Parshat Vayishlach (Mussar)

Jacob meets Esau

In this remarkable episode, Jacob re-engages with his brother, fearing the worst but ultimately experiencing transformational growth both spiritually and in his relationship with his brother. It includes one of the most mysterious events in the Torah, Jacob’s night encounter with an angel … a demon … or himself?

From a mussar perspective we see the interplay between trust in God and finally recognizing deeper truths in one’s life. We’ll see that trust in God also means having the courage to face what is ugly about yourself, using your fear to inspire yourself. Real miracles, we are taught, is seeing the truth with courage.

An important Mussar middah is bitachon, trust in God. What does trust in God mean to you? Sometimes people have very strong negative perspectives on “trusting in God,” based on bad personal or historical experiences like the Holocaust. Can you trust a God who allows bad things to happen to good people?

The following verses from this week’s parshah are an exemplary example of bitachon.

Bereishit (32:8-22)
And Jacob was greatly afraid and he was distressed, and he divided the people that were with him, and the sheep and the cattle and the camels, into two camps. [Jacob then prays] … and he took from what he had in hand a tribute to Esau his brother …”

Jacob feels fear when he anticipates meeting his brother, he responds with three strategies: preparing for battle, praying, and providing a tribute (compensation? teshuvah?) to Esau. Why might this be an example of bitachon?

Henach Leibowitz
Yaakov’s fear … was one that awakened and uplifted him. … Yaakov used his fear to reinforce his faith in Hashem’s protection and spur himself to action …

Nachmanides (Ramban)
Yaakov attempted to save himself, with all his resources.

Shlomo Wolbe
Hashem created the world to run in accordance with the laws of nature. The Avos understand that if He willed the world to operate in such a manner, they, too, must act in accordance with those laws. Therefore, all of their dealings with others were within the framework of nature. Yaakov did not merely say, “Hashem, You’re in charge. Please save us!” Instead, he did everything in his power to save himself and his family. … Inherent in this system, however, is the danger that a successful person might begin to think that it was his brains and brawn that brought him success. Although we must invest whatever effort is necessary in a particular endeavor, we should never lose sight of Who is really in charge.

We are cautioned that bitachon is not a belief in miracles, but something else. Why, according to Rav Wolbe, is a belief in miracles inappropriate?

We are expected to use our own resources … and, what else?

Why is it important to never lose “sight of Who is really in charge”? What practically does this mean?

Rabbi Leibowitz said that fear can be a strength rather than a weakness. Do you have experiences that fit with this idea?

Bereishit (32: 25-30)
And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. And he saw that he had not won out against him and he touched his hip-socket and Jacob’s hip-socket was  wrenched as he wrestled with him. And he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” And he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” And he said, “Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out.”

Rashi
It will no longer be said that the blessings came to you through deviousness but instead through lordliness and openness.

Robert Alter
Appearing to Jacob in the dark of the night, before the morning when Esau will be reconciled with Jacob, he is the embodiment of the portentous antagonism in Jacob’s dark night of the soul. … he may [be seen as] an externalization of all that Jacob has to wrestle with within himself. A powerful physical metaphor is intimated by the story of wrestling: Jacob, whose name can be construed as “he who acts crookedly,” is bent, permanently lamed, by his nameless adversary in order to be made straight before his reunion with Esau.

Eliyahu Dessler
Ya’akov had to find the spiritual strength to transcend the external situation and attach himself to
the spiritual truth beyond it and within it. Only when he emerged successfully from all these tests
was his name changed from Ya’akov to Yisrael, which comes from the root sara, meaning
“overcoming”.

Why does this encounter symbolize all that Jacob has to overcome around truth? In
what different ways does Jacob turn around all of his previous failings around his
brother?