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Vayetzei 5783       December 3, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

In this week’s Parsha, we want to feel sorry for Jacob. He has been driven from his home. He is alone in the world with only the clothing on his back. No money, no friends, abandoned by his family, he has to sleep alone in an open field with only a rock for a pillow. You can’t help but feel sad for the man.

You shouldn’t feel sad.

If Jacob finds himself alone in the world, it is his own fault. He is the kind of guy that if you meet him and befriend him, you better hang on to your wallet. He is called “Jacob the trickster” but he is more like a con artist. Would you hand over half of your entire inheritance for a bowl of porridge? Would you charge such a sum if you were feeding your hungry brother? Would you impersonate your brother to steal his blessing from your father? Knowing that your brother is bigger and stronger than you, would you still do it? And what would you do if your brother got so angry with you and your con games he threatened to kill you? This is why Jacob is alone in the field, with a rock for a pillow, running for his life from his angry twin brother.

Of course, we can’t just ignore the role that his parents play in this family drama. Jacob’s mother favors Jacob because he helps around the house. Isaac favors Esau because Esau is the hunter Isaac could never be. Parents playing favorites is not good parenting. They set such a bad example that Jacob will repeat their mistakes with his own children who will also attempt to murder their youngest brother. The only lessons about raising children we can glean from these stories is what NOT to do when raising children.

What is this story doing in the Torah?

First of all, Jacob will have an important realization in the field that night. He will discover that he is surrounded by angels and that he does have a better side and he can be a better person if he wants to be. He will find that he is stronger than he thinks. He will discover how deeply he can love, and he will discover that he knows the sheep herding business well enough to make some real money. He will also discover that his con games are nothing compared to what his uncle Laban can do. Laban will squeeze out of Jacob 21 years of free labor and still accuse him of robbing Laban of his son’s inheritance. But Jacob comes out on top in this parsha, he returns to his homeland a wealthy herder, with a large family and many servants. What makes the difference in his life. What does he learn from his night in the field alone?

He learns that God is with him. He does not need to cheat or steal. God will provide all that he needs. Jacob learns to trust in God. It is that trust that will make all the difference. He will return to his home with a new family, new wealth, and a new name. He has struggled with his character and has literally become a new man; a man worthy to be a patriarch of the Jewish people.

This is not just Jacob’s story; this is OUR story. When we start out in life, we can sometimes really mess things up for ourselves. We can destroy our own reputation, burn our bridges behind us and fall victim to professional thieves. When we are young, we think we know everything and only when the bottom drops out, (or like Jacob we hit “rock” bottom) can we look at ourselves and begin to change our ways for the better.

The Haftara for today points us right in that direction. The Prophet Hoshea notes that when the people are in a good relationship with God, there is nothing they can’t accomplish. But when they think they can do it all themselves or that other gods, or idols can help them, they discover just how bad things can get. God does not want bad things to happen to us. If we do what is right and trust in God, then everything will turn out okay in the end. But once we start making bad choices, our lives take an immediate turn for the worse. Like the patriarch Jacob discovered, we can repent our bad decisions and change our lives for the better. Even if things don’t work out okay right away, doing the right thing will always eventually pay off in our favor.

My friend, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein writes in his blog this week, The underlying issues of Hosea’s prophetic critique of his society in some sense also rings modern, or should I say, eternally Jewish. Hosea associates the downfall of the northern kingdom, Israel, with disloyalty to God. This message is expressed in an obscure and laconic verse found in this week’s haftarah: “You are undone, O Israel! You had no help but Me.” (13:9 – NJPS translation)”

It is the eternal problem of our own egos. When things are bad, we blame everyone but ourselves, and when things are good, it is all because we are so great. For all too many people this is their conception of God. I had a philosophy professor at the seminary who told us that whenever someone said, “I don’t believe in God;” the professor would reply, tell me about the god you don’t believe in anymore, and I’ll bet I don’t believe in that god either!”

We don’t think about God very much until we think we need God. There is no sense of gratitude for all the good that we get in this world. We think we deserve the good things that happen to us. We think that we have earned, through our hard work, all the good that life has to offer. But gratitude is also a part of life. Living a life where we are not in the center and the earth does not revolve around us means that we have to be thankful for the good things that do come our way. And we also have to take responsibility for what goes wrong. Rabbi Silverstein writes: “Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona (14th century Catalonia) noted that this verse was intended to inspire Hosea’s compatriots to repent. It offered them the option of returning to God and mending their ways, or, as noted in this verse, being alienated from God and overcome by disaster: “God wanted in this [verse to inform people that] the greatest help that He gave to them was service to God – its intention was for their good, and the wicked have nobody to blame for their destruction other than themselves, for [they were warned but] they still left the Torah.” (See Drashot HaRan 6, Feldman ed. p. 98 - adaptation)”

The story of Jacob’s life, in our Parsha, is about what happens when we put ourselves first and ignore the role that God plays in our life. Every action of Jacob’s gets Jacob exactly what he wants and yet causes more problems than he could ever expect. Together, all of his actions have brought him to be alone, at night, in an open field, with no money in his pocket, nothing but the clothing on his back, sleeping the night with a rock for a pillow.

He now realizes that if he acts in a godly manner, if he does what God wants him to do, if he lives a good life, a life of kindness and generosity, of care and concern, Jacob will not be alone in the world. He will arrive in Haran and perform an act of kindness for Rachel that will lead him to love and marriage.

Jacob’s life will not suddenly become light and easy. There are still many hard lessons to learn, and he has to own up to the pain that he has caused others. But we see that once he has stopped taking advantage of others, he finds that he can make friends, find love, and find his place in life. And when things don’t always go well, he will struggle with the problems until he finds a solution. His name will then change from Jacob “the trickster,” to Israel, “the one who wrestles with God.”

The lesson for us in this story of Jacob and Hoshea should be clear. There are no shortcuts in life. We have to go through life living hopefully, with care and concern for others, with kindness to all, and generosity for those in need. We need to be grateful for all we have, even if it is not very much. There are always those who have less. We have to live with the faith that if we do what is right and good, then things will eventually work out. If we can see beyond our own needs and consider the needs of others, we will find that God will be there for others and for us. It may take time, but our lives will fall into place.

But if we act with wicked intent, then we will fall into the darker side of life. Wrong actions lead to wrong results, and we will find that when everything goes bad, we will have nobody to blame but ourselves. Through our actions we can bring blessings or curses into our lives.

There is an old tale, told by native Americans, about a grandfather teaching his grandson about life. “I have a fight going on in me,” the old man said. “It’s taking place between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

The grandfather looked at the grandson and went on. “The other embodies positive emotions. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. Both wolves are fighting to the death. The same fight is going on inside you and every other person, too.”

The grandson took a moment to reflect on this. At last, he looked up at his grandfather and asked, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee gave a simple reply. “The one you feed.”

Our Torah is teaching us that Jacob has been feeding the wrong wolf and it has landed him in great distress. But it is not too late. He can choose to change. Jacob can be a better man. He can turn himself into a mensch. Jacob now knows the result of living by his wits. It is now time to live by God’s law, and he will be the better man for the change.

If we are not happy with our lives. If we are not satisfied with what we have. If we think we deserve more and more and that we never have enough, then we will have to take responsibility for our ultimate disappointment when life does not turn out like we planned. And we will find ourselves alone.

But if we can turn on and tune in to our better selves. If we can share what we have with others and be grateful for all that is in our lives. Then even if things don’t always turn out the way we wish they would, we will always be surrounded by friends and family and even the dark days will not seem so dark.

May God be with us as we give of ourselves to others, thus draw our lives always closer to God as we say …. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783