Tag Archives: vayishlah

Vayishlah: Crossing the River

crossing-the-riverMany people are discouraged from even beginning a spiritual journey because they think it needs that huge leap of faith. They cannot see themselves reaching a degree of religious commitment which to them seems otherworldly.

-Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“A Ladder to Heaven”

Worshipping G-d in a foreign land is apparently very difficult. “Whoever lives outside the land it is as if they are worshipping idols” (Ketuvot 110b).

-Rabbi Jay Kelman
“Vayeze: Searching for G-d”
both articles found at
Hasidic Waves blogspot

That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone.

Genesis 32:23-25 (JPS Tanakh)

I actually hadn’t planned to write a commentary on this week’s Torah Portion Vayishlah but apparently my intentions don’t always dictate what I end up doing. Actually, the first two commentaries I quoted above are more related to the previous week’s Torah reading where Jacob leaves Canaan to escape his brother Esau and becomes an indentured servant to Laban, all for the sake of winning Rachel for a wife.

But if worshiping God in an alien land is like worshiping idols, what is it like to forsake that foreign land and return to the Land of Promise; the Land God was to give to the descendants of Jacob generations hence?

What is it like to return to community with God’s people in the church?

It ain’t easy.

No, it’s not like I’ve been “worshiping idols” in a “foreign land,” but we all cross thresholds and transverse boundaries.

“For you have wrestled with G-d and man, and have prevailed.”

Genesis 32:29

In ancient Near Eastern understanding, the crossing of a river was a symbol of new beginnings and a new start – a sort of rebirth. That is why there is a purposeful connection with the name of the river (Yabok) and the word vaye’avek – to wrestle/struggle. It was here, at the river of a new beginning in Jacob’s life that he also received a new name – and a new identity – Israel.

-Rabbi Joshua Brumbach
“Wrestling with the Divine”
Yinon Blog

I suppose moving an unmovable rock could be considered a “new beginning” but in reality, it’s just one step in a process. Sort of like how Rabbi Goldman describes it:

There is a ladder, a spiritual route clearly mapped out for us; a route that needs to be traversed step-by-step, one rung at a time. The pathway to Heaven is gradual, methodical and eminently manageable.

Many people are discouraged from even beginning a spiritual journey because they think it needs that huge leap of faith. They cannot see themselves reaching a degree of religious commitment which to them seems otherworldly. And yet, with the gradual step-by-step approach, one finds that the journey can be embarked upon and that the destination aspired to is actually not in outer space.

One way some Jewish sages look at Jacob’s Ladder is as the process of prayer. I’ve also mentioned prayer recently, and all of this seems to fit together. Learning to pray is a process but it is also part of a larger process of learning to draw closer to God. A relationship with God, in some ways, is like any other relationship in that its development is not linear. There are closer times and farther apart times. There are sudden rushes of heat and long periods of icy cold. Then there is just tons and tons of lukewarm.

Jacob's-Ladder1Jacob was terrified of the changes he would have to undergo and for good reason, both in leaving Canaan and in returning. In each case, he was facing the unknown. He left Canaan with nothing, and returned with a fortune and a family. Then, he had a personal encounter with God and did not escape it unscathed. As Derek Leman said recently, “The unthinkable can happen. The faith of God’s people will not prevent hard times.” Just because you’re doing God’s will or believe you are, doesn’t mean bad stuff isn’t going to happen.

Where did we get the idea that a life of holiness was also a life of safety?

And yet a life of faith isn’t always immediately fatal, either. Jacob lived to a good old age and died in comfort after blessing his sons, though he died in an alien land, so perhaps worshiping God there was as “dimmed” for him in Egypt as it was in Haran (although God did promise He would go down into Egypt with Jacob – Gen. 46:1-4).

In returning to church, some might say I have returned to the “Holy Land” and others would say I was “worshiping idols.” I suppose both opinions are extreme and reality is somewhere in the middle. But in the middle (and everywhere else), there is God.

Do not forsake me. I am crossing a river. I am wrestling with I don’t know what. I am carrying that which belongs to me. I can’t see what is up ahead.

What do you think is a rabbi’s fantasy? A guy walking into my office and saying, “Rabbi, I want to become ‘frum’ (fully observant), now tell me what I must do”?

