This week’s parashat is taken from Genesis 32:4—36:43. Listen in as David discloses the distractions and detours Jacob deals with in his life.
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In this week’s Torah portion, we find Jacob making his way back to the household of his father. After arriving with nothing and spending 20 long years in the house of his uncle, he managed to leave the house… more like a prison, with his wives, children and possessions. And now, we open up Parashat Vayishlach to find a man who is now more equipped and capable of accomplishing his life mission in the Land of Promise in the footsteps of Abraham and Isaac. As we will see, it would not be as simple, as Jacob continued to face further challenges even in this next stage of his life.
We open up the parashah to these words in Genesis 32:4: “And Jacob sent messengers [angels] before him to Esau his brother to the land of Seir, the field of Edom.”
וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו אַ֥רְצָה שֵׂעִ֖יר שְׂדֵ֥ה אֱדֽוֹם׃
Jacob was sending word ahead to his rival brother, Esau – the same brother that he had craftily taken the birthright and firstborn blessing from 20 years prior. At that time Esau had vowed to kill Jacob upon the death of their father Isaac. Yet, why not just bypass his brother and return to their father? Sure, he could certainly have done that. However, what message would that have sent to his brother except to rekindle harboured feelings of hatred? No, Jacob knew he had to face up to his brother, and so he took the direct approach. He sent “malachim” (“מַלְאָכִים”) – “messengers”, or a literal translation yields “angels”.
Several verses back, at the very end of last week’s parashah in Genesis 32:2-4, after Laban parted ways with Jacob, we read: “Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him. Jacob said when he saw them, ‘This is a Godly camp!’” Interesting… “angels of God encountered him”. Very similar to how at the start of last week’s parashah, “Jacob encountered the place” at Beth-El (Genesis 28:11). Except, this time around, the angels “encountered” Jacob. As we learned last week, Jacob encountered “the place” (“ha-maqom”) where he saw the ladder reached from heaven to earth, and angels ascended and descended it. Remember, the angels first ascended and then descended the ladder – a movement that first reflected man’s actions on the earth before stirring anything in heaven before being delivered back to man. Here, angels of God “encountered” Jacob. And this leads us into the start of this week’s parashah. Now, you can understand how the parashah can start with the words: “And Jacob sent angels before him to Esau”. Keep in mind, this is less about understanding how it was possible for Jacob to send angels before him to deliver a message of reconciliation to his brother Esau, but rather it has to do with the fact that Hashem and His heavenly host was working on behalf of Jacob, just like Jacob’s dream of the ladder.
When the angels returned, Jacob was informed that Esau was heading his way with 400 men, and it says in Genesis 32:8: “And Jacob became very frightened, and it distressed him.” Why was he frightened and distressed? Perhaps because he was expecting a more favourable and amicable response from Esau having just sent angels before him. Moreover, he was now facing a dire situation where he and others in his camp may get killed. Fear is a common emotion in all of us, and Jacob was no less prone to it, especially when it had to do with a brother who still appeared to be holding onto his hatred for him from 20 years prior. Certainly, Jacob’s faith was being tested here – very reminiscent of the challenging life of his grandfather Abraham. Prior to this, the last reassurance Jacob received from Hashem was while he was still in the house of Laban. In Genesis 31:3, Hashem said to him: “Return to the land of your fathers and to your birthplace, and I will be with you.” Jacob had the reassurance that Hashem would be with him, but Hashem certainly did not specify to what degree He meant. As such, with the realization that Jacob had to prepare for the worst-case scenario, the first thing he did was divide his camp in half with the logic that (Genesis 32:8): “If Esau comes to the one camp and strikes it, then the remaining camp shall be a refuge.” And that is sound logic based on the premise that in a worst-case scenario, a remnant from his family would survive if Esau’s actions became lethal.
The next thing Jacob did was pray. The prayer took the form of remembrance, where he reminded Hashem of His promise to return Jacob to the land of his birthplace and how humbled he was by the bounty of Hashem’s hand. Next, a plea to Hashem to rescue him from the hand of Esau. And finally, a promise to fulfill the covenant that Hashem made to Abraham.
It then says that (Genesis 32:14): “He spent the night there, then he took, from that which had come into his hand, a tribute to Esau his brother.” The next thing he did was very tactically divide the tribute – which was made up of an abundance of goats, sheep, rams, camels, cows, bulls and donkeys – into three herds and sent them with servants to deliver to Esau. Moreover, he spaced out the herds in such a way with the hope to additively soften the heart of Esau.
Jacob planned, then prayed, then planned again. While all of Jacob’s tactical planning was most certainly prudent, why did he not start off with prayer? For a man of Jacob’s stature, you would have expected him to follow in Abraham’s footsteps in such a manner. Yet, we see that initially Jacob became very frightened and was distressed, and this is what must have driven him to instinctively return to his crafty ways. Let me add, there is nothing wrong with what he did – he was acting as many of us would in our lives when faced with hardships, but was it the right way? As was alluded just now, before Abraham would begin any part of his journey in the Land or make a major decision, he always went before Hashem or at least consulted with his wife Sarah. Here we have Jacob moving forward first with the plans that made the most logical sense, and leaving prayer to a secondary consideration.
