Seeking Blessings Despite Anguish and Despair
Next week, we will celebrate Thanksgiving. In November, too, our Torah readings take up the story of Jacob. In my mind, these two seemingly different topics dovetail beautifully.
In 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Connecticut Governor Wilbur Cross appealed to the indomitable human spirit in his Thanksgiving proclamation: “It has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator… for the blessings that have been our common lot … for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long search after truth; for liberty and for justice... that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our harvest Home.”
With these mighty words, Governor Cross looked beyond the ravages of the Great Depression that was making life difficult for citizens, inspiring them instead to seek and find the blessings in their lives. It was this same quality that our patriarch Jacob exhibited as he worked to overcome myriad trials and tribulations in his search for God’s blessing.
A blessing?! What right and what hope did Jacob have to seek a blessing from God? Had he not taken advantage of his older brother Esau to extort the lion’s share of the family inheritance from him? Had he not stood before his blind father swearing he was Esau to steal his father’s blessing? Indeed, people often ask: “Why does an unsavory character like Jacob become Israel, the namesake of the Jewish people? Why do you take your name from a trickster and a thief?”
It is a good question, and it has good answers.
First, Jacob more than paid for his evil deeds with 20 years of hard time in the Laban Penitentiary in Haran. Laban tricked him time and again, and Jacob exclaimed, “Often scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night. Sleep fled from my eyes.”
Second, he honestly and eagerly sought Esau’s forgiveness, and did not merely attempt to placate his brother with empty words. The size of the gift of livestock Jacob insisted Esau accept – and to his credit, Esau was reluctant to do so – more than compensated his brother for the loss of the birthright inheritance.
Last, and most important, Jacob is our role model and our namesake because despite every reason for doing so, he refused to give up hope. In him, we see a reflection of our own human traits. He stumbled and fell. He paid for his misdeeds many times over. And when it seemed that all was lost, he wrestled with everything he had been and everything he had done. Amidst his struggle, he proclaimed to the Eternal One, “I will not let You go until You bless me.” (Genesis 32:27)
Though the encounter left him wounded, he wrenched genuine blessing from the depths of his anguish and, like Connecticut’s citizens, inspired by Governor Cross’s wise words, found the ability to face the future with courage and hope. In that, I submit, Jacob is a fitting and apt role model for us all.