Is that what I lie awake dreaming of? And if it did happen, do you think I would throw the book at him and insist he did every single mitzvah from that moment on? Never!

Why not? Because a commitment like that is usually here today and gone tomorrow. Like the popular saying goes, “Easy come, easy go.” I’m afraid I haven’t had such wonderful experiences with the “instant Jew” types.

The correct and most successful method of achieving our Jewish objectives is the slow and steady approach. Gradual, yet consistent. As soon as one has become comfortable with one mitzvah, it is time to start on the next, and so on and so forth.

Then, through constant growth, slowly but surely we become more knowledgeable, committed, fulfilled and happy in our faith.

-Rabbi Goldman

yeshiva1While this commentary is directed as Jews, with just a few adjustments, it can fit the rest of us as well. In pursuing any endeavor, there’s a desire to jump from “A” to “Z” as quickly as possible, but even if it can be done, this quick hop, skip, and jump method might not be the best. Getting there too quickly doesn’t allow us to experience what we need to learn along the way by taking each step slowly and deliberately. Of course, there’s also a matter of direction as Rabbi Goldman tells us.

When my father was in yeshiva, his teacher once asked the following question: “If two people are on a ladder, one at the top and one on the bottom, who is higher?” The class thought it was a pretty dumb question — until the wise teacher explained that they were not really capable of judging who was higher or lower until they first ascertained in which direction each was headed.

If the fellow on top was going down, but the guy on the bottom was going up, then conceptually, the one on the bottom was actually higher.

And so my friends, it doesn’t really matter what your starting point is or where you are at on the ladder of religious life. As long as you are moving in the right direction, as long as you are going up, you will, please G-d, succeed in climbing the heavenly heights.

Like Jacob’s ladder, it is not only important to make sure that we carefully place our hands and feet upon every rung, but that we verify we are traveling in the direction that will lead us higher. Like “Jacob’s river,” we must know when in our “new beginning,” we are leaving God’s desired place for us, and when we’re returning, for God sometimes sends us in either direction. How much we have, what we’ve accomplished, and what hardships we must endure after the crossing won’t always tell us where we are and where we’re going. We can only know by keeping our eye on the path…and the goal.

The Rabbi and the Flood

Although many prosperity churches hold seminars on financial responsibility, Catherine Bowler of the Duke Divinity School alleges that they often offer poor advice. Rosin argues that prosperity theology contributed to the housing bubble that caused the financial crisis of 2007–2010. She maintains that home ownership was heavily emphasized in prosperity churches and that reliance on divine intervention caused people to make unwise choices.

Prosperity Theology page at Wikipedia

Once, I asked Garay how you would know for certain if God had told you to buy a house, and he answered like a roulette dealer. “Ten Christians will say that God told them to buy a house. In nine of the cases, it will go bad. The 10th one is the real Christian.” And the other nine? “For them, there’s always another house.”

-Hanna Rosin
“Did Christianity Cause the Crash?”
the Atlantic

As our forefather Yaakov (Jacob) prepared to encounter his brother Esav again after 34 years, he did three things: sent presents, readied for war, and prayed. He balanced his prayers and trust in G-d with appropriate “worldly” efforts. He neither trusted in his own efforts, nor expected G-d to protect him with open miracles.

Not everyone knows how to strike this balance correctly. At one end of the spectrum are the people who believe that everything is up to them, who panic when they encounter a challenge or pat themselves on the back when things go well. At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, is the rabbi of a town seated downstream from a dam that was about to break.

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“Balanced Trust”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayishlah
Project Genesis

I suppose there are Christian Pastors who preach a balanced approach to a life of faith, but I more often find such a lesson taught by Rabbis. It seems like, in our current and rather dismal economy, that the poorly-considered Prosperity Theology promoted at some of the rather famous megachurches, is just power-surging through Christianity these days. This phenomena reminds me of how some Christians believe people get sick and even die, just because they don’t have enough faith. After all, if you have enough faith, God will heal you of any injury or disease, right? The mother who died of breast cancer or the father who perished from a sudden heart attack just weren’t “real Christians”, right? There have been “men of God” such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Benny Hinn, and Joel Osteen who have, at one time or another, preached the basic message that God wants all Christians to be wealthy in this lifetime and if we have enough faith, money and prosperity will drop in our laps like proverbial “pennies from heaven.”

