Vayishlach 5779 – Think You Have Problems?

By: Larry Tobin

Jacob’s journey through life continues. He has already encountered one struggle after another. After leaving home at a young age he has to deal with the likes of Laban. Laban continually tries to cheat Jacob, but Jacob prevails. Not only with respect to marriage, but also regarding just compensation for his many years of service to Laban which resulted in Laban becoming very wealthy.  Earlier he had to deceive Isaac to get a blessing from Isaac that logically should have gone to him. Rachel foresaw from the start that Jacob would be the son to carry on the traditions of Abraham and Isaac. Also, Jacob was the son dedicated to Judaism.  Perhaps things would now change given that G-d ordered Jacob to return home. But, alas, this was not to be the case.

A quick synopsis of Vayishlach demonstrates that Jacob’s struggles do not cease. To the contrary, theyincrease. Jacob fears his brother Esau. Esau is wealthy and powerful. An encounter with Esau could prove to be devastating to Jacob and his family. On the way home Jacob is met by a stranger who is intent on doing battle with Jacob. During the nighttime fisticuffs, Jacob is dealt a severe blow to his thigh which renders him an invalid for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel is pregnant. The pregnancy goes awry and Rachel dies after childbirth. A grieving Jacob makes a deal with Chamor for land to bury Rachel. He buries Rachel and then learns that his only daughter Dinah was raped by Shechem. Shechem is none other than the son of Chamor. Shechem asks for Dinah’s hand in marriage. Jacob consents on condition that Chamor and all males under his control, including Shechem, undergo circumcisions. Jacob and Chamor would then merge as one family. To his shock, Jacob learns that two of his sons, Shimon and Levi, massacre Chamor, Shechem and all their males after they undergo circumcisions.  Jacob fears retaliation by other segments of Canaan.

 Let’s fill in some of the gaps in my synopsis. Jacob was so fearful of Esau that he chose to split his camp in two. He sent gifts to Esau to hopefully ease any tensions. Jacob reasoned that if Esau decided to destroy him, some of his family may survive by separately encamping them. Fortunately,the reunion of brothers was somewhat cordial. The threat of destruction, however, always loomed.

Jacob’s battle with a stranger is believed to either have been a dream or an actual encounter with an angel. What is clear is that Jacob was able to prevail by battling throughout the night. As daylight approached, the angel was forced to end the battle by conceding defeat.  The encounter may have been through a dream. The thigh injury to Jacob was, however, totally real. The angel (or whatever) was forced to bless Jacob. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel demonstrating that he prevailed with G-d.

Before Rachel died from childbirth she named her son Benoni. This mean son of my woe. Jacob changed his son’s name to Benjamin (Binyamin) which means right hand son. Rachel is buried along the way. My family was able to visit Kever Rachel many years ago before it became too dangerous to visit this sacred shrine. Her burial place is still considered a religious monument for travelers.

How sad and ironic that the purchase of land by Jacob to bury Rachel should result in further travails for him. Jacob is a man of his word. Despite the agony he felt regarding the rape of Dinah by Shechem, hewas deeply disturbed by the breaking of his word to Chamor caused by Shimon and Levi. The attack, incidentally, took place on the third day following circumcision. This coincided with the time when the pain of circumcision was at its maximum. Additionally, Jacob feared retaliation from neighboring  peoples if the word got out that Jacob is not to be trusted. As an aside, the women and children of Chamor became part of Jacob’s family, but only after all of their idols were collected and buried.

Why did Jacob have to struggle all of his life? Please keep in mind the sale of Joseph is yet to come. Jacob’s miseries are not ended. Was Jacob destined to lead a life of struggle? What exactly qualified him to become one of our forefathers? Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has an interesting perspective. He notes that Jacob was able to accomplish something that neither Abraham nor Isaac were able to accomplish. All of Jacob’s children kept the faith. Jacob was an eesh tam (a simple man). His life was a series of struggles. Nothing came easily to him. He is the only patriarch who chose to be chosen. Some heroes, Rabbi Sachs adds, are so idealized that they seem inhuman. Not so with the struggling Jacob. Abraham was given to us for love. Isaac for fear. Jacob to those of us who struggle. If you ever struggle with faith, think of Jacob who became the “father-in-faith for all of us.