I love you, Yaakov avinu! There is no character in all of Tanach who is as accessible to me as he is. First of all, I feel a special connection, because my father was Jacob and my first son is Yaakov. It was very cute when my son was growing up and we would talk about the Torah reading and mention Yaakov. He always wanted to know if we were talking about him or about the Yaakov from mishpachatavinu, the patriarch family (and not from mishpachat Walk.) In contrast, it’s harder to relate to Avraham, Yitzchak and Moshe. I mean, they’re so perfect, so larger than life. With Yaakov, we feel his pain and suffering. Few of us have his scope of problems, but most of us can probably identify with at least one of his trials and tribulations. Before this Torah reading, we’ve already experienced his sibling rivalry, his marriage complications and his father-in-law issues. This week’s Torah reading takes it all to another level.
In our parsha, Yaakov finally encounters Esav with his 400 man army, Dina is raped, Reuven behaves unspeakably, and, most tragically of all, his beloved Rachel dies so very young. Many difficult years later, on his deathbed, he shares with Yosef the pain of losing Rachel: “As for me, when I was coming from Padan, Rachel died to my grief in the land of Canaan on the road...and I buried her there on the way” (Bereishit 48:7). Across the decades, he has never been reconciled to the loss. Here in modern Jerusalem, we live about a mile from Rachel’s traditional burial site. It’s hard to hold the tears when the road signs read “Kever Rachel.” It’s still right there, “on the way.”
The Midrash (Bereishit Raba 92:1) identifies Yaakov with the burdens of Iyov (Job). When Iyov cries about his unremitting sorrows, our Sages see Yaakov: “I have no peace (from Esav), I have no quiet (from Lavan), I have no rest (from Dina), for turmoil has come upon me (the ‘turmoil’ of Yosef.” (Iyov 3:26). As the brothers prepare to take Binyamin down to Egypt in parshat Miketz, and all seems lost, Yaakov sighs in resignation, “If I must be bereaved, then I will be bereaved” (43:14).
That resignation over his plight and acceptance of possible tragedy and bereavement, according to p’shat, refers to the two sons: Shimon, already in Egyptian captivity, and Binyamin, ready to face danger on the road to Egypt. However, the midrash explains that this groan from the kishkes refers to many future catastrophes, especially the dual destructions of the Holy Temples. There are those who suggest that Ya’akov cries in this verse to God as Shadai, “Who declares dai, (enough)!,” because the troubles of the Jewish nation will continue until the advent of the one whose name has the gematria of dai, namely David, the Mashiach.
But is that the totality of Yaakov? Is he only a sufferer? No way! The heroic side is amply described. When Yaakov confronts the mysterious stranger in our parsha, he displays amazing strength and power. This tale holds a special meaning for me this year. I’ve been suffering with sciatica these past few months, which entails terrible pain down the muscles of my left leg. I have never read this episode with such rapture.
The enigmatic antagonist can’t defeat Yaakov, but he can inflict horrible suffering. He touches Yaakov in the hip socket of his thigh, causing excruciating pain (32:26). The stranger then blesses Yaakov: “Your name will no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael. For you have contended (sarita) before God and man, and prevailed” (verse 29). It’s so nice to know that unlike Marlon Brando, Yaakov was a “contender.”
Three times in the Torah, major events are commemorated with mitzvot: once for the world, with Shabbat for the Creation; once for the nation, with Pesach and the Exodus; and only once for an individual, with gid hanashe (the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve) for Y’akov avinu’s encounter with the never clearly identified stranger. This event is that significant.
Because it’s important to understand that the greatest victories come at a cost. Yaakov is called the choicest (bechir) of the patriarchs. Some might think that’s because he sired the twelve tribes, and had only Jewish offspring, which is significant. But it’s really because he overcame hardship. He grew from a quiet homebody into a truly heroic character. Suffering and adversity never prevented him from doing what was right and necessary.
Perhaps no other Biblical character helped to prepare our nation for all the suffering and hardship we have endured b’chol dor vador, in each and every generation. He exemplified the strength of character needed to survive in a world that has continuously bred anti-Semitism. In my humble opinion, we might not have been able to withstand all the disasters of our saga, without this remarkable role model. It’s Yaakov and his beloved Rachel to whom we turn in our darkest hours. The message of the sciatic nerve is as topical in every era as the concepts of Creation and Exodus. Yes, it’s that significant.
Yaakov is so venerated because he withstood every privation he encountered. He is so beloved because we can identify with his suffering. However, the real question is: Can we emulate his perseverance?
Rabbi David Walk, who has recently made aliyah, was a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s education director. He continues to be a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years, he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.