Small enough to know you. Large enough to serve you.

Vayaitzai Day (Rabbi Neil’s Sermon 12/9/16)

Rabbi Neil Schuman“The God of Jacob”

In the Amidah, we refer to the Almighty as the God of each of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs.  It’s easy to understand this relationship with regards to devotional Abraham and Sarah, sacrificial Isaac, and faithful Rachel and Leah .  I find it difficult with Jacob. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks deepens this question:  Jacob is not what Noah was: righteous, perfect in his generations, one who walked with God .  On the contrary, he used deceit consistently to his advantage.  He did not, like Abraham, leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house in response to a divine call.  He did not, like Isaac, offer himself up as a sacrifice.  Nor did he have the burning sense of justice and willingness to intervene that we see in the vignettes of Moses’ early life.  Yet, God is the God of Jacob and we are defined for all time as the Children of Israel (Jacob’s other name ).  How does this make sense?

Rabbi Sacks provides a powerful answer that is intimated in the beginning of this week’s Parsha.  Jacob was in the middle of a journey from one danger to another.  He had left home because Esau had vowed to kill him, and he was about to enter the household of his uncle Laban, a notorious charlatan.  Far from home and alone, Jacob could use some support.  The sun sets, Jacob arranges his camping ground and lays down to sleep.  He then sees this majestic vision:

“He dreamed and behold, there was a ladder set on the earth, with its top reaching heaven; and behold, angels of G‑d were ascending and descending on it.  And behold, the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac… And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Note the fourfold “and behold,” in Hebrew ve-hinei, an expression of surprise.  Nothing has prepared Jacob for this encounter.  In fact he readily admits, “The Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”  The very verb used at the beginning of the passage, “He came upon a place,” in Hebrew vayifga ba-makom, also means an unexpected encounter.  Jacob happened on, had an unexpected encounter with, G‑d.

Lord Sacks comments that if we also consider Jacob’s nighttime wrestling match with the angel in next week’s Parsha, we have a full answer to our question:  Jacob is the man who has his deepest spiritual experiences alone, at night, in the face of danger and far from home.  He is the man who meets God when he least expects to, when his mind is on other things, when he is in a state of fear and possibly on the brink of despair.

Jacob thus became the father of the people who had their closest encounter with God while traveling through an inhospitable desert.  We have survived multiple exiles and endless persecutions, and amidst all this loss and hardship we didn’t sever our connection with G‑d.

I am personally touched by Jacob’s response to Laban at the end of the Parsha.  “For twenty years I have guarded your flocks…In the fields, heat consumed me by day, and I froze at nights, I always shook sleep from my eyes.  These twenty years that I have spent in your house I served you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for pay, and you changed my wages a hundred times.  Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been with me, you would now have sent me away empty handed.  God has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, and He reproved you for this last night.”  In the midst of all his stress and travail, Jacob is the one who is still able to see the loving hand of God.

Abraham and Sarah installed in us the courage to challenge the idols of our age.  Isaac gave us the capacity for self-sacrifice.  Rachel and Leah taught us to always yearn for God, and Moses taught us to be passionate fighters for justice.  But Jacob gave us the knowledge that precisely when we feel most alone, G‑d is still with us, giving us the courage to hope and the strength to dream.  Jacob then is certainly worthy to have God associated with his name.  Most importantly though, when we find ourselves in difficult and desperate situations, we can always dig down into the Jacob genes in our DNA and find God with us in our hardship as well.

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