Learning from Our Father Jacob

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Parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43

by Aaron Allsbrook, Associate Rabbi, Ohev Yisrael, Lorton, VA

The Jewish people are the people of Jacob. While we identify Abraham as our father and we serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, nationally we are the people of Jacob, the people of Israel.

This week’s parasha illumines much for us as to who exactly Jacob/Israel was. It is important for us to know this because if we say we are the people of Israel, who exactly are we? A son emulates his father. Let us see whom we are emulating.

Most of us know that Jacob’s name (יעקב) means “supplanter” or “heel grabber.” Even before he entered this world he had the chutzpah and skill to grab his brother’s heel. These traits show themselves throughout his life. Jacob manages to get his brother to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Under the instructions of his mother, Jacob deceives his blind father into blessing him in place of his brother. On his way to his uncle’s house, God appears to Jacob in a magnificent vision and, in a way, Jacob makes a deal with God: you protect me and I’ll serve you. Keep in mind, when God revealed Himself to Abraham, Abraham simply said, “OK.”

At his uncle’s house, Jacob, in a display of honesty, works for his wives. He actually gets swindled by his uncle. However, when he works for the animals to take home, he manipulates the goats into producing the ringed, speckled, and spotted ones. Out of fear, Jacob takes all he has and splits from his uncle’s house. All in all, Jacob seems to be making a good life for himself.

The moment finally comes, however, after 20 years, when Jacob is going to re-encounter his brother, Esau. This terrifies Jacob. He creates another elaborate scheme by which he hopes to assuage Esau’s festering rage and win his forgiveness. He sends forth servants and gifts for Esau. He manages to fall asleep, but soon wakes up, I’m sure, in a panic, and takes his family further from Esau. Soon, though, he finds himself all alone.

In a sudden turn of events, Jacob finds himself wrestling with an unidentified man. Jacob strives with this man until the emergence of the sun. Jacob’s strength is formidable, keeping the man from leaving, so the man dislocates Jacob’s hip. Jacob still manages to hold on until he gets a blessing. Instead of blessing him, however, the man changes his name to Israel (ישראל) because he strove (שרה) with God and men and has prevailed. The man eventually does bless him and then he departs, still under the guise of anonymity. Jacob immediately realizes the gravity of what just happened and he marvels. When this man/angel appears to others, be it Joshua, Gideon, or Manoah, the people typically remark how they didn’t die upon seeing him (cf. Josh 5:13–15, Judg 6:22–23, 13:22). Jacob, however, comments that his life had been rescued, that he survived (ותנצל נפשי, Gen 32:31). Jacob has managed to outlast another tricky situation, but, this time, it was by the mercy of God, not his own cunning.

As Jacob limps away from this awesome encounter, Esau appears. Surprisingly, Esau embraces Jacob. He doesn’t even want the gifts Jacob sent to him. There is reconciliation, and everything that Jacob feared has been for naught.

This unexpected blessing cannot, however, be attributed to Jacob’s well-developed skills. This blessing has come from God. In Genesis 32:12, Jacob prays, “Rescue me from the hand of my brother” (הצילני נא מיד אחי). This “rescue” word (נצל) is the same used of Jacob’s soul being spared/rescued upon seeing God’s face mentioned above. God spared Jacob. God wrought reconciliation. God brought life. Jacob was able to get himself only so far, and, frankly, the effects of his actions created much tension within his family.

The angel states that Jacob “has striven with God and men and has prevailed” (Gen  32:29). Notice, it reads that Jacob strove first with God. Chronologically, that wasn’t the case. But, pay attention: in order for us, as children of Israel, to prevail with men, we first must prevail with God.

What does this mean? It means that apart from God we will not overcome. Apart from God our strength will only get us so far. It also means that in God we can do all things. It means that in our weakness, Messiah’s power is made strong (cf. 2 Cor 12:9).

In the haftarah, Obadiah castigates Edom, the people of Esau, for acting contrary to the way of God, exalting himself at the demise of the children of Judah.  He is consequently severely humbled and despised (בזוי, the same word used for his treatment of his birthright in Genesis 25:34). Whereas Jacob humbled himself in the sight of God’s great mercies and truth, which he had done for him (cf. Gen 32:11), and God exalted him to life, Esau lifted himself up and God brought him to death.

Messiah Yeshua reveals to us the ultimate truth in all this. In John 15:1–17, he compares himself to a vine and us to branches. For us to do anything good, we must abide in him, we must strive to stay attached to him. Yeshua uses the word “abide” eleven times in this passage. It clearly is important. We must realize that apart from him, we can do nothing. We must hold onto him and never let go, for from him is “every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3).

To be the people of Jacob, the people of Israel, we are a people who hold onto God and never let go, who know that we have nothing outside of his grace and truth, who know that our salvation resides in him alone. Let us use all that we have to abide in him always.

Russ Resnik