Jacob is destined for struggle from the womb. He is always running, wrestling, outsmarting others and getting outsmarted in return. His story is a tight literary unit, with the use of leitmotifs of deception that always rebound upon him (taking advantage of Isaac’s blindness, but being deceived in the dark tent; using the bloody skin to deceive Isaac; the bloody tunic used by his sons to deceive him etc.). While this constant struggle makes good literary sense and also fulfills the rabbis’ concept of midah kneged midah, one measure for another, it is exhausting! It seems like Jacob got not only Esau’s but also Ishmael’s blessing (26:12)
We would hope that Jacob could at least find refuge in religion. However, Jacob and his family have questionable religious practices—they seem to depend on magic in the procreative tale of the mandrakes, and also with the use of stripped branches to breed mottled goats; then there is next week’s parasha, Vayeitzei which mentions the theft of Laban’s household idols, and we could see problems even with the creation of a matzeivah shrine to house God (the Bet Eil of 28:22).
It takes a long time for Jacob to transition from “the heel” (Ekev) to “upright before God” (Yashar-El). He never seems able to relax and just be at peace with himself, his family, his neighbors or his God. As the Rabbis say, the acts of the ancestors foreshadow what will come from the descendants. So too it seems that the Jewish people’s destiny has been to struggle in many of the ways of our ancestor Jacob/Israel. We have the good fortune to live in a period that is somewhat tranquil; there are no cataclysmic pogroms lurking. But the struggle to figure out how to live with integrity before God, that remains a constant challenge. How do we balance ritual versus social obligations? How do we maintain boundaries while opening our hearts to others? How do we live with deep principle while also respecting other opinions? What do we do with all this tension, and how do we keep it healthy rather than corrosive?
It seems to me that the best way to balance all of this and to feel whole is in the cultivation of community. Religious communities are seldom places where everyone is in agreement and nothing divisive ever occurs. You may have heard of the town with two Jews and three shuls? How could that be? And then I realized the obvious, everyone has to have a shul they would not step foot in.
Like families, communities are places where we are known and loved even when we are at odds with one another. As with families, it takes real, sustained effort to protect this structure, to augment the forces of love and to channel tensions into constructive cooperation, i.e. make our community into a kehilah kedoshah, a holy community.
Watching Jacob this week and next, running from Esau and then from Laban only to be forced back into an embrace with each that he had desperately sought to avoid, I think about our own lives. As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, we should think about our families and our communities. Our families and our communities are complicated places with the greatest capacity of both love and tension. I wish all of us fortitude in the creation of such an embrace, and hope that you will experience this holiday as a time of true thanksgiving.
In order to help aid us in finding a true Thanksgiving holiday, I would like to share a beautiful Thanksgiving poem written by Rabbi Naomi Levy.
For the laughter of the children,
For my own life breath,
For the abundance of food on this table,
For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,
For the roof over our heads,
The clothes on our backs,
For our health,
And our wealth of blessings,
For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,
For the freedom to pray these words
In any language,
In any faith,
In this great country,
Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.
Thank You, God, for giving us all these.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving!
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham