“The Lonely Patriarch”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, the memorable confrontation between Jacob and Esau takes place, a confrontation that is destined to impact on all of subsequent Jewish history.

According to our sages, Jacob prepares himself for the confrontation in three ways: he readies himself for battle, prays to the Al-mighty for salvation, and assembles a tribute for Esau. Jacob divides his camp into two, calculating that if Esau attacks one group, at least the remaining group will survive. Emphasizing that he is unworthy of all the kindness that the Al-mighty has showered upon him, Jacob offers a prayer to G-d beseeching that he be rescued from the hand of his brother Esau. Jacob also prepares an impressive tribute to present to Esau in the hope that it will appease Esau and cause him to welcome Jacob in peace.

In order to secure his own family, Jacob rises in the middle of the night to transfer his wives and 11 children to the other side of the river Jabbok.

After transferring his family, scripture describes Jacob’s condition with the following words (Genesis 32:25): “Va’yee’va’tayr Yaakov l’vah’doh,” and Jacob was left alone. The rabbis are puzzled by this description of Jacob and labor to understand how Jacob wound up alone. The Ramban, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, leading Spanish scholar and Torah commentator) suggests that after helping his family cross the river, Jacob returned to the other side of the Jabbok to join with the remainder of his camp that he had left behind. The Ibn Ezra (R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) and the Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) maintain that Jacob stayed behind to supervise the others as they crossed, and to make certain that nothing was left behind. The Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel b. Meir, French Talmudist and exegete, c.1085-1174, grandson of Rashi) calculates that Jacob purposely stayed behind so that if need be he could flee in the opposite direction.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), however, cites the Talmud in Chulin 91a that states that Jacob had crossed back over the river because he had forgotten “pachim k’tanim,” small earthenware vessels, and had returned to retrieve them.

Some commentators note that Jacob’s readiness to endanger his life for these seemingly insignificant vessels underscores how pious Jews value their possessions. Since everything they possess is earned honestly, even the smallest items are considered valuable. Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (1263-1340, Spanish Biblical commentator) suggests that these vessels were pitchers that were used for carrying water. The vessels therefore were not really “small” earthenware pitchers, but rather earthenware pitchers for the “small” children. The Midrash Tanchuma in Kee Teesah submits that these pitchers were very special vessels that Jacob used to anoint the pillars in Beth El/Luz (Genesis 28:18) and had the capacity to produce an inexhaustible supply of oil. It was one of these same vessels that produced the oil for Elijah the prophet (I Kings 17:16) and later for the prophet Elisha (II Kings 4:1) in their efforts to save two widows from poverty.

A number of commentators, however, interpret this verse metaphorically, implying that Jacob’s remaining alone is symbolic of the existential destiny of the Jewish people. The Jewish people is entirely unique, being the only people who are both a nation and a religion. It is the nation about whom the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam says (Numbers 23:9): “Hen am l’va’dahd yish’koan,” Behold a nation that dwells apart, in all generations and in all times.

The Chassidic leader, Rabbi Baruch of Medzibezh (1757-1810, grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov) states that Jacob’s aloneness is essentially a message to future generations of Jews who experience exile, alerting them that their exile will ultimately culminate in the end of days when G-d will be raised up and recognized “alone” among all beliefs (cited in Iturei Torah).

The Avnei Chayn (also cited in Iturei Torah) employs a terrifying metaphor depicting Jacob’s loneliness as a reminder of the great pain that the Jewish people are to suffer due to assimilation. The observant grandfather who once sat around the table with his family singing Sabbath songs, now sings alone. His children and grandchildren are now busy with their own matters. The fact that, after the encounter between Jacob and the angel of Esau, scripture states (Genesis 32:26): “Va’tay’kah kaf yer’ech Yaakov,” that Jacob’s hip-socket was dislocated, implies that some of those who are to come from the loins of Jacob will stray from the path of tradition. Now, says the Avnei Chayn, the grandfathers can no longer eat in the homes of their grandchildren, because their homes are no longer maintained in a Jewish manner.

The devastating existential loneliness and angst that Jacob experiences, however, ultimately leads him to uncover a new self, a new persona, who is known as Yisrael-Israel, and is able to wrestle with both G-d and with man, and prevail.

Let us hope and pray that the loneliness that contemporary Jewry is presently experiencing will be of short duration, and that we will soon be reunited in song with our young and our old, our brothers and our sisters, our sons and our daughters, as we welcome the arrival of the Messiah.

May you be blessed.