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Prayer Redux

7 minute read
Straightforward

One of Judaism’s essential and fundamental practices is prayer.

Through prayer, we commune with the Creator, affirming our connection, dependency, and gratitude to the Source of all life.

The theurgy of prayer – the metaphysics of how prayer works and what it does – is complex, and in all likelihood, fundamentally unknowable. It’s not obvious at all what the postulate of prayer working would even look like! 

What we do know is that at all times and all places throughout our history, the Jewish People have always turned to God in prayer for health, success, and salvation. It is almost universally understood that prayer plays a prominent role among the efforts and energy we must expend to get the outcomes we want – as well as the ones we don’t. 

The crescendo of the Exodus came with the decisive miracle at the Red Sea. The ocean parted gave the desperate Jewish People safe passage, while simultaneously obliterating their great tormentors in one fell swoop. The Splitting of the Red Sea is one of the most captivating and magical moments in the entire Torah, and prayer plays a prominent role in the build-up:

וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם  נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־ה – As Pharaoh drew near, the Jewish People caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Jewish People cried out to the Lord. (14:10)

But surprisingly, and quite unlike how we might expect, this prayer is not well received:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה מַה־תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ – Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Why are you crying out to Me!? Tell the Jewish People to get going!!” (14:15)

With righteous outrage, we might wonder why God gets annoyed that the people cry out. The Jewish People have made it to the beaches with their children and luggage. They have no boats and cannot swim. There is an army approaching on the horizon, and they are out of time and out of options. They are desperate, so obviously, they cry out to God for help! Isn’t that what we do? Isn’t that what we’ve always done?

Moreover, the Gemara imagines that Heaven has gateways for prayers, suggesting that prayers are evaluated and then admitted or refused based on timing and circumstance. The Neila service on Yom Kippur extensively utilizes this imagery to create a sense of urgency – we need to squeeze a final prayer in because the doors are closing! The Gemara concludes that regardless, the gate of tears is always open; presumably, because tears are heartfelt and sincere, and the pain that generates tearful prayers loads them with a potency that Heaven cannot refuse.

The Jewish People were desperate, and they cried out for help. Why would God get annoyed?

The imagery of gates in Heaven is powerful and compelling, but it appears to have a flaw. The metaphor doesn’t work for a gate of tears because a gate that doesn’t close is no gate at all!

The Kotzker Rebbe sharply teaches that the gate of tears is still a gate because some tears are turned away; the gate is shut to crocodile tears, sorrow that is insincere, like when people attempt to use grief to excuse inaction.

In the story of Pinchas, Balak and Bilam successfully schemed to hurt the Jewish People by sending the young women of Midian into the Jewish camp to seduce the men; and most of the young men found it impossible to resist. The camp succumbed, sparking a devastating plague.

But the Midianite women were not successful at drawing in all the Jews; some of them resisted the obvious temptation, and, unsure what to do, they went to the holiest man, their leader Moshe, at the most sacred spot they knew, the Mishkan, to cry and pray – וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.

These people of moral fiber cried and prayed for help, but that didn’t save the day.

R’ Moshe Sherer highlights how the Torah explicitly credits Pinchas’s assassination of the provocateurs for stopping the plague, and not anyone’s prayers – וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה / הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי.

When something is wrong and we respond only with thoughts and prayers, they are crocodile tears, lip service, pearl-clutching, and window dressing. The pain may be real, but prayers can’t help if your approach to problem-solving is fundamentally broken.

There may be stories of people praying for magical solutions that materialize out of thin air with no human input. Still, the Torah seems to dismiss the notion of thoughts and prayers as a substitute for action.

At the Red Sea, God snaps at Moshe to tell the people to get a move on. The Midrash further expands that God told Moshe that it was not the appropriate time for lengthy prayer; danger was at hand, and it was time to act!