That’s hardly the reality of the Bible. A quick look at any of the Prophets in the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the lives of the Apostles, including Paul and Peter, shows us that often a life of extraordinary faith is also one of extraordinary hardship. No, I’m not saying that a life of faith always results in hardship, but it’s ridiculous to believe that being a “true Christian” means always being “filthy rich”. God has a wide variety of paths for each of us. Some people are “rewarded” (seemingly) in this life and some, by faith, live in financial difficulty and believe they have a reward in the world to come (Matthew 6:19-21). Rabbi Menken uses Jacob as an example of a man who, through a lot of hard work and faith, did well materially, though not without sacrifice. Jacob was a man who, in spite of success, continued to struggle with the world around him and with the Divine, but who was balanced sufficiently to make his own best effort, to pray, and then to trust God.

Most of us aren’t that well-organized and, as people of faith, we forget many of the lessons God has taught us.

People, despite their wealth, do not endure;
they are like the beasts that perish.

This is the fate of those who trust in themselves,
and of their followers, who approve their sayings.
They are like sheep and are destined to die;
death will be their shepherd
(but the upright will prevail over them in the morning).
Their forms will decay in the grave,
far from their princely mansions.
But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
he will surely take me to himself.
Do not be overawed when others grow rich,
when the splendor of their houses increases;
for they will take nothing with them when they die,
their splendor will not descend with them.
Though while they live they count themselves blessed—
and people praise you when you prosper—
they will join those who have gone before them,
who will never again see the light of life.

People who have wealth but lack understanding
are like the beasts that perish. –Psalm 49:12:20

We cannot rely only on our faith nor only on our own efforts; rather it is a combination of both that God expects of us (James 2:14-26). But sometimes we get lazy and jump at the sort of message that says God will “do it all” as long as we “bathe it in prayer” and have enough faith. Lack of prosperity, in this particular spiritual framework, means it’s our fault when we don’t prosper, and we haven’t prayed hard enough or prayed some sort of “magical” or “secret prayer” someone wrote a book about, as if God could be manipulated to give us our wishes like a genie in a lamp.

The flip side is when we have success and attribute it entirely to our own efforts, ignoring the graciousness of God. We look at our own magnificence and tell ourselves that people who are destitute are just lazy slackers who want the Government to give them everything rather than really working hard, like we did. The examples of people who are out of balance in one way or another are just endless. Here’s the end of Rabbi Menken’s story to illustrate my point (and I’m sure you’ve heard this joke before):

The sheriff found the rabbi sitting calmly on his front porch, studying. “Rabbi!” yelled the sheriff, “it’s a flood, we have to evacuate!”

“Don’t worry,” said the rabbi, “G-d will help me. I don’t need to go.”

Soon the water flooded the town, and firemen in motorboats were picking up the stragglers. One of them noticed the rabbi, and called him to come with them.

“Don’t worry,” said the rabbi, “G-d will help me. I don’t need to go.”

But the waters rose, and rose, and by the time a helicopter was sent to find the last residents, the rabbi was calmly sitting on his roof. Yet once again, the rabbi refused to go.

Once in Heaven, the rabbi demanded an explanation. “I followed Your ways, I learned Your Torah, I did Your will… why didn’t You help me?!”

“What do you mean?” came the response. “I sent a car. I sent a boat. I even sent you a helicopter, but you refused to be helped!”

The reason the joke is so well-known is because it tells something true about people of faith who only have faith. We look for supernatural miracles as the only answer to prayer, but often God sends us very real-world solutions to our dilemmas which require that we take some sort of definitive action. God opens the door, but we still have to get up off of our rear ends and walk through it.

Rabbi Label Lam at Torah.org quotes the pre-World War II treatise of Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman ztl, “The Epoch of the Moshiach” as an example of how many of the Jews in Europe trusted in the powers of the world around them for safety and prosperity and instead were led into the Holocaust.

