Last week, when Jacob left home, unsure what the future would bring, he had a restless night and dreamed of a ladder, a staircase to heaven, with Angels going up and down and he dreamed of a promise that God would be with him, watching over him and protecting him, from whatever the future might bring. It was that promise that propelled Jacob for the 21 years that he was exiled from his home. It helped him marry, raise up a family and amass a large fortune in sheep and goats. He has prospered at every turn and even his deceitful uncle Lavan, could not prevent Jacob’s success.
This week we find Jacob in a very different position. He is no longer alone and destitute. He has a large family and much wealth. He is coming home from exile. In fact, the very next day he will enter, for the first time in over two decades, the land promised to his grandfather Abraham, to his father Isaac and through the blessing of his father, the land that was divinely promised to Jacob. He should be happy. He should be feeling how good it is to be home. He should be anticipating seeing all the old familiar places.
He is not happy at all. The biggest stain in his life, the way he treated his brother, stands before him. Esau knows Jacob is returning. Esau is coming to see his brother after 21 years. Esau once promised to kill his brother on sight. Esau is traveling with 400 armed men. Jacob is terrified. He has no one to blame for this predicament but himself. He has grown so much, matured, become responsible; he has given up his deceptive ways. Unlike the way he left home, he is no longer alone. Will Esau slaughter Jacob’s family, his wives and sons? Will he steal all his flocks and herds? Once again, there will be no sleep for Jacob this night.
There will be no stairway to heaven; there will be no dream of angels. Tomorrow he will have to fight his stronger older brother. Clearly one of them will die. He divides his camp to save his family. He prays to God to deliver him from his brother’s hand. Jacob sends extravagant gifts to placate Esau. Is it enough? How can he know for sure?
So Jacob wrestles with an angel; a mysterious being that catches Jacob when he is alone in the night. It is a hard fought contest but Jacob prevails. He pins his opponent to the ground. The angel touches Jacob’s hip and the entire leg is wrenched from its socket. Jacob is in excruciating pain but hangs on. Desperate to be gone before the sun rises, the angel begs to be let go. And Jacob only lets him go after he gets a blessing from the angel and a new name. No longer “Jacob/the trickster”; he is now Israel, the man of God.
I think we clearly understand the emotions of Jacob that night so long ago. But what are we to learn from his struggle that night? What lesson is there for us in this wrestling match at midnight? I think that there are three lessons that we need to see in this story. They are the three lessons that Jacob limps away with in the morning light.
Our first lesson is that faith always comes with a struggle. Life is never easy. Motivational speaker, Brian Tracy tells a story about when he was first starting out in business. He traces his success at his first real job to the fact that he was constantly asking his boss to give him harder and harder tasks to perform. Each time he was successful in solving the problem, he came back to his boss and asked for a more difficult assignment. Eventually he was assigned to complete a rather complicated real estate transaction. He went to close the sale, but then discovered that the seller had failed to disclose important information. The land being sold had no access to water. None at all. Brian Tracy refused to close the sale and went back to his boss and returned the check to the company. From that moment on, he began to advance up the corporate ladder. It was the struggle to do the impossible that made Brian Tracy a success.
We think of problems as things that hold us back. For Jacob, he could not flee his past, he could only see the trouble that would come with the dawn. But his sojourn with Lavan had not only made him smarter and wiser, but he was physically stronger and more agile than he was when he only stayed home with his mother. The years in the fields, protecting the flocks from lions and wolves were not wasted years; they had made him a formidable match for his brother. The wrestling match proved it. He was stronger than he realized. Jacob was no longer the momma’s boy he once was so long ago. He is now a grown man, mature in body and mind. His reasons to fear his brother are out of date, a remnant of a different time in his life. He can face the dawn with confidence because Jacob is no longer the scrawny younger brother of Esau
Our second lesson is that we should not cry over what we have lost. If we have become wounded in our struggles in life, these wounds will not prevent us from rising again. Mitch Alboom, is his book, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” tells about how the main character, Eddie, was wounded in Vietnam escaping with some fellow prisoners from a prison camp. His wounded leg prevents him from going back to school, from getting a good job and the pain makes him miserable. After Eddie dies and on his way to heaven, Eddie meets his old commanding officer who tells him that Eddie was not wounded by the enemy, but that he was shot by the officer himself. If they would have delayed any longer, the escapees would have certainly all been captured and killed. Eddie had become distracted and unwilling to leave until he was sure there were no civilian casualties. The commander shot Eddie in the leg, put him on the truck and, with the other escapees, they fled the camp.
At the gate of the camp, however, their truck could not get past the closed gate. The officer goes to open it, steps on a landmine and dies. The officer gave his life so that Eddie and the others could escape. All these years Eddie was bitter over his wound never realizing that his commander gave his life so that they all could be saved. In spite of his wound, Eddie had fallen in love, raised a family and earned an honest living. All this had become possible because Eddie’s commander gave his life. We should not be bitter over the way we are wounded by life, but we should walk on thankful for the many blessings in our life. Jacob limps away from his struggle in the night, but he carries a new name, and we never hear another word about Jacob’s broken hip.
Finally, we learn from Jacob that we should never fear the dawn. Many times people come to see me weighed down by a mountain of problems that seem insurmountable. They just don’t see how they can ever move on. How can they climb the mountain alone? How can they move on in life when they are stuck in the dark, unable to get to the light beyond? They feel defeated and abandoned; alone and afraid. Every escape has been closed to them. The only thing to do is give up.
I often can’t solve their problem, but I do tell them that 1. They are not alone. There are friends who can help and God who is always present in their lives. And I tell them 2. That what looks like a mountain of trouble today, will, when they look back on it, see that it was an optical illusion. It was not a mountain of trouble; it was only a speed bump in life. If we face our troubles, like Jacob did, we find that things are almost never as bad as we think they are. Esau came with 400 armed men. Why? I just don’t know. When the two brothers meet, Esau is forgiving and kind. The fights of the past were long ago forgotten. It doesn’t matter anymore. Both brothers are successful and blessed. There no longer is any reason for them to be angry with each other. They go their own way in peace and will see each other again when the gather to bury their father in the family plot.
These three lessons: that the struggle in life is not a curse but a blessing; that we should not mourn what we have lost but be thankful for what we have; and that no matter how dark the night, the dawn always arrives and things turn out never to be as bad as we fear; are lessons we can take away from the story of our patriarch Jacob. I ask you all to reflect on your life history. How many times can we see how true these three lessons have been in the course of our lives?
Faith, Gratitude and Hope are the three lessons we learn from the story of Jacob’s life. They need to be the foundation of our lives as well. Where the winds of life will take us, only God knows. But how we handle our problems along the way, we have this story to help us through the dark stormy nights. We should not fear the darkness, but wait with faith, gratitude and hope for the dawn that will always come.
May these three blessings be the foundation of our life, may they be as important to us as they were to our patriarch Jacob. And may we emerge from our struggles in the night, stronger at the dawn of each new day.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom