D’var Torah: Rabbi Dan Liben (Vayishlach)

After twenty years, Jacob is coming home, and it is time to pay the piper.

So much has changed for him since he left home: Then, Jacob was young and on his own.  Now, he is middle aged, and the head of a large family. Then, he was penniless. Now, he is returning with flocks and servants.

But most important, he left as a fugitive, running from the mess that he had left behind: He had deceived his father Isaac, stolen the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau, and fled in fear of his life.  Now, he returns home to own-up to what he did, not knowing what awaits him or what price he will have to pay.  After twenty years, will Esau welcome him as a brother or seek vengeance long deferred?

Just as he did on the night that he left home, Jacob turns to God in prayer. The difference between those two prayers, however, is huge.  That first prayer had a conditional feel to it.  It is the immature prayer of a kid who thinks he can strike a bargain with God:  IF you, protect me, if you provide for my needs during this journey; if you bring me back home in safety, then You will be my God.

This older Jacob is both wiser and more humble:

And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord, Who said to me, ‘Return to your land and to your birthplace, and I will do good to you.’
I am humbled from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.
Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me, [and strike] a mother with children.
And You said, ‘I will surely do good with you, and I will make your seed [as numerous] as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of multitude.'”


Notice the elements of this remarkable prayer: First, he establishes who he is: I am Jacob, the descendent of Abraham and Isaac, with whom you have a relationship.  Then he allows his heart to turn to God in gratitude, even at this perilous hour, for all that God has given him, and for which he had no right to expect. Only then, does Jacob pour out his heart and ask for help. Finally, Jacob concludes by reminding God once again of the covenantal promises that He had made.

There are many kinds of prayers. The Bible, however, does offer models for us, and none more beautiful than this.  May we bring to our prayers a grateful awareness of the ways in which we have been blessed, even during fearful times; an ability to ask for the help that we need, and a sense of intimacy and relationship with the Source of Life.  Such are the prayers that carry within them their own comfort, consolation and courage.

Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Daniel Liben, Temple Israel of Natick, Schechter Alumni Parent

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