Later on in Jacob’s journeys, we see a repeat of the same behaviour. Ultimately, everything went better than expected in Jacob’s reunion with Esau – with the two of them embracing, kissing and weeping with each other. Jacob travelled onward toward the Land, and the place he chose to settle in was the city of Shechem. If you remember, this is the first place that Abraham visited upon entering the Land. It was here that Hashem appeared to him and said: “To your offspring I will give this land”, after which Abraham built an altar here. Thus, it is not a random place that Jacob chose as the place to settle in the Land. It was here that we read that (Genesis 33:19): “[Jacob] bought a chelkat-measure of the field upon which he pitched his tent from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for one hundred kesitah.” Yet, 20 years prior (in Genesis 28), Jacob made a vow to Hashem at Beth-el following the dream of the ladder (Genesis 28:20-22): “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way that I am going; and He will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear; and I will return in peace to my father’s house, and Hashem will be a God to me – then this stone which I have set as a pillar shall become a house of God.” You could read this vow as a pledge to return to this place – to Beth-el, yet Jacob opted to settle in Shechem instead. What was so important about returning to Beth-el? Because Jacob made a vow, but also, it was a place of remembrance of the promise that Hashem made to be with him in his endeavours and to carry on the Abrahamic legacy. Beth-el was the clear and obvious place to visit on Jacob’s return to the Land.
What happened instead? Jacob opted to settle in Shechem, and it was in Shechem where his daughter Dinah was violated by the prince of the Hivvites that dwelled there. It was due to this offense that his sons Simeon and Levi took action and killed all the men of Shechem to retrieve back their sister. It was because of all of these actions that Jacob opted to leave. And it was at this point that we read in Genesis 35:1: “God said to Jacob, ‘Arise – go up to Beth-el and dwell there, and make an altar there to God Who appeared to you when you fled from Esau your brother.’” It was after this directive that Jacob said to his camp (Genesis 35:3): “Let us arise, and let us go up to Beth-el; I will make there an altar to God Who answered me in my time of distress, and was with me on the road that I traveled.” Hashem reminded Jacob of his vow, and Jacob woke up at this point and remembered that vow.
When Jacob arrived at Beth-el, we read (Genesis 35:7): “He built an altar there and called the place El-beth-el, for it was there that God had been revealed to him during his flight from his brother.” We read on in Verse 9: “And God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. Then God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob; your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.’ And He called his name Israel.” Then Hashem re-confirmed His Abrahamic promise to Jacob regarding his future offspring and inheritance of the Land. But wait a minute, earlier in the parashah, we read that Jacob received a blessing and this same news about the name change from a struggle with an angel. So let’s go back.
Back in Genesis 32:25, prior to Jacob’s reunion with his brother, we read: “and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” It says that Jacob would not let go of the man. The man said (Genesis 32:27-29): “’Let me go, for dawn has broken.’ And [Jacob] said, ‘I will not let you go unless you have blessed me.’ [The man] said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Jacob.’ [The man] said, ‘No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with men and you have overcome.’” Several verses later, Jacob says (Genesis 32:31): “For I have seen Elohim face to face, yet my life was spared.” How could it be that if Jacob saw Hashem face to face and received this message, that Hashem would give a similar message later on at Beth-el? It renders the second message redundant. Moreover, how do we know it was an angel?
In Hosea 12:4-5, we find insight: “In the womb [Jacob] seized his brother’s heel, and with his strength he struggled with Elohim; he struggled with an angel and prevailed; the angel wept and beseeched him: ‘In Beth-el [Hashem] will find us and there He will speak with us.’” As Hosea states, it was an angel. However, how can Hosea simultaneously refer to Elohim and an angel, and then have the angel refer to Hashem as a separate entity that would speak with them at Beth-el? For one, the angel clearly knew that Hashem would give this information to Jacob at Beth-el.
What Hosea was referring to is that Jacob struggled with an angel, and since angels only strictly serve the will of Hashem, Jacob made reference to having seen Elohim face to face. Yet, 20 years previous, during Jacob’s dream, he described the angels ascending and descending, and Hashem standing over him and the ladder, so in a sense, you could say that Jacob already saw the Creator and the angels “face to face”. The difference in this instance though is that Jacob not only witnessed an angel with his eyes, he actually struggled with the angel, and he prevailed. With that said, Jacob recognized that this was not an ordinary man, otherwise, he would not have struggled so hard to overcome the angel and ultimately ask him for a blessing. Remember, Jacob had planned and prayed and planned some more, and had yet to gain insight on his upcoming encounter with his brother. And hence, this was the opportunity he saw as such a way to gain further insight, and Jacob most certainly took advantage of the situation.
