Finding one’s way to God begins with self-exploration


By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

This week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach, Genesis 32:3-36:43.

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?

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, founder of the chasidic tradition, explained that it is preferable and 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, one should also relate to God as did our ancestors.

The search for God is the underlying theme of Jacob’s life. This was to be a search unique to him, not reliant solely on the discoveries of God made by Abraham and Isaac. Most important, Jacob had to feel worthy of God’s friendship in order to enter into a fellowship with the Divine.

For Jacob to find his way to God, he must first come to grips with his own personality flaws and with the image of God within himself. And that would require a confrontation with his arch-nemesis and twin brother, Esau. He must atone for his sin of deceitfully having stolen the blessings from Esau. He can only meet God with a clear conscience.

Addressing the Almighty, Jacob prays to the “God of my father Abraham and the God of my father Isaac.” The wedge between Jacob and himself — between Jacob and God — is Esau. Only after Jacob can 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, Jacob remained alone and wrestled with an unidentified stranger over whom he prevailed. Our Sages identify this stranger as the angel of Esau. 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 name Yisrael (Israel) from the stranger; he has prevailed against men and God. He has confronted the twin personality within himself: the cheating Esau he desired to become in order to obtain his father’s favor and achieve momentary materialistic enjoyment, and the Esau (and Esau-ism) from within himself. Once he repents and returns his ill-gotten gain, Jacob is ready to accept himself.

After he has successfully wrestled with the stranger — exorcising the guilt created by his jealousy and deception — Jacob is rewarded by seeing God. Jacob calls the place of the encounter Peniel, “because I have seen the Lord face to face, and my soul has been saved.” Jacob found both himself and his God. His struggle and search has ended in victory. The true Jacob has triumphed over himself and has become “Isra-el.”

Afterward, the Torah records that Jacob “came in peace [shalem] to the city of Shekhem.” Shalem can also be understood as complete. He is now, finally, his whole, independent self.

And so he erects an altar to his own God, 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.

Jacob has succeeded in his search for his true self and only then, for his own God. Because of that search, we pray in the Amidah to God as encountered by each of our patriarchs.

Standing on the shoulders of spiritual giants, we pray to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, reminding us to pursue our own personal discoveries of ourselves and then of our own personal God.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

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