A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 12.3.2020

This week’s parasha tells of a momentous occasion in the history of the Jewish people. On his way back to Canaan after a 20-year sojourn in Haran, the patriarch Jacob wrestles with a man (an angel?) through the night. In the morning, having prevailed over the stranger, Jacob insists that the man bless him. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (32:29).

Jacob seems to be a collector of blessings – and he has a peculiar way of getting them. In last week’s parasha, he steals the blessing meant for his brother Esau. This week, he coerces a stranger who is at his mercy for another blessing. This raises a host of questions, not the least of which is: what exactly are blessings, and what are their value that makes Jacob so bent on acquiring them? And for that matter, who has the power to bless whom? Does a blessing convey some power upon the blessed? Is a re-naming actually a blessing? In Jacob’s case, does the re-naming ‘blessing’ somehow compensate for, or correct the circumstances of the blessing that caused him to flee his home in the first place?

In times of crisis and difficulty, we are often asked to “count our blessings.” It’s good advice to be mindful of what we have, rather than focusing on what is wanting. It’s not always so easy to ‘keep our eye on that ball,’ though, especially when the struggles are ongoing. Life, it turns out, is a constant back and forth, an intermingling of blessing and “not-blessing.” Both of Jacob’s blessings were mixed. The first drove him from home for twenty years. The second left him lame (the stranger/man/angel “wrenched Jacob’s hip at the socket”). At the end of his life, he declares to Pharaoh, “The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life…” (47:9). Jacob, multiply blessed, expresses bitterness about the course of his life in his final years… which only adds to our list of questions about blessings. 

Jacob does express thanks and humility before God, as if to recognize that he is, indeed, “blessed.” Filled with anxiety and fear that his brother has raised an army to come and destroy him, he nevertheless says to God, “I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps [i.e. a man of great fortune].” There is the intermingling – gratitude and travail. Maybe we don’t need to “count our blessings” so much as be able to see them through the fog. 

Please accept my blessings (whatever those are!) for a Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.

Rabbi Sam Levine

A few quick notes:

  1. See below for details about a wonderful program that Cantor Kieval has put together for the Cantors Assembly, honoring the shloshim (thirty days) of the great Cantor Moshe Taube, who passed away a few weeks ago. The program will feature the music of Cantor Taube, as well as excerpts from a fascinating interview with him conducted in the 1980s.

  2. Our Israel Now NightShul program begins this Tuesday night. Join our shaliach Tomer Gekler for a fascinating discussion about current trends in Israeli culture and politics.

  3. We are always looking for new Torah and haftarah readers. If you are able to help out on that front, please get in touch with Leah Krakowski (Torah) or Aliza Avital (haftarah). You can get their emails from the office or by asking me.

  4. This coming Friday, we will have Shabbat-a-BimBom. Join us at 6:30 for a fun kids service (email Audrey for link).

  5. Chanukah starts next Thursday night. Be sure and join us on Saturday night for a congregational Zoom Chanukah party. Flyer below.  Also, join us for nightly candle-lighting at the end of evening services (which begin at 6:45, candle-lighting right around 7:00).