Rashi suggests that God was annoyed at the prayer at the sea because they seized their ancestral craft – תָּפְשׂוּ אֻמָּנוּת אֲבוֹתָם. The Maharal explains that prayer isn’t craftsmanship, like carpentry or plumbing. Prayer is supposed to be heartfelt and soulful! But they cried out to God as the last resort of their ancestors; a weak effort that betrayed deep fear and insecurity and the cynical despair of helplessness, that all was lost. It was an inferior, or at least suboptimal prayer, an immature prayer that betrayed a lack of belief, both in God and in themselves, that there was nothing they could do! 

Only they were wrong to think that there was nothing else they could do, and we’d be wrong for thinking prayer could work in a vacuum.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, they should have believed enough in their prayer to stop praying and get moving, but they were frozen and paralyzed. 

In sharp contrast, our ancestor Yakov prepared to reunite with Esau years after wronging him and meticulously prepared for their meeting. He prepared for peace by sending waves of lavish gifts to Esau; prepared for battle and victory, arming his young family and training them; prepared for defeat and death, dividing his family in two, in the hope that the second camp might escape without Esau ever knowing they existed; and then finally, he prays that God be with him and that his family should survive.

As R’ Noach Weinberg highlights, Yakov prepares for peace, victory, and death; which is to say that he did no less than everything possible to prepare for all eventualities before prayer, even though God had already promised to be with him and that his children would inherit the land and his legacy. 

Maybe that’s what our efforts have to look like to give our prayers a hook to latch on to – even when God promises.

God didn’t want their prayers at the Red Sea. It wasn’t time to pray; it was time to act! But they couldn’t, because they had given up, and were consumed with fear. Perhaps that lends enduring power to the legacy of Nachson ben Aminadav, whom the Midrash heralds for clambering into the water when he could not yet know what would happen, because just maybe there was one last thing to try before giving up, finding room for a ray of hope amid the clouds of despair – crucially, a hope that drove him to act.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that the biggest challenge to our faith and belief is time; that we give up prematurely.

By wading into the water, Nachshon showed people who thought they had reached the outer limit of what they could do and revealed to them that the boundary was just a little further than they’d thought. They’d stopped at the shore, but he boldly and bravely stepped into the impossible and waded up to his neck, without waiting for instructions, leading by example in the face of uncertainty, the quality of his tribe, Yehuda. And when he did that, he sparked salvation, and the ocean split for all.

Perhaps that underpins God’s irritation, and we can almost hear the reverberation of an answer to the rhetorical question of “What do you expect Me to do?!” with God begging for something to work with. Get in the water, dummy!

We should not judge them too harshly for being afraid. The fight, flight, or freeze response is hardcoded into our DNA and predates human consciousness; people tend to freeze when their families are about to get massacred.

But God speaks through them to us, and we should ask ourselves if our prayers are corrupted by fear or despair and yet still wonder why our prayers go answered. We need to audit our lives, soul searching about whether we truly mean our prayers. Does the way you spend your life align with what you claim to want? Does what you pay attention to and devote time to reflect that? We should wonder if God might give us a similarly terrifying answer – “What do you expect Me to do, exactly?” 

If we’re crying crocodile tears, we need to confront the reality that our prayers are mediocre, and it shouldn’t be surprising that they don’t seem to be working.

You won’t get the dream job you don’t apply to. You won’t get healthy if you don’t diet and exercise. You won’t pass the test if you don’t study the material. You won’t get rich if you don’t invest. Your relationship won’t go anywhere if you don’t give your partner attention. You won’t succeed if you don’t try. If you expect your prayer to change that fundamental reality, you will likely continue to be disappointed – the world has never worked that way. You absolutely have to try, and even then, you have to try very hard indeed.

We need to animate our lives with action and hope, like our ancestor Yakov, like our hero Pinchas, and invoke the incredible bravery of Nachshon. God desperately wants to shower us with blessing, but humans must build the vessels that will contain those blessings.

There’s plenty to be scared of; the uncertain path that lies ahead is shrouded in the darkness of the unknowable. But we can illuminate it with decisive action, taking bold steps that brighten the way forward. And with each step along the way, pray to meet with good fortune and success.

If there’s something you’ve been praying on for a while, it’s worth pausing being a soldier for a moment to think like a general and strategize. Every person who wants something different from their performance than what they’re getting is doing something to perpetuate that. Bluntly ask yourself what you could be doing better to make it happen.

