Yaakov: a model for working through challenges

By Liat Jackman
Former Shlicha (Montreal, 2003-05)

וישלח יעקב מלאכים לפניו אל עשו אחיו ארצה שעיר שדה אדום…(בראשית לב:ד)
…ויקח מן הבא בידו מנחה לעשו אחיו (בראשית לב:יד)
ויאמר יעקב אלקי אבי אברהם ואלקי אבי יצחק ה’ האמר אלי….(בראשית לב:י)
וישבו המלאכים אל יעקב לאמר באנו אל אחיך אל עשיו וגם הלך לקראתך וארבע מאות איש עמו: וירא יעקב מאד ויצר לוו ויחץ את העם אשר אתו ואת הצאן ואת הבקר והגמלים לשני מחנות: …(בראשית לב: ז-ח)
At the beginning of our parasha, Yaakov is on his way back to Israel after twenty years of exile in Haran with Lavan. As he returns, he needs to confront the reason he left in the first place: his brother Esav.  His brother, who had wanted to kill him for cheating him out of his father’s brachot. Yaakov does not know how his brother feels now, so he begins by sending messengers to feel out the situation. In a very unassuming subservient way, he addresses Esav through the messengers “To my lord Esav, Your humble servant Jacob says…”  Not only trying to show his subservience to Esav but maybe also emphasizing that the promises he got from their father have not come true – in particular, he is not ” a lord over your brother” (Bereshit 27:29).
Yaakov receives a message that Esav is coming to meet him with 400 men. Yaakov is fearful and chooses to respond to the seeming threat in three ways:
he sends a gift, a tribute, to his brother comprising of hundreds of animals, goats, sheep., camels, cows and donkeys.
he prepares his camp for war, separating the camp into two, so if one part is attacked, the other can escape.
he prays, thanking Hashem for what he has given him and beseeching him to save him from his brother.Finally, after his preparations are finished, Yaakov has a confrontation in the night:  “Jacob remained alone. A stranger wrestled with him until just before daybreak. When {the stranger} saw that he could not defeat him…”(Bereshit 32:25-26).
Because of its proximity to the other preparations, a Midrash understands that the stranger was “the ministering angel of Esav” (Bereshit Raba 77:3).The Sfat Emet [1], Rav Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, takes Yaakov’s process of preparing for his confrontation with Esav and compares it with man’s struggle against the Yetser Ha’Ra, the evil inclination. In one of his discussions (תרמ”ה ד”ה התקין)  he mentions that these three methods of preparing for the confrontation are the same tools one should use when trying to serve G-d and fight the resistance inside ourselves. He equates the three methods also to the 3 avot, our forefathers [2]. 
The first method, the gift, is not that we give something to Hashem but rather that we remember the good that Hashem does for us.  Through this we will love Hashem and then want to serve Him. As hard as it is sometimes to the right thing when we do not feel like it, we can take inspiration from all the good we have received. This reminds us of Avraham, who was reaching out, who on his own searched for Hashem and wanted to be close to Him.
Secondly, we need to feel awe and fear of the judgement of Hashem.  If we do bad deeds then we will have bad judgement. We have to exercise strength against the Yetser Ha’Ra. This is the midah of Yitzchak, representing both fear and standing strong. This is the war that we need to wage. 
Thirdly, prayer. In order to fight to do the right thing, we need to pray to Hashem to help us. This is the midah of Yaakov. Although all the avot prayed, when we look for the words of their personal requests in the Torah, we only find those of Yaakov. In time of need, he not only makes practical preparations but also turns to Hashem to help him. This is especially striking since Hashem has already promised to watch over him and bring him back safely before he left Haran (see Bereshit 28:15). Whatever we do, no matter how much we try or how much we think we deserve, we need Hashem’s help.
In another discourse the Sfat Emet says that we need all these methods to fight the Yetser Ha’Ra. Sometimes we need to fight the Yetser Ha’Ra directly. Sometimes we simply need to ask for help from Hashem. Sometimes that we need to co-opt the Yetser Ha’Ra, as in the Midrash on Shema “with all your heart – with the good inclination and the evil inclination”.
In so many realms of life we can apply this insight. For instance in parenting. There are times to find the context for the child to use their “negative” side for something good. Alternatively, we could bring out the good in what the child is doing. There are times when one simply has to discipline and say “no”. There are times when we need to turn to Hashem for help (well, really we need to do that all the time…). The real trick is to know when to apply what. Often we get stuck in a certain mode of doing things. But really we should try to regroup, think it through and figure out how to change the pattern and maybe use a different method.
May Hashem give us the clarity and humility to be willing to fight and bring out the best in our children, our community and ourselves.

[1] This dvar torah came after looking at an article in Tikon Laad , written by Shlomo Rosenberg. This is a book with discussions on the Sfat Emet. 
[2] הם ג’ הענינים שצריכין לכל אדם בעבודת השי”ת להלחם עם הסט”א. מצד זכרון חסדי השי”ת הוא מדת אברהם אע”ה ומכח אהבה זו יכולין לכבוש היצה”ר. וג”כ צריכין להכין בגבורה מצד יראת ה’ ופחד הדין בחי’ יצחק. והעיקר מצד סייעתא דשמיא בתורה ותפלה שהוא בחי’ יעקב אבינו.

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