Thursday, December 15, 2005

For Parshat VaYishlach

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
-Alexander Pope,An Essay on Man, Epistle I, 1733

In this week's parsha, וישלח, Jacob returns home to face his inner and outer demons. He confronts both. In a nightly encounter, he finally subdues the Esau within him (as implied by the Rambam) and emerges with the victorious and majestic new name, Israel. He confronts the real Esau, the progenitor of his ultimate enemy (Rome), and manages to neutralize him through a combination, as Rashi says, of prayer, diplomacy (bribes) and a show of force.

What gives him the capacity to stand up to, and conquer, both?

The Torah says that Jacob was afraid. Obviously, though, he was facing two different types of fear.
The first, I believe, related to his anxiety about returning home, realizing his blessing, taking responsibility for his past actions and assuming responsibility for his role as the heir (both politically and spiritually) of Abraham and Isaac. In this context, I think of a comment I once heard in the name of Rav Kook (pere). He noted that in order to enter Eretz Yisrael, the Israelites had to first kill Og, the king of Heshbon. 'Heshbon,' aside from being the name of Og's capital city, also means a 'calculated consideration.' Rav Kook observed, that if one wishes to live here in Eretz Yisrael, one must overcome one's 'heshbonot,' which (Hamlet-like) can paralyze you. Living a life of Torah, no matter whether on is a BT or an FFB, requires a leap of faith. It also requires an inner struggle, in order to subdue the 'King of Heshbon.'

Like the real-life Esau, however, doing things 'in one's head' (as it were) is not sufficient. One really does have to confront the very real challenges presented by a Jewish Life, and a fortiori, one lived where Jews are supposed to live, here. Following Jacob's example, that requires reliance upon God, readiness to sacrifice economically and a willingness to fight.

It also requires conviction and recognition of what one does have. In his prayer to God, on the eve of his confrontation with Esau, Jacob says (Gen. 32, 11): 'I am not worthy of all the mercies (חסדים), and of all the truth, which You have shown to Your servant.' R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv), in is commentary to the Humash העמק דבר, observes that the gratitude and recognition both of God's gifts and of the absolute truth of the tradition passed on from Abraham, are the keys to being saved from Esau and for realizing one's goal in Eretz Yisrael. Modesty, Humility and Conviction are the keys to success.

Why start with Alexander Pope? Because achieving these requires an ongoing struggle. The demons are not destroyed. They are subdued. Notice what the angel tell Jacob, now Israel (v. 29):
For you have striven with God and with men, ותוכל.' The last word, technically means 'you have prevailed.' It can also mean 'you will prevail.' Life, as the Rov זצ"ל, used to say is a dialectic, dynamic struggle. Ultimate success, however, derives from within; from faith, gratitude, and determination.

Strikingly, it was Jacob, whose life was filled with difficulties, who really founded the Jewish people and set them on their historical path.

1 comment:

westbankmama said...

What a beautiful dvar Torah to read after putting my soup on and the cake in the oven...

It is never easy to live in Eretz Yisrael, but that is what Hashem wants. I guess it is meant to keep us from being "spiritual couch potatoes"..

Shabbat Shalom.