“Before the redemption, the Jews will err after various forms of idol- worship… “Any matter which appears to man as a controlling factor independent of HASHEM’s will, and as capable of doing good or evil is included in the definition of idolatry. (Sanhedrin) …

He writes, “Let us now review all the “idols” which were worshipped in the last one hundred years. The Enlightenment of Berlin promised a great salvation. As soon as the breeze of liberalism began to blow, the Jews hastened to stand in the ranks of the foremost exponents. After Liberalism had made its exit, they turned to Democracy (worship of public opinion), Socialism, Communism, and to other “isms”… To these idols they made sacrifices of blood and money- and were betrayed by all of them. Not even one justified the faith that was pinned on it…”

Anything can become an idol if we depend on it beyond God’s will, even faith itself. Having faith in a “system” of Government or economic strategy can and has led to tragic consequences, but walking out in the middle of a busy street, standing directly in the path of a speeding truck, and expecting God to send His angels to rescue us from our own folly is also a kind of idolatry. Whether it’s some corrupt “holy man” telling us what we want to hear or we are telling ourselves the same foolish message, we are not so strong that we do not need God, nor can we neglect the responsibilities God has given us and not expect to collide with the consequences. Like Jacob, we must do the equivalent of “sending gifts, praying, and preparing for war” in every challenge we face. Only then are we fully equipped and worthy children of our Father.

Vayishlah: The Running Shliach

That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.Genesis 32:23-32 (JPS Tanakh)

As he prepared to face Esau, Jacob experienced a strange mystical encounter with God. He had sent his family, his servants and his possessions across a river ahead of him. He was about to follow when he was suddenly attacked by an assailant. Jacob wrestled the man through the night. The attacker turned out to be none other than the angel of the LORD.

“A Life-Changing Encounter”
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) commentary on
Torah Portion Vayishlah

I know. Everybody teaches and writes on Jacob wrestling with the angel. It gets a little cliche’ after awhile. Who was the angel? Was it Jesus? Was it God? Was it Jacob’s “evil inclination?” Was it the angel embodying the spirit of Esau? All of the above, some of the above, none of the above? Who knows?

And what does it have to do with us?

The FFOZ commentary goes on to say that the name change of Jacob to Israel, as a result of the patriarch’s encounter with the Divine, altered the course of his life, changing his nature from “trickery and deceit” to one who is “authorized to receive the blessing.” The commentary concludes with this:

A genuine encounter with God is life-changing. It is a sort of wrestling match. The apostles teach us that, through faith in Yeshua, we are born again as new creations. In Messiah we have a whole new identity. Paul speaks of our old identity as the “old self.” He declares that, for the believer, the “old self was crucified with [Messiah], in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). “Therefore if anyone is in Messiah, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The commentary assumes, like Abraham before him (Genesis 17:5), that Jacob’s name was changed immediately and permanently and that “Israel” would never be referred to as “Jacob” again.

So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.” And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

So Jacob set out from Beer-sheba. The sons of Israel put their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to transport him; and they took along their livestock and the wealth that they had amassed in the land of Canaan. Thus Jacob and all his offspring with him came to Egypt: he brought with him to Egypt his sons and grandsons, his daughters and granddaughters — all his offspring.

These are the names of the Israelites, Jacob and his descendants, who came to Egypt. –Genesis 46:1-8

As you can see here, the names “Jacob” and “Israel” seem to be used interchangeably. Unlike Abraham who was never called “Abram” again after his name was changed, Jacob seemed to exist as both “Jacob” and “Israel” depending on the situation or the role he was playing. Someone once told me that the patriarch was called “Jacob” when he was being referred to as an ordinary person and “Israel” when he was fulfilling his prophetic and “national” role. I have no idea if this is correct or not, but it seems to fit what we read in the Torah.

But what does this have to do with us and encountering God as if we were meeting a stranger along our path? How are we changed by that meeting and what is the nature of the change?

From a personal point of view, I feel the “aftermath” of my personal encounter with God (coming to faith) is more like Jacob’s than Abraham’s. I feel like my “name change” isn’t quite permanent, and that I toggle back and forth between one nature and the other. I know you probably think that’s a terrible thing to say. After all, who can deny that once we come to faith in Jesus, that we are changed to a “new man” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and that we’ve left our old sin nature completely behind us. Of course, my struggle could be an indication that I’m “double-minded” (James 1:8) which is certainly not a good thing.

But do we abruptly change? Really?

