My great grandfather served in the Russian army before World War One. The story goes that after he made his way to America, he always had rock candy in his mouth, which is essentially pure sugar. He had been through a lot, and he only wanted sweetness for the rest of his life.
This week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayishlah, tells the story of Jacob’s intense struggle with an angel. Jacob suffers tremendously in his life before this altercation (he has to flee from his parents home for more than twenty years, his brother has sworn to kill him, etc.), and suffers during the fight, and is left with scars afterward (he is injured in the back of his thigh).
The Esh Kodesh (the Piasetzna Rebbe--the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto), in a teaching/drasha from November of 1939, asks why does Jacob feel the need to be blessed by the angel before the struggle ends. The verse reads “Then he [the angel] said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’/וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; .וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי” The Piasetzna Rebbe teaches that at this moment, Jacob was concerned about future generations. There is an old Rabbinic idea that what happens to the parents is a foreshadowing of what is to come to future generations (ma’ase avot siman l’banim/מעשה אבות סימן לבנים). After Jacob encountered and struggled with the angel, and was also injured during that encounter, the angel wanted to leave. Jacob thought, “is this going to happen to my children? After they suffer and are wounded and left with scars, will it be that their salvation will merely be that their oppressors will not be able to do more and that they will not fall into their hands? And now they can just return to the state they were in before they suffered?!?” This cannot be so, only “I will not let you go, unless you bless me/.וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי.” After suffering, God will provide salvation, not solely an end to the suffering.
There is no need for us to compare our sufferings to those of Jacob our Father/יעקב אבינו or to those of the Piasetzna Rebbe for us to recognize that being a human involves going through difficult struggles in life. And the Piasetzna Rebbe is trying to tell us that we should be asking for more than merely the end to that suffering. Life can be bitter at times. We should not just pray for an end to that bitterness. We should hope and ask that life be sweet. May this Shabbat be a taste of sweetness so that we know what we are searching for in the future.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.