Miracles do happen, but they start with your level of effort and dedication toward your dreams. Thoughts and prayers are not a substitute for action.

You must believe in a positive outcome enough to invest real effort into making it a reality.

The Hand of My Brother

2 minute read
Straightforward

When Yakov impersonated Esau to take his blessing, his place at home was untenable, and he had to run away. After twenty years apart, their paths crossed once more, and Yakov was afraid of what Esau might do to him or his family, and he prayed for God’s help:

הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו כִּי־יָרֵא אָנֹכִי אֹתוֹ פֶּן־יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי אֵם עַל־בָּנִים – Save me, please! From the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, I’m scared he might come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. (32:12)

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that it was easier for Yakov to endure 20 years of injustice under a deceptive crook like Lavan than face Esau, the man Yakov had wronged, for just one moment.

The Beis Halevi highlights that Yakov was afraid of two aspects – the hand of his brother, and the hand of Esau – מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו. We know all too well about Esau’s destructive capacity for violence – מִיַּד עֵשָׂו, but Yakov knows that Esau’s warm embrace of brotherhood is no less of a threat – מִיַּד אָחִי.

For everyone who died in pogroms, Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Holocaust, there are so many memorials and prayers, so much history, so many resolutions of “Never Again.” But, in the words of R’ Noach Weinberg, there is a spiritual Holocaust taking place as we speak. How many souls do we lose to assimilation, to a friendly society that opens its arms to us and beckons to us so invitingly? What are we doing with our unprecedented freedom, information, and resources?

We may not live in a time of physical danger, but the spiritual danger is no less catastrophic, and for all the wonderful accomplishments of outreach organizations today, we still lose more than we save.

We like to think that if we were around then, we would have done all we could, and hopefully, that’s even true. Today, the cries are a lot more subtle, but the opportunity is there just the same – מִיַּד אָחִי.

R’ Chaim Shmulevitz would tell the Mir Yeshiva to cry for the assimilating Jews in Russia and the United States; that the students should not dare to ask for God’s compassion when they could not move themselves to show compassion for others.

Pharaoh had three advisors concerning his slavery and genocide program – Bilam advocated for it and is a villain; Yisro was against it, was forced to flee, and is a hero; and Iyov stayed neutral and said nothing and suffered immensely afterward. The Brisker Rav noted that Iyov’s suffering was because he became an accomplice by remaining silent in the face of such cruelty.

As R’ Noach Weinberg says, if a boy was drowning, you could ask his father for some rope to save him and be very sure he’d give you all the rope he had! We all encounter the unaffiliated from time to time – and if not, perhaps you should start there?

Yakov recognized the threat and asked for help.

If you recognize the threat, are you doing all you can?

There and Back Again, and Every Step Along the Way

4 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most formative moments in Yakov’s life was when he fled his parent’s home after obtaining Avraham’s blessing from Yitzchak. He was no longer safe around Esau, and his mother Rivka advised him to escape to her brother’s house.

Yakov ran with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and he would not return home until decades later. Alone and afraid, Yakov slept one night and had a stark vision of a stairway to heaven, with angels climbing and descending over him. When he woke, he asked God to protect him, and God promised to do so.

It’s a powerful story about God’s presence and power transcending national boundaries, about the unique and eternal covenant between God and Avraham’s descendants, and the everlasting gift of the Land of Israel. It speaks to us by acknowledging the tensions that threaten us in exile, with its all too relatable struggle of trying to build and secure our future in a hostile world.

The Sfas Emes notes that Yakov’s journey is one we all make on a personal and national level, escaping Esau’s clutches in one form or another. We must eventually leave our comfort zones, perhaps when we realize that the familiar safety and security we once knew have eroded beneath us and that we need to find someplace else.

