Author's Note on Parshat Vayishlach

Author's Note on Parshat Vayishlach

Date: December 16, 2016
16 Kislev 5777

In Parshat Vayishlach, Jacob was poised for a fateful meeting with his brother Esau.  Jacob hadn’t seen Esau for around 20 years and feared what might happen. Indeed, for all Jacob knew, Esau was ready to kill Jacob for having stolen the birthright and blessing to which Esau believed he was entitled.

Jacob prepared for this encounter by sending messengers ahead with conciliatory messages and gifts, dividing his camp in preparation for battle, and praying to G-d for success.

As a final move, he took his family and possessions across the Yabbok stream. Then, “Vayivater Ya’akov l’vado” – And Jacob was left by himself. He might have been lonely, but he certainly wasn’t alone. There was another man (or perhaps an angel or perhaps his conscience) who wrestled with Jacob. After Jacob prevailed, the “man” promised that Jacob would, thereafter, also be known as Israel. He would have his physical, day-to-day self in Jacob but he would also have the ability to elevate himself to the spiritual level represented by his name “Israel.” At that point, Jacob left the field with a limp until the sun came up and he could walk away.

We all know the story.  But let’s back up a minute. The Torah tells us that Jacob was left by himself. How did that work exactly? He was making his way through the wilderness with four wives, 11 children, hundreds of animals, and a full entourage. He took them all to one side of the stream and said “You guys wait here. I need my space.”  Wouldn’t you think that one of his four wives would have said “Wait a minute, Jake. You’re not leaving me alone with these other three are you?” But no. Apparently they let him have his time. Why?

On the surface, Rashi is not exactly all that helpful. According to Rashi, Jacob forgot a few small jars and had to go back to get them. Well that certainly clears things up. “You all wait here, I forgot a few small jars. I need to get them; after all, they were my favorite small jars. You don’t mind if I sleep over there tonight by myself do you? If the animals get hungry, well, you’ll figure it out.”

Why was Jacob alone?  What are we to learn from the fact that he had to go back for a few small jars?

Maybe that was actually all part of his preparation.  When we have an important task, spiritual or otherwise, a crucial part of the process is to go back, retrace our steps and make sure we haven’t overlooked anything.  Did we cover all the bases and do everything in our power to make sure we are doing the best job possible? 

When one of my associates completes an important memo for a client, I often tell the associate to do one more thing.  The associate needs to do with the memo exactly what the lawyer is asking the client to do – read it!  Go back to the beginning and read every word.  If you see a few missing or extra words (some small jars left behind), will you leave them there because it is “good enough”?  Or will you do everything you can to make sure the job is done correctly and as the client wanted it done?

So too with a wedding – two young people are going to spend the rest of their lives together. This requires preparation (and not just for the party!).  They must re-trace their steps and consider all that has happened to bring them to this point in their lives.  As they consider where they have been, they might find a few “small jars” left behind. A few stray thoughts, wishes, prayers, or plans for the future. Now is the time to pick those up and see how to capture them, together with your life partner, and elevate them to something even better.

Jacob was supposed to have transported everything he had from one side of the stream to the other to prepare for his defense. Was he really supposed to look at the small jars and leave them there because the preparations were “good enough”? 

We cannot achieve our spiritual potential with “good enough.” When we go through life and do our deeds with the strength and conviction that we have done the best we can, we will accomplish great things. 

At the same time, there is a fine line between doing our best to retrace our steps (or review our work) and a perfectionism that does not let us move forward. 

Sure, we might have to struggle with others, or with angels, or even with our conscience from time to time.  Like Jacob, we can retrace our steps and then, whether we are limping or walking upright, we have to move on.  In the end, when we prevail, we have the ability to change the world for the better.  We also can bring out the best in ourselves and others and grow from our “Jacob” level to that of “Israel.”