In short, the struggle with the angel should never have happened. The level of Jacob’s fear was certainly revealed in that he went to this length to “get the word” that he wanted from the angel, a word that would later be given to him directly by Hashem, but a word that was certainly given prematurely. Jacob’s tenacity undoubtedly played a large role in getting him what he wanted, and it certainly isn’t a quality to despise. Quite the contrary. Tenacity can be a major aid but also a major impediment – it just comes down to how it is used. Look at Abraham’s tenacity in pursuing the four kings to retrieve back his nephew, or in advocating for any righteous souls that dwelled in Sodom and Gomorrah, or in following Hashem’s instruction to offer up his son Isaac at the Akeidah (Binding). It all comes down to intention and focus, particularly in connection with Hashem’s plan for our lives.
Remember, Jacob planned, then prayed, then planned again. Rather, he should have prayed, then planned. Here, we know in hindsight that Hashem’s plan was to bless Jacob and give him a new name “Israel” at Beth-el upon Jacob’s return to the Land. However, Jacob either forgot or delayed his return to Beth-el as he made alternate plans to dwell in Shechem instead. As a result, look what happened to him and his family there. And this is why the encounter and struggle with the angel should not have happened, but it did because of Jacob’s incessant desire for “a word”. As a result, it is probably that word that was given prematurely to Jacob that caused him to consider that his breakthrough with his brother Esau was a direct result of that encounter with the angel, rather than Hashem’s Divine providence guiding him the whole way through as Hashem had previously promised him. Hence, after the encounter with Esau, Jacob proceeded to go about his own plans. And it wasn’t until Jacob faced what he did at Shechem that Hashem reminded him of the vow and where he should have been in the first place – at Beth-el. Finally, when Jacob arrived at Beth-el and built the altar, that is when Hashem revealed Himself to him, and Jacob realized that he was back on track.
I am reminded of the life of Yeshua in the context of these matters. In John 5:30, Yeshua said: “I am not able to do anything of myself. Just as I hear, so I will judge, and my judgment is just, because I will not seek my own will but the will of the Father Who sent me.” How did Yeshua stay focused and on point with Hashem’s plan and purpose for his life and ministry? We read in Matthew 14:23: “[Yeshua] sent the people away and went up the mountain alone to pray. It was evening, and he was there alone”; in Luke 6:12: “In those days he went out to the mountain to pray and stood all night in prayer to God.” In Mark 1:35: “He arose early in the morning while it was still twilight, and he went out and walked to a desolate place, and he prayed there.” Luke 5:16: “He departed to the wilderness areas and prayed.”
And in Matthew 26:37-39, Yeshua was in the Garden of Gethsemane, aware of his impending death, and here it says: “He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee with him, and he began to become distressed and disheartened. He said to them, ‘My soul is bitterly troubled to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’ Then he went a little bit away from them, fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it is possible to be so, let this cup pass from me; yet not according to my will, but according to Your will.’” Yeshua was undoubtedly a man of prayer. He made it a habit to go before his Father in Heaven in the early hours of the morning or late at night. This was how he sustained himself throughout all the hardships he faced throughout his life, especially leading up to his eventual death. It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that he needed Hashem’s sustenance the most, to overcome his bodily impulses of distress and disheartenment. Yeshua ultimately overcame these impulses for the sake of Hashem’s greater purpose for him in this world – a mission that Yeshua completed to the very end.
Yeshua gives us a perfect model to replicate in our daily walk with Hashem. If Yeshua did it, so can we, for he came to show us the way to know Hashem. Yet, in looking at the life of Jacob, in no way can we castigate him for not walking the perfect path. In reality, we are just looking in the mirror. We all make similar judgment calls in our lives and either reap the benefits or suffer the consequences. In the end, Jacob came to his senses – he had to make such a mistake as he did before he woke up and realized that he erred. And then what did he do? He returned back to the path that Hashem had plotted for him.
We must do the same. Our lives will always be full of sharp turns, hills, valleys, crossroads and pits, yet it is about how we choose to traverse them. Who are we rooted in? Are we seeking Hashem’s counsel first and foremost before moving forward? What part does prayer play in our lives on a daily basis? Is it the first thing we accomplish every morning, offering up the day in totality to Hashem, and seeking His guidance and direction before we set about to accomplish what we need to accomplish in this world? I encourage you – put prayer first in your life, especially the first thing in the morning, as it will set the course of your day. Moreover, if you are facing hardships and difficulties, consider re-evaluating your priorities. Put it all into the hands of Hashem, surrender your all to His perfect will for your life – just as Jacob woke up in Shechem. Sometimes it requires us to put on a new set of lenses to re-evaluate our circumstances or to realize that we are on the wrong path. With that comes the need to keep an open and unbiased mindset to what is in front of us – so that we can see and hear clearly. How Hashem chooses to respond to us seldom happens the way we expect it to.
Jacob did not prioritize prayer, and then forced the blessing from the angel before it should have happened, which ultimately put him on a detour away from where Hashem was telling him to go. The ultimate goal is to be more like Hashem, and what better way than replicating what we learn from the life of Yeshua, for there is no better role model that we can hope for. As Yeshua said in the garden: “Not according to my will, but according to Your will”. May we live by these same words each and every day. Amen.