Jacob’s Challenging Life

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


As this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, opens, we find a fearful patriarch Jacob sending a huge tribute of flocks and farm animals to his brother Esau, from whom he had fled more than 20 years earlier.

Jacob, whom the Bible (Genesis 25:27) describes as אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים, an innocent man who dwells in tents, seems to be anything but. Jacob’s life is clearly the life of a man who is carrying an extraordinary “pekl,” which in Yiddish means, a “burdensome life.” The traumatic encounter that was about to take place between Jacob and his vengeful brother is but a single example of Jacob’s challenges.

Even before he was born, we are told (Genesis 25:22), that Jacob and his brother Esau, were fighting in their mother’s womb. Early in his life, Jacob develops a hostile relationship with his older brother Esau, after Esau sells his birthright to Jacob in return for a bowl of lentil soup. Esau, however, remains forever resentful of Jacob for taking advantage of his hunger and weariness.

The calamities in Jacob’s life are legion, but many are a result of Jacob’s own actions. Jacob must flee from his parents’ home, because he has tricked his brother out of his blessings by masquerading as Esau.

When Jacob flees to Charan, to escape Esau’s wrath, he runs right into the arms of an equally dangerous character, Laban. Laban deceives Jacob out of marrying Rachel, the woman he truly loved, and Jacob has to work an additional seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage.

The Bible, (Genesis 31:7), testifies that Laban also cheats Jacob out of his wages multiple times. Eventually, Jacob has to run away from Laban’s house as well.

The trials and travails continue. As previously noted, parashat Vayishlach opens when Jacob is returning to Canaan, and is about to confront his brother Esau. But first he is met by Esau’s archangel who wishes to kill him. In that battle, the sinew of Jacob’s thigh is injured, and Jacob walks away limping.

After a challenging reunion with Esau, Jacob heads to Canaan. Soon after he enters the land of Canaan, Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, whose barrenness was also a source of great pain to Jacob, gives birth to her second child and dies in childbirth. When Jacob finally seeks to dwell in peace in Canaan, jealousy and enmity break out between his children. His beloved son, Joseph, is sold into slavery by his brothers.

Jacob never gets to experience peace and tranquility in the land of Canaan. Before he passes away in Egypt, he tells Pharaoh (Genesis 47:9), יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי…מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, “the years of my life… have been few and bitter.” Only when he passes away and is buried in the Machpelah Cave, does Jacob finally “rest in peace.”

Unfortunately, Jacob’s challenging life was not unique. In fact, all of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs experienced much suffering. The entire book of Job features the life of a man who experiences great suffering.

As Jews, we are grateful that despite all the tests and trials, the Jewish people have survived. But, aside from “surviving,” there is little reason to rejoice. The history of our people is replete with the horrors of repeated Jewish suffering, long before the Holocaust. The list is never-ending: the destruction of the first and second Temples; the Bar Kochba rebellion; the exiles of Jews to Assyria, Babylon and Persia; the Spanish Inquisition; the decrees of 1648-1649.

Despite what seems to be the Jewish “destiny” of suffering, few of us today can truly conceive of a life of constant pain and suffering. For most of us, encounters with people with debilitating lifelong illnesses, or those who survive traumatic accidents with little “quality of life,” are infrequent. Of course, we often hear of abused children of drug-addicted parents, born and raised in poverty, but we rarely personally encounter such people. It’s hard for most Jewish people to relate to persistent suffering, and because of our own blessings, we rarely dwell on the lives of the many millions of people throughout the world who suffer daily.

Jacob could have easily said to the Al-mighty, “G-d, why did you choose me? Why must I suffer these many afflictions? What did I do to deserve this?” Jacob’s complaints would be legitimate, even if he did, at times, cause, or contribute to, his own pain.

Despite his many travails, despite his need to flee from his parents’ home, and his experiences of being constantly cheated by Laban, Jacob never despaired. He was determined to make things work. He kept moving forward, confronting his every challenge. He may have been sad, but he never became bitter. In fact, toward the end of his life, when Jacob blesses his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, he proclaims (Genesis 48:16), הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע ,  “May the Angel who saved me from all evil, bless these children.” It’s an amazing statement from the man who suffered so greatly.

While on the topic of despair and bitterness, I’d like to offer words of tribute to an amazing couple, Eydl and Chaim Reznik. I have had the good fortune to meet Eydl and Chaim Reznik in the early years of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service. They have lived in the holy city of Tzfat, Israel for over 20 years. Eydl and Chaim Reznik are parents of six children, some of whom are already married. Six years ago, Chaim was diagnosed with ALS. Today, he can only move his eyes, and communicates through a special computer. Yet, he, together with his family, continues to forge ahead heroically.

A few weeks ago on Erev Shabbat, I had the privilege of speaking with Chaim through his computer. He asked me to share with him a Dvar Torah, which I did. He was overjoyed to hear the words of Torah. He is truly heroic.

Presumably, we can all learn from adversity. However, some degrees of adversity are on an entirely different level. May the Al-mighty not test us the way he tested Chaim Reznik and father Jacob.

Our Forefather, Jacob, teaches us the important lesson of perseverance. So do Chaim Reznik and his family. May he have
רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה , Refuah Sh’laima — a speedy recovery.

May you be blessed.