Dealing With Big Mistakes

The Torah epic of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers is an epic of tragic mistake after tragic mistake. Jacob showed favoritism to Joseph and gave him the (in)famous coat. Joseph dreamed of reigning over his brothers, of them all bowing down to him. He then had the political bad sense to actually tell them these dreams, which further fanned the flames.

Then, Jacob sends him alone to check up on the brothers working with the flocks near Shechem. He's appointed, it seems, Joseph to be his supervisor, and sends him unarmed to be with his already hate-filled brothers. And then they err in allowing their anger to dominate them and nearly kill Joseph, choosing at the last minute to sell him to slavery...

Lives are ruined, relationships never to properly recover, Jacob about to spend years in mourning for a son who is not dead, and jealous brothers refusing to admit their deed, comfort their father and do what they can to find Joseph and reunite the family.

Yes, these were all tremendous, life-changing mistakes that indeed did doom many of the participants to years of guilt.

And, yet, if one thinks about it, each of these mistakes was an inexorable part of Joseph's path to the premiership of Egypt, of the ultimate saving of untold thousands of souls from starvation during a famine, and of the literal fulfillment of Joseph's original dreams! In fact, had Jacob been a fairer parent, and had Joseph been more modest, this happy ending might not have ever come to pass!

To be sure, God has many ways to see His will fulfilled, so this was not the only scenario. Nonetheless, it is the way it happened, so how should we understand it?

I think that all of these deeds are the result of Jacob's mode of operation in his early life. He was, as you may recall, born clasping Esav's heel. He was a bit of a manipulator, from getting the birthright from Esav for some soup, to getting the blessings from Isaac by a ruse, to getting his wages and his way with Lavan.

Another fact to remember is Jacob's superhuman strength when he saw Rachel for the first time. It was more than just love that moved him, it was the confidence and the feeling of destiny when he saw God's providence and his future combined in Rachel's eyes. Whenever Jacob got confirmation from God that he was on the right path, he was always filled with inspiration.

But things got confusing for Jacob, as Lavan switched his bride at the ceremony and he married Leah instead. All of the children that were born to Leah and the two maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah were not part of Jacob's original desire. He had wanted to marry only Rachel. Thus, it was Rachel's son, Joseph, in whom Jacob saw the future confirmed again. It excited him, and he showed favoritism.

Joseph, too, had this awareness about himself. He knew he had a major part to play in God's running of the world, and it excited him. He could not keep his mouth shut, even when he should have sensed it politic to do so.

None of this is to make excuses, but to show something. Each person here made a mistake, and that mistake was a human one with Divine consequences. That is the meaning of "Remove the Satan from behind us." As the Talmudic sage Nachum of Gimzo was wont to say, "This, too, is for the good." We should stop beating ourselves up about the past, because we cannot change the past. We can only change our reaction to it, and our direction for the future. Guilt that does not motivate better behavior is unhealthy, and does not allow one to recognize the Divine gift of free choice to change our present and future.

We all make mistakes, and we should try to do better. But if, after the test was taken, we have failed, it is proper to look forward. What good can come out of this? How can I learn to do better next time? How can I deepen this ruptured relationship? May Hashem help us remove the Satan of helpless guilt from behind us, and help us look to the future. We may just see a tremendous opportunity sprouting in the ashes of a past mistake.

Israel's Power as the Jewish State

Jacob, as he prepared to return to the Land of Canaan after spending a couple of decades with his in-laws in Mesopotamia, was quite terrified. He had fled to Lavan in the first place because of his brother Esav's open musings about fratricide. Now, as he was about to return, he did not know what greeting his brother would give him. Would it be a hug, or a knife?

And so he prepared three different methods of ensuring his survival: Gifts, battle and prayer. He sent lavish gifts to Esav with an entreaty for brotherly forgiveness. He divided the camp up so that if battle should break out, they would be able to survive, if not prevail. And, finally, he prayed to God, "Save me from my brother Esav, for I fear he may try to smite mother and children."

And then, after Jacob had transported his family across a place called Maavar Yabbok, he returned alone to the other side. According to our sages, he had forgotten some small containers. It was there, when he was alone, that the mysterious "man", identified as Esav's guardian angel, fought with him until dawn. As the night ended, the "man" famously wounded Jacob's thigh, causing him to limp. Thus the Torah explains the future prohibition on eating an animal's sciatic nerve.

As the dawn breaks, the "man" wishes for Jacob to release him. Jacob refuses until the "man" blesses him. Obligingly, the "man" informs Jacob that his name shall henceforth be "Yisrael, for you have struggled (sarita) with God and man and prevailed."

Now, if I were a sports commentator, I would assume that the "man" had won, since he had seriously wounded Jacob. Yet we see that it was the "man" who begged to be released! Further, the "blessing" Jacob got seems to be nothing more than a name change. It's not a blessing that he should win the lottery or something. How is a name change a blessing?

The commentary Oznaim LaTorah points out that of Jacob's three plans of action, gifts, battle and prayer, it was only prayer that became practical. Jacob may have thought to rely on his wealth to appease Esav, but that wealth, in the form of the small containers he went back for, caused him to endanger his life. As King Solomon says, "There is wealth guarded for a man to his detriment."

As for war, well, as a new cripple, this is no longer relevant. He's not the superhero who lifts huge stones by himself anymore. He can barely walk straight.

Which leaves prayer. This is the true power of Jacob. Earlier in his life, as he misled his father to get the blessings of the firstborn, Isaac had said "Your hands are the hands of Esav, but your voice is the voice of Jacob." Indeed, this was exactly Jacob's earlier way of interacting with the world, trying to be Esav. The name Jacob comes from "heel", and he was called this because he emerged from Rebekkah's womb grasping Esav's heel.

Jacob had always felt threatened, and was often fearful. His way of dealing with the challenges in this world was to do things in an earthly fashion. He used deception and raw strength. He planned to use wealth and power to survive the encounter with Esav. Those are the tools of a Jacob, who is grasping at the heel of an earthy Esav.

So, in fact, it was a great blessing that the "man" gave him. He changed his name, he changed his self-perception. No longer is he grasping at someone's heel and trying to make his way in a tough world. He has been turned upside down, he is now struggling with God and godliness, and only then with man and humanity. He has become a man of God, and his new weapon is the most powerful one of all, his Voice. His prayers.

Thus, even though on a physical sense the "man" had prevailed, the encounter had transformed Jacob. He was no longer going to rely on his strength or wealth, only on his voice. The voice of Jacob, the power of his prayer, is far superior to the strength of the "man", and thus it was the "man" who was vanquished.

And, anticlimactically, so was Esav transformed. According to the sages, he indeed had been intent upon attacking Jacob. But, for some inexplicable reason, he became merciful at that moment. The Torah has dots on top of the word "And he kissed him" to indicate that this was a special event that happened in that moment. How did it happen?

Simple. Esav had planned to kill Jacob. The man standing before him now was Yisrael. He had planned to attack his manipulative brother. Instead, he met a man of God.

Thus, I firmly believe that when the State of Israel behaves according to her name, Yisrael, people will see a nation of God.