The Torah doesn’t just say where Yakov went; it emphasizes that he left Beersheva – וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה. Rashi suggests that this indicates that when we leave somewhere, it loses a bit of its luster. The Kedushas Levi teaches that what makes a place sparkle is its people, so it loses a little of what made it special when they leave. The Midrash suggests that God folded up the entire Land of Israel into Yakov’s pocket while he slept, illustrating that the greatness of a place is bound to the presence of great people. You contribute to the places you are a part of, and they are worse off when you leave. But your contribution goes where you go, every step along the way, and all the spaces in between.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights this story as critical to understanding what it means to be an upright Jew standing in the face of the adversity of exile. If Avraham’s great test was to leave his homeland – לֶךְ־לְךָ – then this was Yakov’s, and it is more demanding than Avraham’s. When God asked Avraham to set out, he set out with his family, wealth, and great renown. At this moment in Yakov’s life, God had not yet spoken to him, and he was completely isolated and penniless, every bit the outsider – וַיֵּצֵא. Yakov’s loneliness and despair are palpable when he asks God to be with him – he has no place, nothing, and nobody.

At the end of Yakov’s life, he laments the difficulty and misery that blighted his life. Yet even in what R’ Jonathan Sacks describes as the liminal space, the non-moments in between the great chapters of Yakov’s life, he sees visions and grapples with angels, and God promises to keep him safe, watching over him like a parent.

R’ Hirsch highlights how Yakov starts with nothing and nobody and finds himself nowhere precisely because Yakov doesn’t need any of that to become who he’s meant to be. He has everything he needs within him already.

Moreover, God appears to Yakov and promises to protect him precisely at this low point, before he is somewhere, before he is someone, and before he has something. Yakov has not yet undergone his transformation to Yisrael; he is not yet the man he will become. Having just left his parents’ house, he has only just begun his journey into adulthood. But precisely at that moment, at Yakov’s lowest, God appears for the very first time and promises to keep him safe. The Torah tells us nothing about how Yakov earns this remarkable privilege, perhaps indicating to us that God is there at our rock bottom moment, in the darkness and without cause, with the promise that we can shine brightly once again, perhaps even more than in the good old days.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that this theme precisely tracks the trajectory of Yakov’s life story. Yakov is born not just a twin, but literally holding on to his brother’s foot, and his childhood is defined by competition with Esau – his identity exists solely in relation to his brother; he must be attached to get by, which perhaps sheds some light on why Yitzchak may have doubted Yakov in his youth. Years afterward, when Yakov and Esau meet up again, Esau offers Yakov to join forces, and Yakov declines in order to travel alone with his own family – Yakov’s ultimate victory over Esau comes when Yakov develops his ability to transcend competition and strife to stand on his own. Esau has no power over Yakov when Yakov can resist not only Esau’s strength but can gracefully decline his diplomatic overtures as well.

The defining struggle of Yakov’s life is in the enigmatic incident at the river, when Yakov battled a mysterious and shadowy figure we identify as Esau’s guardian angel, and the question is posed once and for all, can Yakov stand alone? He holds his own and earns the title of Yisrael.

Yakov’s story is a quest to pave his own way, build a home, and secure his family’s future in a hostile and turbulent environment. But the catalyst was Yakov all along, and it was within him all along.

Taking the dream at face value, we might wonder why Yakov doesn’t ever think to climb the ladder to heaven. There is simply no need to climb the ladder in this interpretation. Yakov can build his family, and they will impact the world through their actions, and he doesn’t need inherited wealth or renown, and he doesn’t need anybody’s help. Even when he is nowhere, he doesn’t need to climb the ladder to become other than who he is; who he is and where he is will do perfectly.

The legacy of Yakov is that we have a spark within us, and we take it wherever we go. If we’ve been anywhere great, we are a part of what made it so, and if we did it there, we could do it anywhere. The model of Yakov’s life demonstrates that we can even do it in the middle of nowhere; that humans have a generative capacity to produce and contain growth and sanctity.

As the Ropshitzer said, the holiest place isn’t the Beis HaMikdash, and the holiest moment isn’t Yom Kippur; it’s right here, right now.

Becoming Yourself

3 minute read
Straightforward

Deception is one of the key recurring themes in Yakov’s life story – as perpetrator and victim.

