I was privileged to grow up in a family with 12 siblings. While sharing limited living space with that many people can be challenging at times, it is truly a blessing to know that there are 12 people out there who will have my back no matter what.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about a different type of brotherhood: Jacob and Esau. They were a set of nonidentical twins. Not only were they completely different and did not get along at all, the rivalry reached its peak this week after Jacob received his father’s blessings — Esau was planning on killing his only brother!
Rebbeka, their mother, was informed of Esau’s plan and instructed Jacob to flee the Holy Land of Israel to Charan where her brother Laban lived. Jacob spent 36 years on the run and never got to see his beloved mother again.
Just imagine the feeling of having to run for your life — and your only brother is the one chasing you. You would think Jacob would be totally crushed and not have the strength to do anything other than what was necessary for surviving. But the Torah tells us a different story.
This week’s Torah portion begins with the word “vayeitzei” (“and Jacob left”) — words that don’t seem necessary. After all, if he went to Charan, he must have left his home town of Beersheba. One of the lessons we learn from these seemingly extra words is that Jacob knew everything had a purpose. He knew that everything is by divine providence and therefore he was able to find meaning in every situation no matter how undesirable it was. So leaving Beersheba was a meaningful experience and part of his life’s mission. In other words, the fact that the Almighty put him through such a challenging experience must have meant that there was something great to achieve to make it worth it.
The lesson is clear: Whatever situation you may find yourself struggling in, may it be financially, emotionally or physically, understand that you are there because G-d gave you the strength to come out victorious. As with Jacob, when he fled Israel, he was a single man in his 50s. He returned 36 years later with 13 children! Instead of viewing a challenge as a road block, see it as a ladder that G-d is giving you to reach heights you have never thought were possible.
There is a story told about one of the Baal Shem Tov’s students. He was traveling on a ship when a storm broke out and the ship capsized. The man grabbed onto a large piece of floating wood and was miraculously saved and reached a deserted island. Thanking G-d that his life was saved, he began figuring out how to survive alone on this island. Days and months passed, and finally a group of merchants stopped at the island and they agreed to let him join them in the journey back to civilization, though they were not going to his hometown. It took over two years for him to get back home.
On his next visit to the Baal Shem Tov, he asked for help understanding why G-d wanted him to waste more than a year of his life doing nothing. The Baal Shem Tov — who always emphasized divine providence — explained: “Every soul has a mission in this world. Your mission includes the place, time and people you interact with throughout your life. Your soul was destined to elevate that island. By spending those few months there and serving G-d, you elevated that place and that might have been the most meaningful part of your entire life.” pjc
Rabbi Zalman Gurevitz is the rabbi at the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center in Morgantown, West Virginia. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabaim of Greater Pittsburgh.