhaps one day be his heir. (Gen. 15:2-3)

And the servant took ten of his master’s camels…And he said, “O Lord God of my master Abraham, I beseech you, send me good speed this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham…” And she said, “Drink, my lord;” and she hurried, and let down her water jar upon her hand, and gave him drink…
And the man, wondering at her, held his peace, to see whether the Lord had made his journey successful or not. And it came to pass, as the camels finished drinking, that the man took a golden ear ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands of ten shekels weight of gold…And the man bowed down his head, and worshiped the Lord. And he said, “Blessed be the Lord God of my master Abraham, who has not left my master destitute of his mercy and his truth; As for me, the Lord has guided me in the way to the house of my master’s brothers…”

And after entering the house of Laban, Rebecca’s father, Eliezer explains his mission:

And he said, “I am Abraham’s servant…”

After relating what Abraham had commanded him to do, “…they called Rebecca, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?…..And they sent Rebecca their sister, and her nurse away, and Abraham’s servant, and his men… And Rebecca arose, and her maids, and they rode upon the camels, and followed the man; and the servant took Rebecca, and went his way…And Rebecca lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she lighted off the camel. For she had said to the servant, “What man is this who walks in the field to meet us?” And the servant said, “It is my master.” Therefore she took a veil, and covered herself.

Rebecca is aware that Isaac, and not Eliezer, is the master of the house, even before ever seeing Isaac. Yet, Eliezer seems so impressive. Only in comparison to Isaac is Eliezer’s stature reduced in her eyes.

To become Abraham’s “right hand man”, this servant must have been an extremely impressive individual. He had to have possessed the qualities of loyalty, integrity, reliability, diligence and humility. WE see all of these at work as Eliezer completes his journey.

Eliezer arrives just before sunset, yet he asks God to “work things out” before the day is done. This shows Eliezer’s incredible trust in God. What was the source of this trust? He was a servant of Abraham. He had seen Abraham. He learned from the Father of Faith how to trust God for what was needed.

Sometimes we forget the impact our personal faith can have on those around us. Your individual trust and confidence in God is a living example to your family and your friends. As Abraham’s faith ‘rubbed off’ on Eliezer, so is ours supposed to do the same. In the words of one teacher, “Faith is better caught than taught!”

In Tune with Torah this week = Faith is personal but it is also communal. Your faith and mine can have a profound effect on those around us IF we are careful to speak words that express FAITH rather than doubt or anxiety. An act of gratitude is intrinsically related to maintaining a strong faith. As we recall and give thanks for all of God’s past blessings, we dispose our heart to trust Him for the future; in so doing, we set an example to those around us.

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.