Parshat Vayishlach: Genesis 32:4-36:43; Obediah

Three times each day, we begin the Amidah prayer with the words, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God and God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob …” Why the apparent repetition in addressing the Almighty? Why do we not simply say, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God …”?

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin - man smiling in suit and tie wearing glasses
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic tradition, explained that it is appropriate for a person to attempt to discover God on one’s own and to establish a personal relationship with Him. At the same time, however, one should also relate to God as did our ancestors.

The search for God is the underlying theme of Jacob’s life. Most importantly, Jacob had to feel worthy of God’s “friendship” to enter a fellowship with the Divine. First, he must first come to grips with his own personality flaws, with his own inner and truest self and identity, and with the image of God within himself.

That would require a fateful confrontation with his arch-nemesis and twin brother, Esau. He must atone for his sin of having stolen the “blessings” away from Esau; he can then meet God with a clear conscience. Only after Jacob can successfully separate himself from Esau will he be able to confront his own God.

On the night before he is to meet his brother after a 20-year estrangement, the Torah records how Jacob wrestled with an unidentified stranger over whom he prevailed. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that it may have been the Esau within Jacob who is haunting the patriarch with guilt and jealousy.

Jacob receives the victory name Yisrael (Israel) from the stranger; he has prevailed against men and God. He has confronted the twin personality within himself: the grasping, cheating Esau he desired to become to obtain his father’s favor and achieve momentary materialistic enjoyment, and the Esau from within himself.

After his mastery over the angel of Esau, Jacob calls the place of the encounter Peniel, “because I have seen the Lord face-to- face, and my soul has been saved.” The true Jacob has triumphed over himself and has become “Isra-el.”

He erects an altar to his own God, calling it Kel Elokei Yisrael, “God, the God of Israel.” Finally, God is not only the God of his grandfather and of his father, but also the God of Israel, the God of the “complete” Jacob, his own personal God, discovered after many travails and much pain.

Because of his search, we pray in the Amidah to God as encountered by each of our patriarchs, reminding us of our need to pursue our own personal discoveries of ourselves and then of our own personal God.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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