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Friday, 16 December, 2016 - 9:30 am

 This D’var Torah is dedicated to my dear brother in law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel ben Meir OBM, who passed away this past Sunday.

A climber who fell off a cliff caught hold of a small branch as he fell.

"HELP! IS ANYBODY UP THERE?" he shouted.

A majestic voice boomed through the gorge: "I will help you, my son, but first you must have faith in me."

"Yes, yes, I trust you!" cried the man.

"Let go of the branch," boomed the voice.

There was a long pause, and then the man shouted up again, "IS THERE ANYONE ELSE UP THERE I CAN TALK TO?"

The opening of the 30th chapter of Genesis, which we read last Shabbat, relates a small but disturbing scene. Since Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah, the names of her first four children represented her yearning for her husband’s love. Meanwhile, Rachel, his original choice, was infertile. Her older sister bore her husband four children while she awaited her first. The Torah relates: And Rachel saw that she had not borne [any children] to Jacob, and Rachel envied her sister, and she said to Jacob, "Give me children, and if not, I am dead." And Jacob became angry with Rachel, and he said, "Am I instead of God, Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?"

Jacob’s response seems painfully insensitive and uncharacteristic of their affectionate bond. He was in love with Rachel. He labored for seven years to gain her hand in marriage. The Torah stated three times that he loved her—no other marriage in the Torah merits such a description. Yet when his beloved life-partner expressed her agony and misery over being childless, instead of empathy, her husband responded in rage.

The Chidushei Harim says there is a very profound message in this story. Hope comes when you give up on it. It is precisely when you realize that nobody else can help you, when your vulnerability is completely exposed, when you realize you have no other solution and no way out, that you truly cry, “From whence will come my salvation?!” That is when you open yourself up to the Divine and can experience G-d in your life. That is when you can discover that “My salvation comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!”

Real faith emerges when you have nothing left but faith.

Until age 31, J.K Rowling was a single mom on welfare. She was so poor, she couldn’t afford a computer, or even the cost of photocopying her 90,000-word novel, so she manually typed out each version to send to publishers. It was rejected dozens of times until finally Bloomsbury, a small London publisher, gave it a second chance after the CEO’s eight year-old daughter fell in love with it. Currently, the British novelist is best known as the author of Harry Potter—the best-selling book series in history, which eventually became the best-selling movie series in history

She once said, “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

One day a farmer’s donkey fell into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old and the well needed to be covered up anyway, and it just wasn’t worth it to retrieve the donkey. He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone’s amazement, he quieted down. A few shovel loads later, the farmer looked down the well and was astonished at what he saw. With every shovel of dirt that fell on his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. As the farmer’s neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and trotted off!

The moral of this story is that life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick is to not get bogged down by it. We can get out of the deepest wells by not stopping and never giving up! Just shake off the dirt and take a step up!

The Talmud says that Abraham gave us Shacharit, the morning service; Isaac gave us Mincha, the service at dusk; and Jacob gave us Maariv, the evening prayer. 

This means that Jacob is the one who taught the Jewish people how to find G-d in the night, in a thicket of darkness. This is Jacob’s great legacy to his children. Precisely when you feel most alone, G-d is with you, giving you the courage to hope and the strength to dream. Like the bird that feels the light when dawn is still dark, Jacob bequeathed to his children the capacity to realize that when it seems we have nowhere to turn, we can completely fall into G-d’s embrace.

This would become Jacob’s defining story. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, the Torah states: “Jacob remained alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” What does this mean? Jacob was alone, caught in the thicket of night, wrestling with profound forces attempting to defeat him. Don’t we all have those moments of “night,” when we must wrestle difficult demons in the forms of depression, grief, despair, anger, regret, emptiness?

But Jacob taught us how to “daven Maariv,” how to turn to G-d in the very moment when we feel that nothing is left. He taught us how to have hope precisely when we are on empty and to know what Jacob said when he awoke from his sleep: “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’”

At last, we can return to the exchange between Jacob and Rachel.

Rachel felt hopeless, so she said to Jacob, "Give me children, and if not, I am dead." And Jacob became angry with Rachel, and he said, "Am I instead of God, Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?"

Jacob was not detaching himself from Rachel. He was attempting to convey this message to her—the greatest discovery of his life. “As long as you are relying on me,” he was intimating, “you will not be helped. I am not G-d. No human is G-d. When you rely on man, you can’t truly rely on G-d. And only when you really rely on G-d, will He come through.”

The pain is deep, and yet the faith that carried our ancestors will carry us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death into the light of the promised future that awaits us, the last of all our blessings, but still the greatest, speedily in our days, with the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu. Let us be strong and strengthen one another, until the city whose name means peace at last becomes a true home of peace, and Moshiach comes to redeem us from a long, and bitter exile, may it be now! 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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