Vayishlach 5781 – Jacob, Hardships and Blessings

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Nancy and I received a text last week before Thanksgiving from a well-meaning cousin. She sent it to several people in the family. The thrust of the message was that we should be thankful for struggles because they make us stronger. And on and on it went about different types of struggles – physical, emotional, etc., and how grateful we should be for hardships. I thought, “What a lot of nonsense!” These messages of how wonderful adversity can be typically come from people who haven’t known real tragedy or chronic illness. Nancy and I read this text and, charitably, said, “Well, she meant well.”

Last week, we read about Jacob’s ladder, and we recalled the struggles he had been through, brought on by his own actions. The imagery from that dream has been the subject of books and films. Years had passed in Jacob’s life, and of course, he had been through a lot. In this week’s parashah, we read that Jacob is about to meet his brother Esau for the first time in, we’re told, more than 20 years. He is afraid of the revenge that Esau might take. Recall that Jacob tricked his brother many years before, so that he would receive his father’s final blessing before his death. Having tricked his brother and also his elderly father, what did he then do? He ran away!

This week, the Torah recounts Jacob’s torment the day before the meeting. He makes plans to disperse his belongings and even his family, in case Esau takes revenge on him. Jacob is increasingly fearful of what might happen. He sends a huge gift of cattle to Esau. He prays, asking for Gd’s help. Esau, it seems, is bringing to this meeting a whole army.

And so Jacob sleeps fitfully and has a bad dream, in which he has a struggle with some unknown entity – was it an angel? Himself? Gd? Anyway, Jacob tells his foe that until he receives a blessing, he will not let go. Jacob’s hip is hurt during the struggle, and remains so even after he awakens. So now, knowing that whatever he faces is just dessert for the deception he perpetrated years before, we’re supposed to feel his pain? Please. Doesn’t it seem as though Jacob is getting exactly what he  deserves? Well, all turns out well. Esau receives Jacob with grace and warmth, and Jacob returns the feelings.

So is there a lesson here that we can learn? Jacob is struggling with his past misdeeds. Perhaps he recalls how Esau must have felt when he had been swindled. In his dream, Jacob asks for, pleads for a blessing. Was Jacob channeling his inner Esau? His past misdeeds have tormented him, and now he continues to limp. “Will I change?,” he must have been thinking. “I must change!”

We all continue to limp from the genuine struggles we have faced. In fact, we sometimes bear those scars, and limp, for a lifetime. Some are scars that were the result of our own misdeeds; others were cast upon us through no fault of our own. But all were from some crisis in our lives. Real crises cause real scars.

But what also happened? Jacob wouldn’t let go until he received a blessing. The crises that we live through should, hopefully, result in an awakening within us of the need to turn crisis into opportunity. To turn tragedy, even, into actions that will ultimately bring change for others that will benefit them. It’s not easy. Sometimes, it takes years for this to happen. For many, it never does.

Jacob’s life was not easy. In a few weeks, we will read that when he meets Pharaoh in Egypt, he tells him that his life has known many troubles. What’s so instructive and, yes, inspiring, about the Torah is that its characters are people we can identify with. They make mistakes, they struggle, they limp as a result. But sometimes they learn in ways that we can, in the best of the Jewish tradition, find instructive and inspirational. Maybe we can all find some of Jacob in ourselves. Hardships and tragedy are not blessings, but it is up to us to become a blessing to others in response.

And you’ll be happy to know that I responded to my well-meaning cousin by wishing her a very happy Thanksgiving.