Vayishlach - Get Small to Get Big!
Updated: Sep 14
This week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach (Gen. 32:4-36:43) contains the famous scene in which our ancestor Jacob wrestles with an angel and has his name changed from “Jacob” to “Israel”. While we repeatedly study the deep implications of that dream, I believe that we need to spend some time understanding what had happened to Jacob internally that prepared and allowed him to change his life so dramatically for the better.
Immediately prior to the exposition of the dream (Jacob wrestles with an angel all night, wrenches his hip, and gets the new name of Israel: Gen. 32:25-32:30), Jacob and God have a conversation together in which Jacob says to God, “I am unworthy of the all the kindness and truth that You have so steadfastly shown…” (Gen, 32:11). Although for most of his life Jacob had been a bit narcissistic and arrogant, here he expresses a true statement of gratitude, appreciation, and real humility. Jacob finally had recognized that all his gifts had always come from God, and an aspect of true awe and humility had integrated itself into his life.
It is a commonality among the rituals of indigenous cultures that the participant must make himself “small” in order to enter the ceremony. Participants in the Inipi sweat lodge ceremony crawl into the lodge; and my friend Anselmo Valencia z”l, the Chief of the Yaqui taught how the arches of the Yaqui Matechina dancers were designed to force people to recognize their own “small-ness”. It is believed that only through this initial humbling can a person truly rise into their destiny.
We see here in the Torah portion how Jacob expresses that teaching. This verse takes place immediately before Jacob has his transcendent experience of wrestling with an angel and receives the new name of “Israel”. Although it had always been his destiny to be a great leader of the people, it is only when he personally recognizes how small he is that he becomes truly ready to be the forefather of a nation. His prayer of gratitude for God’s gifts of truth and kindness leads to a recognition that he is both small and at the same time extremely important in God’s eyes. Finally accepting the yoke of service, Jacob is now ready to become Israel: the leader of a nation. He understood the deep truth that we are simultaneously small and yet vital to God.
One form of Jewish meditation is called “hisbodedus”, which comes from the roots of the words for both “alone” and “a branch”. The concept is that when we use meditative techniques to become aware of our “alone-ness” we also become aware of our relationship as a “branch” of the Tree of Life. By becoming consciously small through breath and other techniques, we experience our connection to all of Life. As a single “branch” which is so small, we become consciously aware of our connection to other branches (people), leaves, the Tree, the roots, and all that exists in the Universe. By realizing our smallness in relation to Life, we experience the awesomeness of everything. Like Jacob, our lives become the resolution of the paradox of being small and meaningless, and simultaneously being ultimately meaningful in God’s eyes.
Rebbe Simcha Bunim (18th century Poland) taught that every person should have two pieces of paper in their pocket: one saying “I am but ashes and dust”, and the other “For my sake was the world created”. The Rebbe continues that a wise man knows when to take each piece of paper out of his pocket as a reminder of what needs to be known. Jacob knew that both of these statements were true: that we are all but ashes and dust and yet supremely important in God’s plans, and this Torah text demonstrates how he had learned when to embrace each of these concepts.
May each of us always know which piece of paper to read; which concept of spiritual humility and holy arrogance to embrace and at what time; and to always be blessed to become great in our service of being small.
Rabbi Michael Barclay December 4, 2020 18th of Kislev, 5781