AGUDAS ISRAEL CONGREGATION
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Consider our forefather Jacob, a man with a remarkable talent for error. When we first meet him, he swindles his brother out of his birthright. Later, colluding with Rebecca, his mom, he fools his father Isaac and receives the family blessing by disguising himself as his brother Esau and feeding dad a meal prepared by him and his mom. This event causes him to flee the family compound and head for the hills, namely to his Uncle Laban’s in the old country of Haran from when came Grandpa Abe.
In the desert an odd thing happens. He dreams. His dream comprises one of the most powerful dream images in all literature. A ladder ascending into the heavens with angels going up and down. At the top of the ladder is God, who promises Jacob that he will be taken care of. Jacob awakes and declares his fealty to God by saying if God takes care of him and brings him back, Jacob will accept God. This is a bit of hutzpah. When he does return from Uncle Laban’s, having become a wealthy married man with two wives, two concubines, and thirteen children, he encounters God once again. This time the imagery is physical; Jacob wrestles all night with a mysterious being. As dawn breaks the being asks Jacob to let him go, to which Jacob responds by insisting that the being bless him. The blessing he receives is a name change from Jacob to Yisrael. The two encounters catch our patriarch Jacob in two radically different conditions. In the first encounter, Jacob is alone in the desert, a young man with an uncertain future. The meeting with God comforts him, assures him of a good future, and fortifies him with the knowledge that God will be with him.
In the second encounter, Jacob is now a man of means with a large family. Yet he is again insecure, since, as he returns, he fears retribution
from the brother he’d swindled and abandoned twenty years before. This encounter disturbs Jacob, yet at the same time assures him of his own strength, enabling him to continue his journey home and face Esau.
The two opposite encounters, a dream meeting and a physical wrestling, both display aspects of our relationship
to God. There are times we need God’s comfort. Perhaps this is the mood we need the most. When life’s storms bring us down, we turn to God who provides us with comfort. But then there are times we need a rather more hard-edged
encounter with God, times when we need to set ourselves straight as to what we want to do or explore who we are. Or, perhaps, we need to mentally wrestle with our own faith in God, to work to find out not who we are, but who God is.
But above all, Jacob teaches us something profound about who may enter into a relationship with God. For here we have a fellow who cheated his brother not once but twice. Later he goes on to become one of literature’s worst fathers.
A thief and a bad parent. Even so, God speaks with him and brings him into the covenant. And if a thief and a bad parent can gain God’s favorable attention, we all can. So, though I do not recommend becoming a thief and a bad parent, I do recommend engaging in the perpetual wrestling match we Jews engage in. Take your place in the continuity of the Jewish tradition and seek God. ~Rabbi Phil Cohen, Ph.D.