Torah from Around the World #192

By: Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor, Vice
President, Philanthropy,

World Union for Progressive Judaism

from Jacob, the Weekend Warrior of Faith

There is a popular expression: “In every life
a little rain must fall.” That is not only true, but very much reflected in the
philosophy and the teachings of Judaism. Judaism is an imminently practical and
rational religious faith which evinces a keen understanding of the human
condition. This is best demonstrated, for example, at perhaps the most joyful
event anyone can experience in one’s life – a wedding. And how does this
remarkable and joyful celebration end? It ends with the breaking of a glass.

There are hundreds of bubbameinses or fairy
tales that are used to describe the reason for the inclusion of the breaking of
the glass, most of them silly at best. However, a study of the custom reveals
that the breaking of the glass is a momentary recognition of the fact that at
this, the most joyful of moments in one’s life, we cannot ever forget that life
will deal us blows, that there will be moments of pain and sorrow and now let’s
get back to the celebration that is life.

The breaking of the glass in a sense is a
prayer – a prayer that those moments of pain that we will, in fact, experience,
are as short-lived as the time it takes to smash the glass and the joy and the
passions that we feel in life will be much more sustaining. That is our prayer.
That is our hope. And often, that is the case.

But we also know that there are those who are
plagued by dark moments where their faith is tried and pain seems not to abate.
That is precisely the position that our patriarch, Jacob, finds himself in this
week’s Torah portion. He’s in fear for his life for his trickery and
deceptiveness in gaining his father’s blessing over his brother, Esau, has
finally come to haunt him. His mother sends him out of the family house for
fear that Esau’s anger will wreck revenge not just on Jacob but the entire
extended family. The pain that Jacob experiences is real and palpable and it
would have been impossible for Jacob to sink any lower in despair. The text
then tells us that Jacob came to a place and he made a pillow out of one of the
rocks and lay down to sleep. Out of his despair, he dreamed a dream and in it
he saw a ladder that connected heaven and earth and angels were going down it
and up it.

This dream was a message that there is a link
between heaven and earth and God was watching over him. And God cared. And when
Jacob awoke he declared, “Surely God was in this place and I – I did not know

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kuk, Israel’s first Chief
Rabbi, taught that this statement reveals Jacob’s sorrow, for he believes that
he is so cursed he couldn’t possibly deserve this gift of the message of God’s
providence, that this was an undeserved gift – a gift that was not the result
of hard work or labor. And had he truly known, had he truly believed, he would
have done something more with his life in his waking hours to deserve the
blessings of God.

This scene is further echoed in the Psalms in
which the psalmist says, “Out of the depths I call to you, O God.” (Psalm 130)
How often do we, in our darkest moments, all of a sudden find a faith that
seems to difficult to express when life seems good for us. How often in moments
of pain do we find prayer easy but in times of joy we find prayer silly. Jacob
finds God in the darkest times of his life. And even then he is so much like
all of us because despite this revelation, this reminder that God is looking
over us, he does not yet have mature faith. After his darkness is lifted and
after he has erected a marker to sanctify the place where this revelation
occurs, he says, “If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey
that I am making and gives me food to eat and clothing to wear and if I return
safe to my ancestral home, then Adonai shall be my God.” (Genesis 28:20) His
grip on faith is tenuous and conditional at best once this dark cloud is

Jacob is so much like all of us. When we
climb out of the depths, faith seems less important. But we should use the
story of Jacob as an object lesson, as an example of what we must overcome: we
must overcome our conditional faith with which so many of us live.

How many of us have stopped to say a blessing
when something wonderful happens in our lives? How often do we pat ourselves on
the back for our luck or cunning or brilliance or strength of will when we
succeed? In our moments of greatest joy we are most alone because we are most
prideful of our accomplishments. And yet it is in our moments of failure that
we seem capable of reaching out and finding God or at least beginning the quest
for God.

As I grow older, I can’t help but marvel at
what some of us do to grab hold of our fleeting moments of youth. There are
people I know whom we call “weekend warriors.” All week long they sit behind a
desk, sedentary. And then, for an hour or two on the weekend, they try to
recapture the glories of their youth in a brutal game of basketball, football
or soccer, only to hurt their bodies and bruise their egos. On the other hand,
there are people I know who go out every day, keeping their bodies in shape,
running or working out, taking care of themselves. And when the opportunity
comes to exert themselves, the effort is easy, for they have already
conditioned their bodies. Prayer is like that. Those of us who don’t practice
it, find it difficult to do. And our sporadic attempts seem fruitless and
unnatural. Yet those who work at it: make prayer and the recognition of God’s
presence in our lives a regular habit, seem better able to do it both in
moments of pain and in moments of great joy.

Jacob was the weekend warrior of the
faithful. He was not adept, and his moments of transcendent recognition seem
forced and conditional. It takes Jacob a lifetime to learn the lessons that we
should all learn now, that we can at any moment in our life say “God is in this
place and I know it!” This we do in community as we gather together in worship
and prayer. This we do in the moments of our joy, when instead of feeling
lucky, we teach ourselves to feel blessed. And this we do in our dark moments
when we need the strength to go on, and the ability to battle the loneliness
that we all feel at our low points with the affirmation that we are not alone
and we are loved.

We are B’nai Ya’akov. We are the children of
Jacob, who in his better moments becomes Israel, as he struggles to break out
of the habits that drag him down. And we aspire to be like Jacob in his better
moments when he is Israel, which is why we say that we are B’nai Yisrael.

Judaism is eminently practical and is a faith
very much based upon the human condition – a condition that finds each of us,
throughout our lives, faced with joys and sorrows, and a faith that encourages
us and teaches us to recognize that in every moment, both good and bad, God is
in this place and it our responsibility, and our privilege, to know it.

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