Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, Nov 16, 2023

Channeling the God of Jacob

Illustration: Jacob Fleeing Laban [i.e. returning to Canaan]. Filippo Lauri, 1686
                At this time of existential threat hanging over the heads of our Jewish people in Israel, and with antisemitism sharply on the rise in America and worldwide, it is only natural that we read the Bible with lenses calibrated to pick up the tension in the Jewish condition. This week’s biblical portion, like so many others, yields lessons to one reading with a focus provided by such lenses.
                Our torah portion deals with two of the three patriarchs: Isaac and his son, Jacob. They represent different personality types.
                Isaac may have been traumatized for life by the near-death experienced he survived as a child, taken up Mt. Moriah to be a sacrifice at the Divine Command—and only spared at the last minute by a new voice from Heaven. Isaac survived that ordeal, but the man who grew out of the lad coming down from that place of fear was forever driven to seek security. When he took an oath, invoking God, he used the label, “Pachad Yitzhak”—the Fear of Isaac. What a name for God! And… what a window into the sad soul of the survivor!
                At the beginning of our weekly scriptural portion, the bible reports that, of his twin sons, Isaac preferred Esau, not Jacob, “because of the game in his mouth.” That odd expression seems to mean that Isaac craved the food—the sustenance-- that Esau, a skilled hunter, brought home. Note that Isaac is focused on the material security that Esau gives him. Is it too far afield to see that yearning for physical security as one manifestation of Isaac’s deep fear of what life may bring?
                Again, Isaac appears to be conflict-averse.  He preferred to retreat rather than to confront. Once cannot imagine Isaac upbraiding Avimelech the way his father Abraham did, when the servants of that Gazan king stole Abraham’s wells. (Genesis 21:25) When the Gazans molested Isaac, spitefully vandalizing his wells, Isaac simply retreated and dug different ones. (Genesis 26:18-22).
                Jacob, on the other hand, reflects a wider variety of responses to challenge. He endured ill treatment when he had no recourse, but he also defended himself by a variety of means when he was in a position to do so. He used his sophisticated knowledge of animal husbandry to thwart his evil father-in- law’s attempts to defraud him. Ultimately, Jacob succeeded in forcing Laban to accept what today we call a “two state solution,” They erected a treaty marker, each one calling it by its name in his own language, and they pledged to stay on opposite sides of that marker (Genesis 31:51-52).
                When Jacob needed to face his brother Esau, he prepared an entire suite of responses, prepared to use any or all as circumstances might dictate.  As the Rabbis express it, hitkin et atzmo l’doron, lit’fillah, ul’milchamah—Jacob prepared himself to give gifts of reconciliation, to offer prayers to God, and/or  to engage in battle--- whichever response the behavior of Esau might dictate.
                At the end of his life, Jacob tells his son Joseph that he has reserved for him one portion of land “that he took from the hand of the Emorite with his sword and with his bow” (Genesis 48:22). Then as now, Jews could not simply inherit their Promised Land.  They had to fight for what ought to have been theirs.
                Now, tragically, is not a time of appeasing with gifts. It is a time of prayer, of course.  But it is also a time of war.  I pray that the war will be brief. I pray that Israel will be able to live in security and that its neighbors will be able to accept a two-state solution.
                But for now, I pray, mostly, that Israel will survive and succeed.  We are the sons of Jacob.  We need to channel our forefather and to wrestle, all night long, if necessary, until it can be said of us, as it was said of our Patriarch, that we have wrestled and prevailed.  Amen.