A Message for Parashat VaYishlah 2016
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The opening episode of last week’s parashah introduced us to a “changed” Yaakov. A mysterious encounter with God brought him to recognition of a realm that lay beyond his comprehension. Yaakov woke up from his dream “afraid,” and immediately recognized the inexplicable “awesomeness” of his resting place. It was a turning point in the life of a patriarch whose early life was pronounced by rational perception and intellectual manipulation.
Twenty years pass by in Yaakov’s life before we learn of his next significant “God encounter,” at the onset of this week’s parashah. This time in came in the form of a struggle with an unidentified “man” and Yaakov’s ultimate victory. Its preceding act, however, is perhaps most significant:
And Yaakov was greatly afraid, and he was distressed … And Yaakov said: “God of my father Avraham and God of my father Yitzhak! … O save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav, for I fear him, lest he come and strike me, mother with sons. And You Yourself said, ‘I will surely deal well with you and I will set your seed like the sand of the sea, multitudinous beyond all count.’” (32:8-13)
Momentarily relinquishing self-control of the situation, Yaakov begged God for help in his upcoming encounter with Esav. He admitted his human finitude and turned to Him in an act so foreign to the rational-minded folk: prayer.
It is worth contrasting Yaakov’s response in this instance to his specific actions and words following his earlier vision of the ladder.
Yaakov responded then by erecting a memorial pillar, renaming the location, and vowing:
“If God will be with me and guard me on this way that I am going and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safely to my father’s house, then Hashem will be my God. And this stone that I set as a pillar will be a house of God, and everything that You give me I will surely tithe it to You.” (28:20-2)
The memorial pillar and place-renaming were Yaakov’s attempt to exert control of the situation. His conditional vow followed in a consistently “controlled” fashion, as he sought God’s entrance into a deal that granted him continued security in return for his pledged acts of respect.
Though the pesukim clearly describe Yaakov’s extreme fright in both instances, his particular reactions differ greatly from one to the next. With the conditional vow, he sought to be an “equal party” in the deal, pledging his own sacrifice in return for that of God. In prayer, however, he simply screamed for help. Gone was the man whose every action and decision were driven by intellect and rationality, as he poured out his heart to a Being greater than he could ever fathom or comprehend.
Eminent Jewish thinker R. Norman Lamm once responded to the “major complaint of contemporary man” that they cannot bring themselves to pray. Accepting it as an honest objection, R. Lamm argued that the complaint is based on the faulty premise that “the cognitive affirmation of religion must precede its affective relationship.” He explained:
When we are convinced, however, that confrontation precedes cognition, that the existential encounter and the sense of trust have priority over the propositional belief-that aspect of faith, then we shall realize that it is possible by an act of will to locate ourselves in a situation of prayer.
While admitting that prayer will not answer philosophical questions nor resolve theoretical doubts, R. Lamm posited that the force of relationship latent in prayer will nonetheless “take the sting out of them,” and transform the substantive doubts into methodological ones. 
The late R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg z”l similarly remarked:
God’s presence in my prayers is as tangible to me as the presence of a human interlocutor. That is not a proof but rather an immediate experience. Similarly, I do not assert that the sight of someone standing in front of me is proof of the person’s existence. That would be foolish: After all, I see you.
Rav Shagar’s conception of God’s presence in his prayers matched his broader understanding of faith, which lay not in the realm of “proof” but in that of “experience.”
Yaakov’s emotional outpour to God prior to his encounter with Esav must serve as a guide for our approach to prayer. It must remind us of the necessary encounters with God in realms beyond our comprehension, and force us to seek an experiential relationship with Him that will sometimes defy our cognitive capacities.
Recall our broader analysis of the experience and its significance in last week’s devar Torah, “Mystical Moments.”
R. Norman Lamm, Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought (Jersey City, NJ, 2006), pg. 27.
R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 23-4.