Poof! All at once, you came to faith and transformed into a completely new human being that has absolutely no resemblance to the person you were ten seconds before? Really?

It didn’t happen that way for me. Not by a long shot.

After I came to faith and even after I was baptized in the Boise River, I didn’t suddenly feel like an emotional and spiritual stranger to my “former self”. In fact, I was disappointed to discover that I felt and thought in exactly the same way as I did the day before. What a let down. I was expecting this mystical transformative experience, but it didn’t happen that way.

In fact, over many, many years, my life has gone through various twists and turns, some of which were extremely unpleasant, and looking back, I can see that my way of looking at things and reacting to my surroundings and to people has very gradually begun to change. In fact, the process is still going on today, although at a pace that would make a glacier’s movement seem like the electric speed of “Lightning McQueen” in the Pixar film Cars (2006).

There are times when I experience my life as truly different than it was before I came to faith. Sadly, there are times when I still feel like that flawed and limited human being I was before I even considered the idea that there is a God. In fact, I don’t ever think I’ve felt “perfect” in anything (Matthew 5:48).

What happened?

I don’t think “perfection” is something we achieve and then rest on our laurels but rather, I think a life of faith and unity in God is a goal was always strive for. Some days are better than others. Some days can be just lousy. Occasionally, we are magnificent, but I think for most of us (especially me), those days are rare.

There are times when I just want to know it all and to be it all but it’s sort of like my goals at the gym. No matter how much I psych myself up for a workout, when I actually hit the machines, I can only lift so much weight so many times, and then I run out of gas. Sometimes I exceed my expectations, sometimes I fail miserably, and most of the time, I break even. Kind of disappointing to shoot for the stars and to land in the mud.

Tear off a piece of your bread before you eat. You cannot fit it all into your mouth.

Do the same with wisdom. For Truth does not begin with Mind.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Wisdom and Bread”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. –1 Corinthians 9:24

I’ve always been such a terrible runner. I don’t know if that means I’m not really “in Christ” and thus I never transformed into that mystical, magical “new creature,” or if this is what most believers experience (or would admit to if it is their experience) most of the time. From where I sit in the mud, having fallen down in my race in the rain for the ten-thousandth time, a life of faith is lived one day at a time and the bread is eaten one chunk at a time. In the end, God will make the judgment about whether or not I’m good enough for what comes next. All I can do is drag my sweaty, out-of-shape body out of the mud hole one more time, and try to force my dead, lead-heavy legs to run for one more mile. As I rise to run the race again, I strain to see if the sages understand this puzzle.

As we apply ourselves to our mission, we also internalize it. Not only do we effect changes in the world, we ourselves change. Just as an agent must be identified with his principal, we must give ourselves over to G-d’s will and identify with it.

There are tzaddikim, righteous men, whose commitment to G-dliness dominates their personality; every aspect of their being is permeated with G-dliness. Their thoughts and even their will and their pleasure reflect G-d’s.

This, however, is a rung which most people cannot attain. But the second level in which each person remains an independent entity although his deeds are not his own is within the reach of more individuals. For the mitzvos we perform are not human acts; they are G-dly, so a person who performs them selflessly expresses their inner G-dly power.

There are individuals at an even lower level; they are not concerned with the G-dly nature of the mitzvos they perform. Nevertheless, they perform mitzvos for even “the sinners of Israel are filled with mitzvos as a pomegranate is filled with seeds” and the consequences of the deeds they perform represent an expression of G-d’s will. Thus they also contribute toward the transformation of the world.

Regardless of the differences between individuals, all mankind possesses a fundamental commonalty: we are all G-d’s agents, charged with various dimensions of a shared mission. The setting in which each individual functions, the task he is given, and the intent with which he performs it may differ, but the goal is the same.

This is the message of Parshas Vayishlach : that every one of us is a shliach, an agent of G-d.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayishlach
“Changing Ourselves as We Change the World”
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IX, pgs. 323-324;
Sefer HaSichos 5748, p. 138ff;
Sichos Simchas Torah, 5748

We are each an agent of God. We are sent. We run. We fall. We get up and run again.

Addendum: Rabbi Joshua posts a more conventional interpretation of this Torah reading at Yinon Blog.

Good Shabbos.