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Vayishlach: Jacob’s Prayer


I have a little brother, well he’s big now, and when we were kids we’d sometimes wrestle -little kid fights. They were intense, but we were basically allies in our little world, and I was really glad to have him as a buddy.  We got together as many families did for Thanksgiving last week. And though we did not return to our childhood home, there was a returning, in a way, to a family that once was together.  In the Torah this week, a primal tale of Brothers, twins actually, and of returning home to the Promised Land.

Biblical Jacob is called to return home in this week’s Torah reading, after many years away. But  the way home is very hard, fraught with dangers from seeds he himself planted, from the bratty, grabbing punk kid he used to be. His twin brother, Esau is headed his way with 400 armed men at the very same time Jacob has decided to return!For more on the story check out Home

And so from Jacobs lips a prayer enters Torah:  “Please, Save me!” he cries. A petitionary prayer, one of very few whose words are recorded in Torah. His life began in a parents’ prayer to conceive, but the words of that prayer are lost. During pregnancy, Rivka sought God again, to know the meaning of her life in bringing these twins into the world, “If it’s like this, why am I here?” she asks. And now Jacob’s amazing prayer. He prays for salvation from from the hand of his twin brother. In this powerful narrative a terrified Jacob is returning to The Promised Land after many years raising a family far away. In fear, Jake has splits his camp – separating his wives and children so his brother cannot destroy all.  Jacob has been in trouble before, and in response, he fled, or found a way to outsmart his brother, to grab, to win. But Jacob has changed, his arrogance transformed to humility. For the first time he feels fear, and feels small and unworthy. He identifies his life with “mother and child” in his family. Is it possible love for his family has transformed him? With loved ones in danger, Jake’s response is this prayer.  He prays for “atzilut” freedom, NOT VICTORY perhaps for the first time in his life. What happens next is surreal. A mysterious stranger wrestles with him until dawn, ripping Jacob’s hip from his socket. What kind of answer to a prayer is this? Perhaps a brilliant one. Limping,  and offering many gifts, Jacob is seen, not as a threat, or a scoundrel, but as a true brother. Jake gets a new name: Yisrael meaning either “Struggle with God, or God Rules”, for, the wrestler declares: you have struggled with creatures Divine and Human, and prevailed.  Ironic, that true freedom from fear and from fighting with his brother can only be won in this divine wrestling match. But it works: the wrestling, the prayer. No longer fighting, Esau embraces his twin, and so embraces us, the children of Yisrael.
Could this be a lesson on how to achieve peace with humility? or on what it really means to be free? The prophet Micah spoke of a time when “all shall sit under their vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (4:4) Perhaps release from fear is the ultimate salvation.
What did Jacob’s Prayer sound like? Perhaps this: Imagine Jacob at the campfire at sunset, explaining what’s happening to his beloved Rachel.
JACOB’S PRAYER Listen to the Audio
You must go now, he can not find you here.
It’s I alone must stay behind, it’s clear….
Do you remember how we met, my sweet Rachel?
When I pushed that boulder off the well?
The Kiss, that cry, that rose to the sky; Entangling our destiny?
Now my very life is in your eyes, and with all the children by my side
Fear swallows me, I am unworthy; By mother and child, my brother will kill me   
Please, God, Deliver me, hatzileni na m’yad Achi!
Please, Deliver me.
From my fear and from brother’s hand, set me free!

Who am I, am I the truth or the lie?
The child of Abraham and Isaac am I.
Am I the dreamer, of a ladder to the sky,
Or the deceiver, stealing blessings from the blind?
Believer in promises, I must now return to Canaan land
It is so dark, the hour of demons, heed!
Who goes there now? What do you want of me?
I will fight with all my might.
I’ll keep you back and hold on tight
I won’t let you go, though day may break
You can turn my Pain to blessings great.
You will be born anew this day, a new name now is yours
Yisrael, as you struggle with God,
You know truth and justice will prevail
A broken heart & limping pace; can help you find your brother’s embrace
He’s a child of prophecy too, born of momma Rivka just as you.

*An American tale: There once was a girl who toiled, poor, and unhappy on her family farm. She dreamed of a far off place of wonderful riches. Following her dream she journeys along a road. Beset with terrible obstacles, she rises to each challenge, with the help of friends along the way. Her friends teach her great things, such as *”a heart is not judged by how much one is loved, but by how much one loves others” and that “true courage is facing danger when you are afraid” and that true smarts comes from experience, not brains. When she finally arrives, she discovers the true secret: that the greatest treasures lie back in the direction she came from. She must return home to find her heart’s desire in family and friends. I think maybe Jacob learns those same lessons as he returns to the promised land. What do you think?  From Thanksgiving to Oz, from Haran to Promised Land, Love transforms, and it’s always family you return to.

Above, Passover at my brother’s house, where we spent Thanksgiving.

(*Oh, of course, it is from L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz.)


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