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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

All Contents ©2004-2007 Stuart Dauermann - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Monday, December 19, 2005

Let's Make a Deal

This is another sermon on Parashat Vayishlach, which includes Ya'akov's wrestling with the Divine Being. In this d'rash, the focus is on how Ya'akov had matured in his relationship with God, and the challenges this presents to us as B'nai Ya'akov.

We are used to thinking of ourselves as children of Abraham. But for Jews, a better name is “children of Jacob.” After all, Arabs are children of Abraham and Christians are children of Abraham as well. But only Jews are children of Jacob. That’s why the largest Orthodox synagogue west of the Mississippi, located a few blocks from Ahavat Zion is named “B’nai Ya’akov—Children of Jacob. In the latter part of the Older Testament, the name becomes rather common. So we read:
Jos 24:4
I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.

2Ki 17:34
To this day they continue to practice their former customs. They do not worship the Lord and they do not follow the statutes or the ordinances or the law or the commandment that the Lord commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel.

1Ch 16:13
O offspring of his servant Israel, children of Jacob, his chosen ones.

Ps 78:5
He established a decree in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach to their children;

Ps 105:6
O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones.

Recently, I was in New York visiting my son, Chaim. He remarked to me how irksome it is to him discovering over and over again how he mirrors me in the things he says, in his gestures, etc. Despite the fact he didn’t intend to be a copy of his father, he is. Could it be that as sons and daughters of Jacob, we too bear a family resemblance? I think you can bet on it. When we look at Jacob, we see ourselves.

To me, the life of Jacob is a fascinating study in spiritual character development. As we see in today’s parasha, he eventually matures to such a degree that the Holy One changes his name, signifying a quantum leap in character development: “Lo Ya’akov ye’omer od shim’cha ki im Yisrael”—No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel—“ki sarita im Elohim v’im anashim v’toochal”—“for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome.”

We cannot do an entire study of Jacob our ancestor now. We will park ourselves in this parasha, after first paying a return visit to last week’s parasha. There we find him bargaining with God, just like he had bargained with his brother in the parasha before that. Last week, some twenty years earlier than this week’s parasha, we see a much less mature Jacob. Look what he says to God after the vision of the ladder reaching from heaven to earth, and after God has reaffirmed His promises explicitly to Jacob: “If God will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going; will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear; and I return in peace to my father’s house, and HASHEM will be a God to me—then this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of God, and whatever You will give me, I shall repeatedly tithe to you.” It is clear that Jacob is trying to leverage the deal—to wrest a guarantee from God. He says, “O.K. If you will do these itemized things for me, then, God, have I got a deal for you! I will give ten percent back to you.”

At this point we see an insecure Jacob, one inexperienced with God, one who has not yet learned that we don’t have to leverage God, nor indeed, can we.

This week’s parasha is twenty years later. It is brilliantly insightful. It demonstrates what human experience proves—that people can change, but that change is gradual and inconsistent. Jacob is now dealing with God maturely, trusting in His character, and not even pretending to leverage Him. But, inconsistent like the rest of us, in dealing with his brother, Jacob is still trying leverage the situation. We see Jacob’s immaturity in the same nexus of events.

Notice how, at the beginning of our passage [32:4-24] Jacob constructs an elaborate assembly line of bribes to try and win his brother’s favor. After all, he is frightened, and frightened people often revert to old coping mechanisms. And here we have the perfect illustration of a person trying to leverage a situation. This is a more elaborate example of what he had attempted to do with HASHEM Himself twenty years earlier. It is the same with us: our signs of maturity will coexist with remnant of old, immature patterns of thinking and doing.

Beginning in verse 25, Jacob wrestles with the angel. Here we have some more bargaining [he tells the heavenly being—if you want me to let you go, you are going to have to bless me]. But also, we see here a new persistence.

He doesn’t know who he is dealing with at first, very much like us as we live with God. We don’t know who we are dealing with at first. But he stays engaged, wrestling, struggling, persisting, remaining engaged.

That brings us to a question: do we remain engaged with God in the struggles of our lives, in our crises—or do we have a habit of disengaging and seeking other options, other ways to maneuver, bargain, work our way out of our dilemmas. Jacob has learned. Jacob has changed. Jacob persists.

Next, in chapter 33 we see a combination of Jacob’s old coping style and good old fashioned Middle Eastern protocol. Esau tells Jacob to keep the gifts for himself, but Jacob insists, and Esau capitulates. This is much like our modern American ritual of fighting over the check—you are supposed to fight over the check, and very often one knows in advance who ought to pick up the check, and that person should generally insist on winning and be allowed to win the “Who’s going to pay for this?” struggle.

Finally, it is Esau who exemplifies God’s way of dealing with Jacob, and with us. He has a right to take revenge, a right to claim Jacob’s life as forfeit. But, unbelievably, he loves the lug and treats him with kindness and grace. But also, Jacob is prepared to give him everything.

So is it with us and our own relationship with God. He has a right to be furious with us, to take our lives as forfeit, but He doesn’t do that. In fact, “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son,” or as Paul puts it, “God spared not His son but freely gave Him up for us all.” But just as with Jacob here with Esau, willing to give up everything to his brother, so must we see that all we have and are by rights belongs to the God who has shown mercy to us.

The final mark of whether we “get it” about how we have been recipients of God’s good grace is how we deal with others. Our New Covenant reading puts it this way: “Beloved friends, if this is how God loved us, we likewise ought to love one another.” I hate to tell you this, but in general, this is NOT how I see us treating each other. There is too much grudge-bearing and revenge-taking in our midst. And because it is so petty, we fail to see it for what it is—and indication that we have not grown much in our relationship with God—that we still don’t really “get it” like Jacob finally got it.

The ultimate tests of whether we have learned anything at all about God are as follows:

1) Do we try and manipulate Him and leverage Him so as to gain or maintain advantage or do we simply and humbly seek his mercy, yielding all we are and have to Him?
2) Do we stay engaged with Him in the crises of life, or do we instead resort to other means of coping?
3) How do we treat others? Do we treat them with mercy and give them better than they deserve, as God has done with us, or do they have to dread meeting up with us because we are vengeful and grudge-bearing?

Let us test ourselves by these criteria, and if we find we haven’t grown much, let’s get with it, O children of Jacob.