Thoughts on Vayishlach

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, is Genesis 32:4 (:3 in most English bibles) through 36:43. As is the normal pattern, the title וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח, is the first word of the passage, “and he [Jacob] sent…” speaking of the messengers that Jacob sent to his brother Esau, hoping to placate him “in order to find favor in your (Esau’s) eyes,” (32:6). In the natural Jacob’s fears were well founded as the messengers returned with the news that “We went to your brother, to Esau, and he’s also coming out to meet you—and 400 men with him,” (32:7). The Haftarah is Obadiah 1:1-21 which records Obadiah’s vision of HaShem’s judgement on Edom, Esau’s ancestral holdings, due to Edom’s treatment of Israel. Speaking for ADONAI, Obadiah states, “Because of your violence to your brother Jacob, shame will cover you, and you will be cut off forever” (1:10). The reading from the Apostolic Writings is John 4:31-42, which recounts Yeshua’s teaching on the soon coming harvest after His interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well.

When thinking about this week’s Torah portion, I was amazed at the difference between the two prayers of Jacob, the first when he left home and the second now as he returns. 

Then Jacob made a vow saying, “If God will be with me and watch over me on this way that I am going and provide me food to eat and clothes to wear, and I return in shalom to my father’s house, then ADONAI will be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21)

Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, ADONAI, who said to me, ‘Return to your land and to your relatives and I will do good with you.’ I am unworthy of all the proofs of mercy and of all the dependability that you have shown to your servant. For with only my staff I crossed over this Jordan, and now I’ve become two camps. Deliver me, please, from my brother’s hand, from Esau’s hand, for I’m afraid of him that he’ll come and strike me—the mothers with the children. You Yourself said, ‘I will most certainly do good with you, and will make your seed like the sand of the sea that cannot be counted because of its abundance.’” (Genesis 32:10-13)

As discussed last week, Jacob was not bargaining with the Almighty, but acknowledging the promises and the provisions of the promises made to both Abraham and Isaac. It could be said that in his vow there was a bit of righteous bravado in the knowing that HaShem would take care of him and bless him. In contrast, the prayer this week, is one of a man who has been through the trials of life, some of which were even of his own making. While still walking in the promises of HaShem, the bravado is gone. Rearranging the order of his prayer a bit, “I left with nothing but my staff and now return with enough to make two camps … I am unworthy of all the proofs of mercy and of all the dependability that you have shown to your servant.” He has everything he asked for and more, but now instead of reveling in what he has, he acknowledges that everything he has is from HaShem. It is as if Jacob understood the words that ADONAI would speak to his descendants as they prepared to enter into the Promised Land,

He fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, in order to afflict you and test you, to do you good in the end. You may say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand has made me this wealth.’ Rather you are to remember ADONAI your God, for it is He who gives you power to make wealth, in order to establish His covenant that He swore to your fathers—as it is this day.” (Deuteronomy 8:16-18)

As we read the story of Jacob’s actions, from the reception of his blessing from his father Isaac to his twenty-year sojourn with his uncle Laban, it is easy to see Jacob scheming, even manipulating circumstances to his benefit. We also see that some of those same circumstances cause Jacob more than a little grief and consternation. However, as Jacob looks back on his life to date he sees the actions and occurrences as proof of the Almighty’s dependability, not only to him, but to future generations as well. 

Last week we were reminded of Rav Shaul’s words, “Now we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose,” (Romans 8:28). One of the translator notes on this verse suggests that “God works in all things for the good” inferring that at times things may not seem to be good but all will work out in the end. This idea seems to resonate with the writer of Kohelet has he stated, “Even though a sinner might commit a hundred crimes and prolong his days, yet I know that it will be well for those who fear God, for those who revere Him” (Ecclesiastes 8:12). Regardless of what our eyes see or the situations in which we find ourselves, HaShem has our good in mind and will work things out on our behalf. With this fact in mind, the definition of faith as stated in the book of Hebrews makes even more sense, especially when linked with Rav Shaul’s exhortation to the Corinthian believers,

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of realities not seen. (Hebrew 11:1) For we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7)

As you “walk” though this coming week, think back as Jacob did, and see how your God has not only blessed you but carried you through the trials and situations of your life and in doing so, take comfort in the knowledge that He will continue with you throughout the rest of your life. 

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