Parshat Vayishlach Genesis 32:4-36:43
So I took yet another one of those online quizzes today. This one seeks to guess my age using my answers to just six questions focused on pop culture. The first time I tried it, it estimated eight years too young, which was just fine with me. And I found that if I switched my beverage of choice from coffee to tea and my television show choice from “M*A*S*H” to “The Simpsons,” I could shave off another 13 years. Which goes to show that “acting your age” is — at the very least — imprecise and more than a little subjective.
Of course, that’s with regard to pop culture — movies, TV shows and the like. We’re a lot more objective and demanding about acting your age when it comes to maturity and the responsible, ethical behavior we expect comes with growing up.
Which brings us to our patriarch Jacob and why the saga of his life is divided up as it is in these weekly portions.
Two weeks ago, in Parshat Toldot, we were introduced to the young, immature and selfish Jacob — the one who steals his elder brother’s birthright and then tricks his father into the blessing reserved for Esau. This Jacob is a first-class deceiver. And he is not yet the Jacob who is ready to fulfill the role God promised to his mother, Rebekah, that “the elder shall serve the younger.” Nor is Jacob ready for that role in the following parshah, last week’s Vayetze. Here, Jacob the deceiver gets his comeuppance when Laban deceives him into marrying Leah when he wanted Rachel. Yet, his immaturity still shows. Though awestruck by the dream of the ladder to the heavens and God’s promise of land and progeny, he shows hubris rather than humility. He tries to cut a deal with God: If You do as You have promised, then I will worship you.
But this week we come to the third installment, which is significant because 3 is the number of intention in Judaism and in the Torah: three days’ walk for Abraham and Isaac to Moriah; and three days’ preparation for the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai. With this third portion of the story, we have a sense that Jacob is finally paying full attention and acting with mature intention. We finally get Jacob acting his age, acknowledging his fears and doubts and shortcomings and asking God to bless him and protect him anyway. “I am unworthy of all kindnesses and faithfulness that You have shown to Your servant … save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, Esau.”
In his classic commentary on Genesis, E.A. Speiser points out the five-fold use of words based on the Hebrew root pay-nun-yud, which relates to the Hebrew word “face,” in just two verses (Gen. 32:21-22), as Jacob sends his servants ahead to scout out Esau’s camp and just before Jacob has his night encounter in the river Jabbok. In English, this might be rendered:
“Say to [Esau] as well ‘Behold, here is your servant Jacob just behind us.’ For [Jacob] reasoned, ‘I will find favor with him (achaprah panav) with an offering that goes before me (b’mincha ha-holechet l’fanai) so that afterward, when I see his face (ereh panav), perhaps he will treat me kindly (yisa panai).’ So the offering went on ahead of him (al-panav) while he stayed in camp that night.”
If we believe that the Torah does not mince words, then the multiple appearance of this root must itself have meaning. I would suggest that Jacob is, perhaps without even realizing it, challenging himself to look critically and realistically at himself at this critical juncture in his life. It is this awakening that allows Jacob to step into the river that night, struggle with the “stranger” — who might be a messenger from God or even a manifestation of the darker side of his own nature — and come through physically injured but emotionally purified.
Jacob discovered, as do we all, that just getting older does not automatically equate to growing up. Each of us must figure out how to “act our age.” Maturity comes from facing challenges rather than running from them, sometimes suffering the consequences of our choices and learning to live for others and not merely for ourselves. This process of acting our age may take longer for some of us than for others, but, as the Torah shows us this week, if a spoiled, selfish little boy can grow up to be Yisrael, then there is hope for us all.
Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel of Altoona. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.