Yakov opportunistically bought Esau’s birthright for a bowl of soup and masqueraded as Esau to get his blessing. This set a course of events in motion, where Yakov had to flee to his uncle Lavan, who then deceived Yakov by substituting Leah in Rachel’s place, causing lifelong tension between them and their children; culminating in the brothers’ abduction of Yosef and the subsequent cover-up of Yosef; which ultimately led the family and the Jewish People to the mire of Egypt.

Late in life, when he met Pharoh, Yakov recognized the constant struggle his life had been:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה:  מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – Yakov said to Pharoh: ‘The days of the years of my journey are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, they have not approached the days of the years of the life of my fathers in their days.’ (47:9)

Yakov recognized his difficulties, and we ought to as well. It is simplistic to dismissively hand wave and whitewash Yakov’s role in the way his life unfolded. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch emphasizes that it is critical to proudly acknowledge the way the Torah characterizes our heroes’ flaws so that we learn that although perfection is ever-elusive, excellence is not.

The Torah explicitly suggests that Yakov hurt Esau:

כִּשְׁמֹעַ עֵשָׂו, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי אָבִיו, וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה, גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד – When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried with an extremely great and bitter cry (27:34)

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights that the Torah narrates emotions sparingly, and uses four modifiers here – גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד.

This hurt came at a great cost; the Zohar suggests that these tears alone were responsible for thousands of years of suffering, over a blessing. When Yitzchak was on his deathbed, Rivka knew that Yitzchak could not see Esau for who he was, so she instructed Yakov to act like Esau and take his blessing:

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ, הָאֱלֹהִים, מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן, וְתִירֹשׁ יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ לְאֻמִּים – הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ; אֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר, וּמְבָרְכֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ – May God give you the dews of heaven, and the fats of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let people serve you, and nations bow down to you. Lord over your brother, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be every one that curses you, and blessed be every one that blesses you. (27:28,29)

This is the great blessing Yakov suffered so considerably for, and it seems a little underwhelming. As R’ Jonathan Sacks sharply notes, this is a blessing for wealth and power; it is plainly not the blessing of Avraham’s covenant, which is about family and the Promised Land. Avraham gave Yishmael a blessing for wealth and power, and Esau could have one too.

Once Yakov and Rivka’s ruse was discovered, and just before Yakov left for good, his father Yitzchak blessed him one last time, transparent with who he was speaking to:

וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ, וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ; וְהָיִיתָ, לִקְהַל עַמִּים. וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ אֶת-בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ–לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת-אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לְאַבְרָהָם – May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of people; and give you the blessing of Avraham – to you, and your children together; that you may inherit the land of your residence, which God gave to Avraham. (28:3,4)

By imparting Avraham’s blessing to Yakov with no pretenses, the Torah suggests that the entire ruse and ensuing struggle was unnecessary, that the strife and deception that characterized Yakov’s life was based on a misunderstanding.

God’s blessing is abundant; it is not exclusive or zero-sum. Yishmael and Esau can also have God’s blessing; it will not detract from our own.

Perhaps when Esau and Yakov met again years later, Yakov had learned this lesson, and that was how they were able to reconcile:

קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי אֲשֶׁר הֻבָאת לָךְ, כִּי-חַנַּנִי אֱלֹהִים וְכִי יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל; וַיִּפְצַר-בּוֹ, וַיִּקָּח – “Please take my blessings that I gift to you; because God has been gracious with me, and I have enough,” he urged him; and he took it. (33:11)

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the material gifts to Esau were the literal return of the material blessing – קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי; and bowing to Esau showed his deference to Esau’s place; acknowledging the wrongdoing of their youth. Instead of trying to usurp Esau’s position in the family and take his blessings; Esau could be Esau, and Yakov could be Yakov – וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו, יֶשׁ-לִי רָב; אָחִי, יְהִי לְךָ אֲשֶׁר-לָךְ.

Once Yakov fights off the literal specter of trying to be like Esau, he earns the name and title of Yisrael, which has a connotation of straightness.

We each have our own blessings, and we mustn’t seek our brother’s blessing. His blessing is his, and yours is yours.

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

Fighting the Darkness Alone

4 minute read
Straightforward

One of the recurring motifs in the stories of our heroes is how often they stand alone, against all odds, and it starts from the very beginning of our Tradition.

