The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Bereishit: Confronting Life, Love and Family, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.
Parshat Vayishlach: The Search for God and the Search for Self
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
“And he said, ‘Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ And Jacob asked him and said, ‘Tell me, if you would, your name.’ ‘Why do you ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel because I have seen God face to face and I have survived.” [Genesis 32:29–31]
Is it religiously valid to attempt to find one’s own God – or is it sufficient to accept the God idea handed down by parents and/or tradition? Certainly, if the individual can develop his own unique contact with God, his divine service will be genuine and spontaneous, rather than mechanical and formal. But a search, after all, is fraught with pain and anguish. And what if the Almighty still remains elusive, even after a lengthy quest?
We begin the Amida prayer with the words: ‘Praised art thou, our God and God of our fathers.’ Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov explains that it is preferable and worthy to attempt to discover one’s own God and to establish a personal relationship with Him. Until that occurs, however, one must still serve the God of one’s fathers.
In studying the biblical portions of Toldot, Vayetze and Vayishlach, we can trace an undeniable pattern which reveals that the underlying theme in Jacob’s life is his search for God – his God, and not only the God of his father.
One might suggest reasons as to why, at least in Jacob’s case, the mere acceptance of his father’s God would be difficult, if not impossible. If Jacob truly felt unloved, even rejected, by Isaac, it would be problematic for him to connect with his father’s God. And when his mother’s ploy deceives his father, this would only serve to intensify the anguish of separation from the patriarch that Jacob must feel. Jacob wasn’t sure who he really was, or more importantly, who he wished to become. After all, if his father loved Esau, perhaps he should become more fork-tongued and aggressive, more Esau-like. Perhaps then he would gain his father’s love and God’s love!
Jacob’s jealousy and guilt vis-a-vis Esau certainly got in the way of his ability to establish a meaningful relationship with the God of his father Isaac. It is certainly the wrath of his brother Esau that forces the underlying purpose of Jacob’s journey to become a personal search for God and – if only subconsciously – the God of his mother in her birth- place. After all, if his father had rejected him, at least his mother accepted him. Moreover, his mother’s family was much more Esau-like – cunning and smooth-tongued – than his father’s.
The first episode recorded when he leaves home is the dream of the ascending and descending angels in which God suddenly appears to Jacob. The words God chooses are significant: ‘I am the Lord, God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac…’ [Gen. 28:13]. But not yet the God of Jacob.
How does Jacob respond when he awakes? ‘Surely God is in this place, and I did not know’ [Gen. 29:16]. The general understanding of this verse is that Jacob, not realizing that God is in this place, is taken by surprise. But the simple meaning of ‘lo yodati’ is that Jacob does not yet know Him, his God. He knows what he must do to serve Him and he knows what to say in order to pray to Him, but he has not yet experienced his own personal God. We see this point underscored when Jacob makes his vow, which is usually understood to mean that if God will feed and clothe him, then Jacob will accept the Lord as his God [Gen. 28:20, 21]. Obviously it is difficult to accept such a materialistic ‘deal’ with the divine. Perhaps we must view the phrase in question as belonging to the ‘if ’ clause of the oath; ‘if God will…guard me, give me bread to eat…and I return in peace to my father’s house and if the Lord will become my (li) personal God, then this stone will…become a House of God….’ Jacob is asking for a personal God, that the Lord become his God. Jacob is asking, in addition to his physical needs, that God provide him with his most sought after spiritual need, that he experience a personal God. Then Jacob will know that his search shall have borne fruit, and he will be able to truly build a house for God and give tithes.
But in order for Jacob to find his personal God, he must first come to grips with his own personality, with his own inner and truest self and identity. He must discover who he is before he is to find his God.
For the next twenty years Jacob lives with Laban’s household. In the process of raising a family and establishing a financial foothold, he loses sight of his earlier spiritual vision. He is more Esau than Esau, more Laban than Laban. Not only does he not find his own God, he runs the risk of even losing the God of his father. Although he is very successful and aggressive, he has lost, and deeply misses, his earlier dream of uniting heaven and earth. He knows he must return to his father’s land and home, to his true self. When we next find him making an oath, it is with Laban upon his departure. But he still cannot speak of his own God, the God of Jacob; he can only take an oath by ‘the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac’ [Gen. 31:53]. Now he knows who he once was and must once again become – but he isn’t there yet.
Ultimately, Jacob understands that he cannot successfully find God without first being himself – and that requires frontal confrontation with Esau. Will Esau stand in the way of God’s promise to Jacob and his seed? Can Jacob atone for the guilt he feels vis-a-vis Esau, and exorcise the jealousy he feels towards this favored brother? Addressing God, Jacob says, ‘O God of my father Abraham, and the God of Isaac…’ [Gen. 32:10], but still no mention of the God of Jacob.
And because of what follows, it becomes clear that the wedge between Jacob and himself, between Jacob and his God, was Esau. Only after Jacob can successfully separate himself from Esau will he be able to confront his own God. On the night before he is scheduled to meet his brother in the flesh, the Torah records how Jacob remained alone and wrestled with an unidentified stranger over whom he prevailed. Identified by our Sages as the spirit of Esau, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch suggests that it may well have been the Esau within Jacob who is haunting the patriarch with guilt and jealousy.
Jacob receives the victory name Yisrael (Israel) from the stranger; he has prevailed against men and God. In what way? He has finally confronted the twin personality within himself: the Esau he desired to become in order to try and gain his father’s favor and achieve momentary materialistic enjoyment – and succeeded in removing Esau and Esauism from within himself. He is ready to take the wealth he received from Laban during his Esau stage and return it to Esau when they meet on the morrow: ‘take my blessing’ (which I received under false pretenses) he will say – and he is ready to accept himself as he was even vis-a-vis his father. He is therefore ready to return home not as Jacob-Esau but as Jacob-Israel.
And only after he has successfully wrestled with the stranger – exorcising the pain and guilt created by his jealousy and deception – is Jacob finally rewarded by seeing God face to face. Apparently it was Esau, or the spiritual struggle he symbolized, that had previously stood in his way. After his mastery over the spirit of Esau, Jacob calls the place of the encounter Peniel, ‘because I have seen the Lord face to face, and my soul has been saved’ [Gen. 32:31]. Jacob exorcised Esau – and in the process found both himself and his God. His struggle and search ended in victory.
If what we’ve been describing is correct, we should now be presented with Jacob’s personal God. The text describes that Jacob ‘…came in peace [shalem] to the city of Shekhem…’ [Gen. 33:18]. The verse can also read ‘whole’ – and indeed he is now his whole, complete and independent self. And so he erects an altar to his own God, indeed calling it ‘Kel Elokai Yisrael’ [Gen. 33:20] God, the God of Israel. Finally God is not just the God of his grandfather and of his father, but He is also the God of Israel, the God of the pristine and purified Jacob, his own personal God, whom he has discovered after many travels and through much pain. The circle is complete, the search for his own God is over. Thus empowered, Jacob is ready to face the third stage of his life, the transformation of twelve sons into twelve tribes of Israel. And now we can pray in the Amida to the personal God of each of our patriarchs, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.