Friday, December 9, 2011

Parshat VaYishlach - Struggling with God and Man

Yaacov Avinu's life has always resonated with me, perhaps because his story is the most problematic among the forefathers.  He has difficulties from beginning to end with personal and family relationships, with parents, brother, uncle/father-in-law, wives and children.  He lives a life of struggle to survive and prosper, facing exile and return, only to have his family shattered by an attack on his daughter, and later a terrible battle between his sons.

However, these travails and struggles are punctuated with moments of divine revelation.   When going into exile, he is visited by the vision of the ladder, promising divine purpose in his sojourn.  When it is time to return home, he has a dream showing God's hand in protecting him during his years of exile, and pointing his way home.    He struggles with how to live up to this divine purpose, and never feels confident, it seems, in his way.  He does what God says, but steals away in the night like a thief.

Yaacov's very name that he receives in the Parsha, Yisrael, means struggle.  It is most fitting that it has become the name of the nation that continues this same struggle to this day.

This week's parsha opens with Yaacov preparing to face the brother whose murderous intent drove him into exile twenty years previously.  Despite God's command to him to return home and guarantee of his safety, he is not confident in what to expect.  He faces his brother with trepidation, and prepares for the worst.  Despite all the years, the household and wealth he has built, the divine promise of protection, he obsequiously approaches his brother with gifts and apologies.

The day approaches where they must meet face to face.  Yaacov finds himself alone, in the dead of night, and finds himself in a deathly struggle with an unknown adversary.  When he realizes the angelic nature of his opponent, he insists on a blessing before releasing him.

He wakes in the morning with a new name, but his struggle does not end.  He does not take the blessing to mean that all is guaranteed to be well, that he can trust in God to give him a happy ending in his meeting with Esav.

Yaacov had personal visions of God's purpose for him, but he did not assume that he knew it meant that all would be well in his lifetime.  He knew it meant that he would not be wiped out completely, but there was no guarantee that there wouldn't be a lot of pain for him and his to face on the way.   Yaacov's faith teaches us that faith means to trust in the long-term of God's purpose, but to know that we may need to struggle every step of the way to get there.