Light from the Sidra

Vayishlach (‘And he sent…’). 6th December 2014. 14th Kislev 5775

Torah: Genesis 32:4–36:43. Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1–21

Journey into Faith

In Louis Ginzberg’s magnificent seven-volume The Legends of the Jews, Jacob is portrayed as a giant, both physically and spiritually, who was pious from his mother’s womb. ‘If Rebekah walked in the vicinity of a temple erected to idols,’ says Jewish legend, ‘Esau moved in her body, and if she passed a synagogue or a Bet ha-Midrash, Jacob essayed to break forth from her womb.’ Even before the age of thirteen – the age of Bar Mitzvah – Jacob studied at the yeshiva of Shem and Eber and continued to do so. Jacob’s journey to Haran, according to Legends, ‘was a succession of miracles.’ He parted the River Jordan with his staff, and a spring of water that ‘appeared wherever the patriarchs went or settled’ accompanied Jacob from Beer-sheba to Mount Moriah.’ After Jacob dreamed of a ladder ascending to heaven, ‘In the twinkling of an eye, he arrived at his destination. The earth jumped from Mount Moriah to Haran.’

Whether any Jewish person today actually believes those stories (I know at least one Hasid who does), the point of the legends is to exalt the piety of Jacob. But was the man after whom the Jewish nation is named as devout as the legends would have us believe? The mark of the faith of Abraham and Isaac, as seen in Genesis 12:7,8; 13:2-4 and 26:25, was that they pitched their tents, built their altars and called on HASHEM. By contrast, although Jacob pitched his tent, he didn’t build an altar and call on HASHEM until the age of 97! Until Jacob fled from Laban, HASHEM was, to him, the God of Abraham and Isaac.

‘Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you were so quick to find, my son?”’ And he said, “Because HASHEM your God arranged it for me”’ (Genesis 27:20. Italics added).

In Genesis 28:13, HASHEM revealed himself to Jacob as ‘God of Abraham your father and God of Isaac.’ Jacob then made a vow: ‘If God will be with me and will watch over me on this way that I go and will give me food to eat and a garment to wear, and if I come back in peace to my father’s house — [HASHEM] shall be God to me.’ (The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes by Everett Fox). HASHEM would be Jacob’s God on the condition that he did certain things for him, including bringing him home safely.

Note how Jacob speaks of HASHEM in 31:42: ‘Had not the God of my father — the God of Abraham and the Dread of Isaac — been with me, you would surely have now sent me away empty-handed.’ In 31:53, Laban – who was a worshipper of many gods – speaks in the same way: ‘“May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor judge between us…” And Jacob swore by the Dread of his father Isaac.’ (31:50-53)

Throughout his life, Jacob lived by his wits until he heard that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men. When Jacob last saw his father, Isaac had been (so it seemed) on his death bed and Esau had sworn to kill his younger brother after their father was dead. Isaac was probably now long dead, so what was Jacob to do? He couldn’t run. He couldn’t hide. He was at his wit’s end. So he did what so many have done since; he prayed. ‘God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac; HASHEM…’ (Genesis 32:9).

After doing all he could to safeguard his wives and children, Jacob found himself in an all-night wrestling match with a mysterious stranger. Perhaps Jacob thought the stranger was his brother but as the day dawned it became clear that his antagonist was more than a mere man and Jacob asked for a blessing. ‘Not as Yaakov/Heel-Sneak shall your name be henceforth uttered, but rather as Yisrael/God –Fighter, for you have fought with God and men and have prevailed’ (Fox. The Five Books of Moses)

At the Jabbok ford, Jacob encountered HASHEM in a far more dramatic and life changing way than at Beth-El, the place of his ‘stairway to heaven’ dream. The man he wrestled with was far more than a man, just as the three men who appeared to Abraham were more than men. Jacob wrestled with HASHEM and, in Genesis 33: 18-20, he at last pitched his tent, ‘set up an altar and proclaimed, “God, the God of Israel.”’ HASHEM was now Jacob’s God.

In The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Jewish scholar W. Gunther Plaut makes the astute observation, ‘The conquest of the Promised Land starts at the place where Jacob wrestled with the man (Num. 21:24)... the forefather prefigures his people; like him they will wrestle with a God who gets away from their grasp yet will leave them with a blessing’ (Italics added)

If Plaut is correct then every Jewish person needs to ask this question: Am I ‘Jacob’ or ‘Israel’. Is HASHEM my God or just the God of my fathers? Have I encountered God in a life-changing experience or is he only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel?

By the time Jacob met Esau again, he had ‘everything’ (Gen. 33:11) and Esau was no longer angry with him. After twenty years of living on the second-best blessing Esau had discovered that HASHEM’s second best was actually pretty good and so, when Jacob offered him part of what was rightfully his, Esau refused because he had ‘enough’ (Gen. 33:9).

There’s a remarkable irony here. After the Exodus from Egypt HASHEM entered into a covenant with Israel, a covenant that his people broke within weeks of it being established. More than a thousand years later, in Jeremiah 31, God promised to cut a new, better and unbreakable covenant with Israel under which he would write his Torah on the hearts and minds of his people. Everyone in that New Covenant would know HASHEM because HASHEM would remember their sins no longer.

Most – though by no means all – Jewish people reject the New Covenant established through the blood of the Messiah but for almost 2,000 years Gentiles have been entering into that covenant. Esau, as it were, has inherited the blessings of the New Covenant while Israel has become content to have the Torah written on scrolls rather than on their hearts, to know about HASHEM rather than knowing him, and content to fruitlessly seek atonement one day every year. But when ‘missionaries’ offer Jewish people the blessings of their own New Covenant birthright, they say they have ‘enough.’ They have a rich and ancient body of Tradition; they have the Sabbath and the festivals with all the ceremonies that pertain to them; they have the Tanakh. In other words, many Jewish people are not even like Jacob; they have become like Esau, content to live on the ‘enough’ of second best rather than the ‘everything’ of the New Covenant.

I’m a Gentile. I am, if you like, ‘Esau.’ But I have ‘everything’ because of the Jewish Messiah in whom I believe. If you are Jewish, why live under the old covenant established through Moses that your fathers broke, when you can live under Messiah’s new, unbreakable covenant of mercy and grace? Why settle for ‘enough’ when you can have it all?

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