During Yakov and his family’s escape from Lavan’s house, they had to navigate their way across a river. Some of the family’s articles had remained on the wrong side during the crossing, so he sent his family ahead to make the most of the dwindling light while he stayed back to retrieve what he had left behind.

Alone as darkness fell, in one of the defining moments in Yakov’s life, he was accosted by and fought with a mysterious figure, whom we identify as Esau’s guardian angel:

וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב לא יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם –  Yakov was alone, and a man grappled with him until daybreak. When the stranger saw that he could not overcome him, he struck Yakov’s hip and dislocated it as he grappled with him. He said, “Let me go, dawn is breaking!” – but Yakov said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” He said to him, “What is your name?” and he replied, “Yakov.” He said, “No longer shall your name be Yakov, for your name is Yisrael, because you have mastery with God and men, and you have prevailed.” Yakov asked, and said, “Now tell me your name” and he replied, “Why is it you ask my name?”‘ and blessed him there. (32:25-30)

The imagery of this iconic battle is that it takes place in the darkness and lasts until dawn’s early light. But darkness does not simply describe the battle environment; it describes the battle itself.

Most humans are afraid of the dark, at least to some degree; our sight is the sense we depend on the most, and we cannot see well in darkness, so a lack of light makes us feel vulnerable to danger.

In the darkness, we are surrounded by the great unknown, with all sorts of hidden threats lurking in the shadows in the corners of our eyes, looming just out of sight. But when the light of dawn comes, it dispels the dangerous unknown, the darkness dissipates, and the shadows disappear, replaced with the concrete safety of known order.

The Mesilas Yesharim says the trouble with darkness is not just that you won’t see something dangerous, but that you can mistake something dangerous for something safe. You might never see the snake in the woods, but what if that big rock is actually a bear?

The Steipler teaches that the battleground of our struggles is in our minds. Whether fear or fantasy, our minds can paint vivid pictures that do not correspond to reality. Fear amplifies the negative, and fantasy amplifies the positive; but neither includes the consequences, opportunity costs, pathways, or tradeoffs that always accompany reality. When someone returns to their family after a long time away, they often think they’ll all get along peacefully and happily now; or the newlywed couple might think they’ll be in love forever – but we know how naive that is. Reality is much more challenging than the illusion of fantasy, but the difference is that it is real.

When Yakov asks the figure for his name, Yakov gets an evasive non-answer, “Why is it you ask for my name?” R’ Leib Chasman intuitively suggests that this is the nature of the formless enemy we fight. The Gemara teaches how at the end of days, Hashem will slaughter the Satan, and the righteous will cry because it was this enormous mountain they somehow overcame, and the wicked will cry because it was a tiny hair they couldn’t even blow away. The very idea of the Satan is a shorthand for what we fight – a flicker of our reflection, constantly in flux.

Although Yakov was permanently injured in his encounter, he still emerged as Yisrael, the master; we should expect to trip, stumble, and make mistakes along the way, and we might even get hurt. But it is the human condition to fight and struggle, but we can persist and win.

It’s important to note that Yakov doesn’t actually achieve total physical victory – he holds out for a stalemate while seriously injured. The victory – וַתּוּכָל – is in staying in the fight and not giving up – וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ.

Our biggest tests, if not all of them, come when we are alone, but it is our characteristic ability to rise the challenge that Bilam highlights in his reluctant blessing to the Jewish People – הֶן־עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן.

It’s a point of pride, rooted in our identity from the very beginning, starting with Avraham, the first Hebrew, so-called because he is an outsider who stands alone against the dominant culture עברי / מעבר הנהר

This theme repeats itself with Yosef, home alone with Potiphar’s wife. About to give in to an almost irresistible temptation, he sees his father’s face, reminding him that his family heritage is that he has what it takes to stand alone and not give up. 

The Hebrew word for grappling is cognate to the word for dust because the fighter’s feet stir up dust when fighting for leverage and grip – וַיֵּאָבֵק / אבק. The Midrash suggests that the dust kicked up from this epic struggle rose all the way to the Heavenly Throne.

