Do you remember Jacob? Yes, one of the two twins. What a family, that was! Their father, Isaac, was blind. And the mother, Rebecca, was so overprotective. Jacob was her beloved, wasn’t he? Esau, the other twin, was vigorous, strong, robust. He loved to stay in the open. Jacob, on the contrary, you could always find him in the family’s tent, close to Mommy. Who was, I must say, such an overambitious woman. She pushed him, I was told, to steal his brother’s clothes, or was it something more complicated? Oh, yes, it must have to do something with heritage. And then, nobody knows exactly what, but something tragic must have happened. Jacob had to flee. The family claims he was looking for a wife, but everybody knew how Esau was determined to murder him. Frankly speaking, that was no surprise. Well, no family is perfect, I know, but that was really a dysfunctional one”.
“Yes, I remember Jacob. You know what? He made it. First, he married. – Not once, twice! Two sisters, from an important family. And he also had children. Eleven, twelve. He truly made it. That was a surprise – a weak, frail boy, turned to be such an intelligent fellow, and a hard worker too. He amassed considerable wealth and his boss, Laban -who was also a relative of his- turned to be envious. Believe me, no surprise. Everybody knew how dishonest Laban was. But Jacob, notwithstanding, had made it well”.
Jacob is alone. Some days ago he sent a message, trying to reconcile with Esau, to settle that old rivalry. And now he has learnt that his brother is looking for him. What does he want? Jacob is frightened – even after all this time, he still remembers his brothers’ excesses of anger. Esau is coming to meet him, together with four hundred men. Out of fear, Jacob prays. He turns to the God of Abraham and Isaac, he recalls to God the promise: “O Lord who said to me: Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you” (Gen 32:10). He asks to God to remember the covenant: “You have said: I will deal bountiful with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count” (Gen 32:13). He proclaims to be unworthy “of all the kindness that You have steadfastly shown to Your servant” (Gen 32:11). And he asks to God to be delivered from the hand of his brother (Gen 32:12).
This may be the first Jewish prayer. But it is not the first time that Jacob speaks to God. Jacob turned to God also at the beginning of his career, in Beth El, after that famous dream, when he woke up, shaken. That time, Jacob made a vow, “If God remains with me… I will set aside a tithe for You” (Gen 30:20-22). He tried to establish an agreement with God. Now things are different. Jacob has grown up, he is totally aware of his own fragility, limitations and weakness. He is terrified by his brother’s possible revenge, and turns to God simply, desperately, to pray.
Like Jacob’s at Beth El, our prayers too can be requests, demanding and someway childish, directed to God. Other times, our prayers can come out of despair, and they are thus similar to the prayer of Jacob at the beginning of this parashah, when he felt frail, even when contemplating his astounding career: “With my staff alone I crossed the Jordan, and now I have become [so wealthy that my property fills] two camps” (Gen 32:11). This prayer is transformative: Nehama Leibowitz notes how his prayer prompted Jacob to see in a different light all the wealthy he has accumulated. When he meets Esau, indeed, Jacob asks him to accept this wealth as a present, and he calls it “birkhati” my blessings (Gen 33:11) a reference to the same blessing he had stolen. Only at this point, will Esau accept these presents, as a kind of reparation.1
“I remember Jacob. I remember also Esau; he was such a terrible person, a real troublemaker. After that meeting, somebody saw the twins walking at the same pace for a while, then they went on different journeys. They met once again, at the funeral of their father; and then they lost each other. They did not hate each other anymore, but neither became friends. These things happen, in families. Sometime brothers, even twins, are just too different, you know. They simply cannot get along. But Jacob has composed a beautiful prayer. You might find it our parashah, in Genesis 32:10–13”.
1Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in the Book of Genesis, (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1972), pp. 364-65
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.