This week, Ya’akov returns home. Yitzak had sent him to Haran to find a wife. When he left, he was alone and penniless. He was a deceiver, his brother was breathing threats against his life, his father was disappointed. Now he returns a wealthy man with four wives and twelve sons, flocks, herds, menservants, maidservants, everything a man could want or need.
But there is something else that has changed in Ya’akov. He was spiritually immature, a fledgling patriarch when he left, and now he is a faithful servant of G-d, whose life and character now matched his father’s and grandfather’s. He was no longer Ya’akov the supplanter but Israel, the prince of G-d. In Haran he had learned the virtues of a godly man and now YHVH had called him back to his inheritance.
His two visions vividly illustrate this change. When G-d met him on the way to Haran, he was frightened and surprised. He was at a low point in his life, alone and depressed. He did not think that G-d could care about him, and a vision of the Almighty was terrifying. Twenty years later, he is a confident man who has learned many of life spiritual lessons. He is no longer terrified when he sees G-d, but engages him, much like his grandfather on the plains of Mamre. Certainly he still had an awe and respect for G-d but instead of a spiritual child who is fears his parents, he is an adult who can relate more like an equal. And Ya’akov’s response to these two visions physically portray his change.
On the night he had the vision with the ladder, he got up in the morning and set up a stone pillar and anointed it with oil. According to Rabbi Samson Hirsch, this natural stone pillar symbolizes G-d’s kindness to man. This is the beginning point of our journey. And the journey starts with a revelation of G-d, to which we respond with what we have, which is what G-d gave us. Ya’akov had nothing, so he took a piece of creation, a simple stone pillar, and set it up as a physical symbol of his devotion and promise. At this point Ya’akov was all unrealized potential, and this is where we all begin. He was a lump of clay willingly submitting to the master’s hand.
Twenty years later his response to revelation is an altar. After he makes peace with Esav, and settles in the land he returns to Beth-el and builds an altar. Where one simple stone once stood, now the many stones of an altar take it’s place. This is symbolic of man’s need to actively involve himself in performing the acts that constitute the will of G-d. We bring nothing the the table initially but was we allow G-d to mature us and mold us into useful vessels, we can build a beautiful altar with our lives. We have deeds which have glorified our Father, deeds that will stand up under the fires of testing and judgement. We mature to the point where we can partner with G-d because we have become the kind of person He desires to work with.
Our life is a continuous journey from that point where we experience the revelation and dedicate a simple stone pillar. We must always remember where we started, for G-d Himself reminded Ya’akov that this was the place where he fled from Esav. That keeps us humble when we grow, for we must always remember it is G-d’s material that we use to build the altar, we cannot fashion our own rocks. It is our job to take those stones and build something beautiful, something that honors our Father in heaven.
Ya’akov is finally returning home after twenty years. He has prospered greatly, he has a large family and made his peace with Lavan. Now, he has to deal with his brother, who vowed to kill him before he left. He has no idea how his brother is going to react to his return so he sends a lavish gift to announce his impending arrival. Any questions about his reaction were quickly cleared up when Ya’akov was informed that Esav was coming with four hundred men. This was not the welcome he was hoping for.
Verse eight of chapter thirty two says “Ya’akov became very frightened”. Now this is very curious. Here was a man of G-d who had YHVH appear to him personally and promise him protection. In fact, G-d had told him to return to the land of Israel. Would the G-d of his father send him back to certain death? Certainly he had a mature understanding of the character of G-d and would not think such thoughts. So why was he afraid? Was it a lack of ‘faith’, or a misunderstanding of G-d intentions?
Rashi postulates that the reason for his fear is that the righteous are never sure of themselves. He explains that for someone like Ya’akov, who as one of the patriarchs was in such a high position of responsibility, any little sin could jeopardize his promise of protection or hinder his ability to fulfill his mission. Men like Ya’akov understand how easy it is to fall short and with that understanding vigilantly guard themselves from unrighteousness and thus elevate themselves to lofty positions. However, the higher you are, the farther you fall when you slip. Ya’akov understood this. There is a balance that yields steady growth within our lives. It is the balance between constantly striving to improve, to become more holy and righteous, and resting in G-d and being content. If we are too content, we will fall into sin and if we are too hard on ourselves we will never experience shalom.
