Friday, November 30, 2012

A Thought on the Parsha


VaYishlach - Going Back for the Pachim Ketanim
"And Yaakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day" (Breishit 32:24).   Who was Yaakov struggling with?   The story strongly hints that this "man" was actually an angel, a representative of God. Thus Rashi, quoting the midrash (Breishit Rabbah 77:3), tells us that this angel was the "prince of Esav", and that this struggle presaged the encounter that Yaakov would soon have with Esav.

It is possible to suggest another interpretation.  For while Yaakov had to struggle against many outside forces throughout his life, perhaps his greatest struggle was within himself.  Even for those inclined to have an idealized view of the Avot, the character of Yaakov presents major challenges.  He takes advantage of Esav to buy the birthright at a moment of weakness and he misrepresents himself to his father to take the blessing intended for Esav (and even his protestations to his mother were more about being found out than about the wrongness of the act).  He even seems to bargain with God: "If God is with me… and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear… then the Lord shall be my God" (28:20-21).   And while Lavan is no paragon of virtue, Yaakov certainly seems to be using every scheme and loophole to get the better of him and maximize his profit from the tending of the flocks.  In short, what we have seen up until now is that Yaakov has lived up to his name: "This is why he is called Yaakov, for he has deceived me / schemed against me twice" (27:36).

Yaakov's greatest challenge, then, is not what is outside of him, but what is inside of him.  He has to grapple with those qualities in himself that lead him to taking the easy way around things, to avoiding conflict and scheming to get his way rather than to tackling his problems head-on, with honesty and integrity. 

He has already made some progress in this area.   By the end of his stay with Lavan, we hear that - regardless of how he may have tried to manipulate the birthing of the sheep - nevertheless, his watching and shepherding of them was done with great self-sacrifice.  As he tells Lavan with full confidence and with justified anger: " This twenty years have I been with you; your ewes and thy she goats have not miscarried … That which was torn of beasts I brought not unto you; I bore the loss of it…  Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes." (31:38-40).  His work ethic, his honesty and integrity were beyond reproach even when there was serious loss of money involved.  He has certainly come quite far.

But perhaps not far enough.  When this parasha opens, we don't know - and perhaps even Yaakov does not know - how he will act when he has to encounter Esav once again.  Will he try some deception?  Will he be honest, regardless of the consequences?  So far, he has taken necessary precautions - splitting the camp in case of war, and sending a peace offering in the hope of avoiding war.  But what will happen if actual war breaks out?  So much is at stake; it would be understandable if he fell back on his old ways.  Who could blame him for doing whatever it would take to protect his family?

It is at this critical juncture - after the preparations and before the actual encounter - that Yaakov is left alone.  Not just physically, but existentially.  Alone with his own thoughts, his own character, his own complex personality.  He must grapple with the different parts within himself, his tendency to scheme and his desire for integrity and honesty.  The person he is grappling with is none other than himself.

Why, ask the Rabbis, was he alone in the first place?  Why did he go back to the camp?  He went back for the pachim ketanim, for the small vessels that he had left behind.   Mostly, he was fine.  He was no longer the schemer that he used to be.  He had grown to be an honest, hard-working man.  Mostly.  But there were still some pachim ketanim, still some small parts of his personality, of himself, that could not be ignored.  Were he to ignore these small vessels, these less than desirable traits, they would undoubtedly resurface, and particularly at times of great pressure or great danger.  It was now, that he must go back for these pachim ketanim.

Yaakov in the end was victorious in his struggle, but it was not a victory in the simple sense of the word.  He did not destroy those vessels, he did not eradicate those parts of his personality.   How could he?  They were part of himself.  Rather - "you fought… and you were able" - he found a way to control this part of himself.  To dictate how these character traits would be expressed rather than letting them dictate to him how he should act.  As my dear friend and colleague Dr. Michelle Friedman has taught me, this is the goal of therapy: to learn to recognize those undesirable parts of oneself, to be able to predict when they may be triggered, to moderate these traits and, most importantly, to choose differently.  To make the wise choice. The goal is integration and control, not eradication.

And so it is with Yaakov.  For this hard work that he has done, this going back into himself for these small vessels, lead to his ability to change himself, to transform.  He is able to confront his own problems head-on, and he is able to confront Esav head-on.  He has become a new man.  He is now Yisrael, no longer Yaakov.  At least, that's what the angel says.  But the very next verse and the ongoing narratives in the Torah continue to refer to him as Yaakov.  So, yes, he is a new man, but he is still Yaakov.  A new and improved Yaakov, a Yaakov who is also a Yisrael, but a Yaakov nonetheless. 

We are who we are.  It is unhealthy and unrealistic to think that we can completely change our personality traits.  What we can do is to have mastery over them.  This is the name of Yisrael: not that you conquered, not that you destroyed, but sarita, from the word sar, master - that you have had mastery.  Mastery over all your adversaries, your external ones and, more importantly, you internal ones.

None of this can happen if we don't go back for those small vessels.  Even if we are mostly okay, if we ignore those traits within us that are still troublesome, that still sometimes lead us to making bad choices, if we are happy with "good enough", then we will fall short.  Yaakov's struggle was a heroic one; one that perhaps not all of us are prepared to undertake.  But it is one that we should aspire to nonetheless.

There are, perhaps, some vessels that we should not go back for.  Some things about us may never change, and we need to learn to make peace with those parts of ourselves.  Yaakov's greatness was first recognizing that the vessels were there.  But his second greatness was knowing that this was something that he could deal with and change.  To quote the serenity prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous: God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed / Courage to change the things which should be changed / and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Most of us, I imagine, too readily put things in the "cannot be changed" category, and give ourselves a pass on doing the work within ourselves that needs to be done.  Recognizing those things that can be changed, going back for those pachim ketanim, however, can be truly transformative.

We are about to enter into a holiday where, according to the Gemara, the people went searching for such pachim ketanim when they could have been satisfied with what they had.  When the Hasmoneans rededicated the Temple, they could have used the impure oil for the menorah.  It was good enough.  That's who they were at that moment - they were impure - and they could have made their peace with that.  But they went looking for the pachim ketanim and they found one with the purest oil.  And then a miracle occurred.   This little oil, found in this small vessel, burned far longer and far brighter than anyone could have imagined.

Chanukah is a holiday that embodies this extra striving.  It allows someone to do a "good enough" job and just light one candle each night.   But it encourages us to replicate the miracle and to strive to do more, to strive for the best, and the best of the best, so that the light will grow and spread.  Let us all do the work that we need to do, going back for those pachim ketanim within us, that will allow us to become our better selves, and allow our inner light to shine forth.

Shabbat Shalom!

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