A d'var Torah delivered at the Vitas Jewish Outreach Advisory Board Meeting:
Of all the lives chronicled in the book of Genesis, Jacob’s is writ large across its pages. Our first view of him is as a fetus in his mother’s womb, striving with his twin Esau, and our last is of him blessing his children on his deathbed. We see him evolve from a slick little trickster into the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Like Abraham and Isaac, he personally experiences God’s presence, but he also has many of the same life experiences that all of us do. He falls in love, works for a living, and becomes a father many times over.
Jacob lives his life largely. He makes some disastrous decisions, and pays for them. He deceives his brother Esau out of his birthright and then masquerades as Esau to trick his blind father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. He is then made the victim of deception as his uncle Laban—a much more accomplished trickster than Jacob—also substitutes one sibling for another, giving him Leah as his wife in place of his true love, Rachel. He loves one son above the others, causing hatred between his children. He comes to know love and fear and jealousy, anger and shame and awe and heartbreak. He has encounters, good ones and bad ones, human and divine.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob, returning to Canaan after his twenty years in Haran, has perhaps his most well-known encounter, with an unnamed divine being with whom he wrestles until daybreak, and over whom he finally prevails. He reconciles with his brother Esau, a meeting he anticipated with both dread and longing. Still later in the parashah, Jacob’s beloved Rachel dies giving birth to his last son, Benjamin, and only six verses later, we are told that Jacob went to his aged father Isaac at Hebron where, “Isaac was one hundred and eighty years old when he breathed his last and died”, and Jacob and Esau buried their father.
After the wrestling with the divine being, Jacob demands from him a blessing, and receives a new name, Israel, “for you have striven with beings divine and human and prevailed”. I believe that we could do far worse than to live life as our ancestor Jacob, who became Israel, lived it. Make mistakes and learn from them. Love and do not be afraid to be hurt by loving too well. Delve deeply and with passion into your relationships with God and with the people around you. In our work, we know all too well how short life can be and how much we cherish it when it is nearly gone. As we share Israel’s name, may we also share his legacy. Kein y’hi ratzon – so may it be God’s will.