There is another possible explanation here. Since Ya’akov was not reprimanded by G-d for his fear, perhaps he understood the interaction between the spiritual and the physical in a way we often neglect. For those that may have come out of a Christian background that emphasized ‘faith’ and prayer over everything else, it is a lesson that needs to be learned. Ya'akov took the threat of Esav seriously and made contingency plans. He did not just call a prayer meeting and rest on the promises of G-d. Too often we neglect our responsibilities in the physical. If we need a job, we have to go out and get it and pray that G-d will reward our efforts, we do not just pray and sit by the phone. If we are driving our car, we wear our seat belt and not just assume G-d is going to supernaturally protect us from our laziness if we get into and accident. Our laziness and misplaced ‘faith’ are not substitutes for concrete action. It is the combination of a righteous life of prayer and hard work that make a prosperous life in G-d. You cannot have one without the other.
One of the most interesting sections of this parasha recounts the ‘wrestling’ of Ya’acov with the ‘angel’. Ya’acov has sent all his possessions over the river in anticipation of meeting his estranged brother Esav and is left alone on the other side. He has prayed, he has taken prudent defensive action and now he is left alone to ponder his fate. He seems a bit unsure at this point in his journey. God has done for him what he promised, he has preserved him and prospered him and he is now bringing Ya’akov back to his inheritance.
The journey began in the last parasha with ‘Ya’akov’s ladder’, his vision on the way to Haran. He remarked that this place was the ‘house of God...the gateway to the heavens’. He was frightened at this point. He had a lot of growing to do before he was worthy to take hold of the blessings he had been given. In a way, his exile put him on a quest to return and reside in God’s house. Upon his return to the Land, he is ready to be a prince in the King’s home.
He is left alone on the other side. The word alone is ‘bawd’ which has two basic meanings and in these two meanings is the method by which Ya’akov put himself in the place were he could be blessed by the Almighty. The first meaning is to be separate, in our case, alone. When one is seeking to cleave to the Almighty, one must separate from the world. “Whoever wants to be the world’s friend makes himself God’s enemy” (Ya’akov 4:4) “what fellowship has the Temple of G-d with Idols?...” (Sha’ul). What is repentance but to turn and go the other direction. If one wants to cleave to God, one must let go of the world, the world without and the world within. “Whosoever loses his life for my sake will find it..” (Y’shua) We must abandon our desires, our attachment to things, our opinions and theology, our pride and ego. All these things cause separation between men and men and men and God. When we empty ourselves of these things, when we separate ourselves from them, we can begin to seek God.
The other meaning of ‘bawd’ is linen; white, clean linen. Linen is the mark of having achieved separation. Revelation tells us that ‘fine linen is the righteousness of the saints’ (19:18). Linen was worn by the priests and levites in their service in the Temple. It is the clothing of angels and heavenly beings. In our parasha ‘bawd’ has the prefix ‘lamed’ which means ‘in, according to, towards’ so we could translate it ‘Ya’akov was in white linen and a man wrestled...’ He has shown he was separated because of his righteousness.
‘Bawd’ in the ancient pictographs means ‘the way of the house’, in this case, God’s house. Ya’akov has now shown that he ‘sharah’-contended with, has power over, or persevered-over men and the divine, or perhaps we could see it as ‘spirit and flesh’. He had ‘worked out his salvation with fear and trembling’, he had ‘overcome’. He had hold of the divine being and forced a blessing. What does this mean? When one blesses another, the stronger willingly serves the lesser. God now made himself Ya'akov's servant. This is what prayer is all about, isn’t it? Our desire to have God do our will? He promises to do so to those who have followed Ya’akov’s path. “YHVH is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely. The will of those who fear Him he will do and their cry he will hear and will save them.” Ps 145:18, 19 It is when we have separated ourselves from our desires, will and ego and concern ourselves wholly with God’s will that his will then will become ours and our will becomes His.
“For he has yearned for me and I will deliver him, I will elevate him because he knows my name, he will call upon me and I will answer him, I am with him in distress, I will release him and I will bring him honor. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” Ps 91:14-16