In this portion we see Ya’akov returning to the land after 20 years to face all the issues he had so quickly avoided on his departure. We see him slowly beginning to learn the spiritual lessons he needed to learn. A man of formidable inner power and personal drive, yet still a man who thinks that events in life are primarily shaped by the person rather than by God. So we find him busy sending gifts to his brother to activate the forgiveness and reconciliation between himself and Esav.
So one more lesson awaits him: God sends ‘The Angel’ to Ya’akov who then finally becomes Israel. This becomes one of the most important events in his life: the fight with God. Once again, Ya’akov has no idea Who he is fighting and in Whose presence he stands. That he later calls the place Peniel, the face of God is testimony to Ya’akov’s own reflection and understanding of what actually transpired that night. He fought God and won (or at least lived!). How can we get to grips with this final comment by the angel: ‘You have struggled with God and man and prevailed’? Wouldn’t such a comment automatically lead to an arrogance and pride in one’s own powers and abilities, especially in a man like Ya’akov who already thought it was all his to do?
Can you fight God and prevail? No. So what is this all about? The exact wording says that he struggled with God and with men. Ya’akov’s struggle is not solely with God, but with men too and it is this combination that seems so interesting.
Ya’akov has singly failed to comprehend not just that God IS and that he, Ya’akov, needed to carry that awareness with him every day, but also that through men, through the daily events of life, God also works and has complete control. Ya’akov’s struggle with men was not just conflict. His basic failure was to see the hand of God in his life, guiding and steering each day through the acts of men. Of course such spiritual blindness will inevitably lead to conflict because you think you have to control situations around you and in particular other people who are driving them.
It was never going to be enough for Ya’akov to merely acknowledge God in the spiritual sense i.e. in worship (which he does do with a libation offering showing his new sense of God’s reality), he also needed to acknowledge the rulership, the Lordship of God in His life, as the One who truly controls events and life situations. The ‘old’ Ya’akov believed that power emanated from men and himself, the ‘new’ Ya’akov sees that all this is a mere front for the actual guiding of the Lord’s hand in all things.
The problem we have is that we think because our lives are directly guided by the Lord and we submit to His Lordship, everything must be good. But such later Greek philosophy that everything that is ‘good’ is of God and everything else is of the enemy is not Torah’s perspective which is far more ambiguous. Despite having an amazing encounter with God and having his name changed to Israel, the next thing that happens to Ya’akov is that Rachel dies in childbirth. His beloved for whom he worked so hard and who tried to so hard to give him children, dies on the roadside in labour. How devastated he must have been – and that after such a powerful life changing encounter with God! Surely this can’t be true! And then Israel finds out on the back of that that Reuven has attempted a coup by sleeping with Bilhah his concubine, declaring effectively that Israel’s power is gone and Reuven now leads the tribe – a political act. And then just to ensure that Israel didn’t settle too much in the ease of life, his father Yitzchak dies too. If this was us, we would iron out all these disturbing painful bits and the downright hurt of it all. When Yeshua said that in this life we would have tsuris, I don’t recall anyone rejoicing around Him, but He did know what He was talking about.
It has always been through the tough realities of life, the ups AND the downs that we have seen God at work guiding behind the scenes through the affairs of men. Consider Yosef who only found God’s word to be true after many years in prison and slavery, and there are of course many other examples. At the pinnacle of it all is Mashiach who found that redemption and salvation had a very costly price: pain, humiliation and apparent defeat before a world power, with all the mocking and scourging associated with it. It is far too simplistic to say ‘nice things are from heaven’. We try to control situations and stop bad things happening and thereby reveal the inner Ya’akov in us all. Our views on what constitutes a ‘nice’ life do not match the Lord’s but we try to combine the two anyway. This is a Lordship issue, and reveals that we truly do struggle with God and men.
Ya’akov DID learn the truth of this. The portion ends with a detailed listing of the descendants of… Esav! Esav seems to have triumphed after all. But this is not so. The final detail, so easily missed is in Gen 36:5-8. Esav yields the Land peaceably in the end to his brother and he moves far away. Why? The Torah says ‘because of his brother’. No more information is given. However, there is a clue…
The area where these events take place is not good arable land. Ya’akov had previously done something that was fear driven and a human attempt to manipulate the situation: he sent the cattle and livestock he had amassed to his brother as gifts for appeasement. But this last act before he met with God was turned around by the hidden hand of God in the workings of men to create a situation where Esav in his greed and desire to amass wealth and power HAD to leave the area to continue with his flocks. Ya’akov, without lifting a finger in anger or conflict, had entered the Land as its rightful inheritor and key descendant. The situation came about not because of Israel’s manipulation, but ironically because of an unplanned outcome of a fear-offering. What this shows us is that the natures of men, their characters and attitudes cause them to sow seeds that will define their futures if given the space to do so. We often can’t wait for ‘evil’ men to fall, but fall they will because they are not building righteousness. God’s will prevailed in the Land and Ya’akov gave space for God to work.
Once he had laid hold of God, Jacob was not about to let go; this was a breakthrough for him and the same features that had led him to attempt everything in his own strength would now be redeemed and used of God to ensure Israel would go on. That is why he became Israel that night. He prevailed because he had learnt that whatever came his way now, he could trust God for it and allow Him to work, Israel was not about to let God go, the Lordship was established.
Shabbat Vayishlach (and he sent)