Parashat Vayishlach 5781 /    פרשת  וַיִּשְׁלַח

Torah Portion: Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Standing up for God

The sidra explains how Yaakov’s name was changed to Yisra’el. The new name is a compliment, usually translated as meaning “prince of God” or “champion of God”. It can also be rendered “wrestler with God”.

Maimonides draws our attention to the grammar of the name and says the initial yod makes it a future tense. The events which led to the new name took place in the past, but the future tense indicates that whatever the word means it implies a duty for the future.

Is Yaakov – symbolic of every Jew – going to stand up for God?

It is a task which continues to the end of days. We cannot sit down and sit out the duels. We cannot say we are tired and the job is too wearying. Not until history comes to an end can we afford to relax.

If the word means “wrestler with God” we likewise cannot abdicate. It is never going to be easy to live with God when we are never quite certain what He is and what is His agenda and timetable. We have to say with Job 13:15, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him… but I will argue my case before Him.” (Rashi re-interprets the verse to say, “I will not be separated from Him and will constantly hope in Him.”)

Job is told by his “friends” to curse God and be rid of his God-problem. We in later generations hear the same thing – “Give up religion, forget God, drop your Jewishness!” We won’t… and we can’t.

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Praying with the patriachs

Afraid of his looming confrontation with Esau, Jacob prays to God to protect him. He starts his prayer, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord…” (Gen. 32:10).

This is not the only place in the Tanach where a prayer refers to HaShem as God of Abraham and Isaac – and after Jacob’s time such prayers add his name to the list, making the full phrase “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”.

The question is why we need to mention the patriarchs at all. Why not simply begin with a straight-out personal call to the Almighty: “O my God…”?

The Baal Shem Tov explains why we need both descriptions of God when we pray – both “God of our fathers” and “our God”. He answers that there are two ways we find HaShem. We find Him in history and we find Him in our own personal experience, and we need both.

If He were only the God of our fathers, we would be relying too much on the tradition we have inherited from our ancestors and not making enough personal effort to encounter God for ourselves, in our own lives.

On the other hand, if we left our ancestors out of the reckoning and relied solely on our own spiritual efforts, we might be suffering from a delusion.

We need the perspective of the patriarchs as a corrective to what might be a personal illusion. We need the God of the past as well as the God of the present.

Maybe this is what Leo Baeck, the great German-Jewish thinker and leader, meant when he wrote: “Man lives not only in the circle of his years but also in the provinces of the generations from which he is descended.”

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