R’ Tzvi Meir Silberberg highlights that the Midrash doesn’t say that the victory went up to Heaven, but that the dust, the energy expended on the struggle, went up to Heaven. Our victories are personal, and although we don’t always get to choose whether we win, we always control whether we go down without a fight; and putting up a fight is specifically what the Midrash honors.

It takes everything to stand alone, but it’s the struggle that will ultimately endure and carries the day.

Pay It Forward

3 minute read
Straightforward

While mature people recognize that good character looks different in different people, there are some common universal traits, like kindness, strongly identified with Avraham, or humility, frequently associated with Yakov.

When Yakov arrived at Lavan’s house, he had just the clothes on his back and the staff in his hand. Yet, he left with a large family and entourage, thriving livestock, and serious wealth. Honestly evaluating himself, he determined that he was more fortunate than he could otherwise have expected:

קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ – I am humbled by all the kindness You have done Your servant… (32:11)

The Ramban explains that Yakov felt that his blessings were grossly disproportionate, far beyond anything he could have deserved, and recognized that God had been generous with him.

The truth is, if we take similar stock of our blessings, most of us have to admit something similar. Do we deserve our families? Our friends? Our successes? Or even further, to be born into our family and the privileges that came along with it? Do we deserve to have been born in the most educated, healthy, and wealthy era in human history? Can we truly say that we didn’t equally deserve to be born to a poor peasant family in medieval China?

John Rawls sharply suggested that a person cannot claim credit for being born with greater natural endowments, such as athleticism or intelligence, as it is purely the result of a natural lottery. As the Rambam explains, our lives are a gift within a gift; by definition, our starting points cannot be unearned, so gratitude should be our first and overwhelming response to our privilege. Sure, we may deserve the fruits of what we do with our gifts, but the starting point of having any of those things to start with is the more significant gift by far.

In mysticism, there is a paradox called the bread of shame – נהמא דכיסופא. If our souls had just stayed in Heaven, basking in the ethereal light, it would be a degrading handout. Our souls go into bodies so we can earn our way back, and it’s no longer a handout. But the thing is, the notion of earning anything at all is an elaborate illusion – the system itself is a gift, the biggest gift of all.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the Torah uses sevens for complete natural cycles, and the number eight restarts the cycle, an octave higher. For example, circumcision is performed on the day after one seven-day cycle; and the Yovel is the year after seven complete Shmitta cycles.

The notion of eighths concerning how to handle our blessings speaks to the idea that we are all blessed – we should be grateful for what we have and dedicate those talents, tools, and resources to make an impact. That’s one eighth.

But it’s entirely possible to get carried away. Sure, I’m fortunate to have received so many blessings, but why me, of all people? It’s not hard to think there’s an element of justice involved, that maybe you really do deserve it on some level. That’s the second eighth.

The Gemara cryptically teaches that everyone needs a dose of arrogant confidence to offset humility, and the proper amount is an eighth of an eighth – leaving the denominating unit unspecified. The Gemara doesn’t suggest that the unit is one sixty-fourth, and the Vilna Gaon notes that Yakov’s admission is the eighth verse in the eighth Parsha to hint at the model of handling our blessings.

When we realize how fortunate we are, we feel like Yakov, humbled by God’s generosity. Sure, there’s plenty that could be better, and we have very hungry ambitions for much more. But Yakov was self-aware enough to acknowledge those blessings long before he had stability or security. He could see his blessings for the good fortune they were even while on the run, yet again, escaping Lavan’s clutches while hoping to avoid getting slaughtered by his brother Esau and his forces. We can want lots more but recognize the blessings that have gotten us where we are.

Crucially, we should take note of where this self-reflection propelled Yakov.

Yakov knew he was blessed, and he knew he hadn’t earned those blessings. After escaping Esau, the first thing Yakov did was to buy land and install an altar to thank God.

It’s not enough to know that we’re blessed. We have to recognize that the fact we have any gifts is the greatest gift of all, and taking Yakov’s example, all we can do is pay it forward and make sure we use our blessings for the best purposes we can find.