Yaakov—A role model for Yamim Norayim
We are going through the month of Elul and obviously we find ourselves again after a year in the same place of scrutinizing our interior, our actions during the past year, and we return to prepare ourselves to face the divine court for the burden of our actions. The good and bad, both that are tipping the balance.
And in this award-punishment scheme that our tradition teaches us, in which we must repent to "renew the life contract" with the Lord and ensure a better existence, the story of our patriarch Yaakov comes back to my mind.
Let's quickly review some facts of his story. Two twin brothers, Yaakov and Esav, completely different both physically and attitudinally, who fight over absolutely everything. His parents, Yitzchak and Rivkah, in an approach known in many current families, far from struggling so that these asymmetries were smoothed out between them, take sides each with a son, making the contrast even more marked. Esav is an impulsive person, accustomed to a rough life and close to his father. Yaakov is a thoughtful shepherd with an intricate mind, who always looks for his benefit and is supported and encouraged by his mother.
The break in the relationship comes when Yaacov, with the help of Rivkahh, deceives his father Yitzchak and steals the bechorah, the blessing of the firstborn sons, from his brother Esav. Furious upon learning of the theft, Esav swears revenge on his brother who, in a skillful move promoted again by his mother, escapes to Haran, to his uncle Laban's house.
And then the question arises: this is our patriarch? Why, having him turned out to be a jealous person who coveted, lied, cheated, stole and ran away hiding from his responsibility for what he had done, does he end up being the person we invoke in our prayers along with Abraham and Yitzchak? Why do our People bear his name, Israel?
The story continues with our third patriarch working on his uncle's land for 20 years. There it is YAAKOV who is deceived by his uncle—for example when, at her wedding, Yaakov’s beloved bride is replaced by her older sister, who was not supposed to remain single before the younger. But Yaakov tricks his uncle again, this time in a cunning ruse to make his share of the cattle grow. The narrative is anew filled with deceit.
Yaakov is the only patriarch who adds to his dubious actions the fact that he was the only one who left the land promised to his parents and settled outside of it. However, after those 20 years, he wants to return; therefore, he will have to face the pending situation with his brother Esav. It is then that he sends emissaries to test the spirit with which his brother is headed to meet him and they return with the news that he is approaching with 400 armed men.
Yaakov prepares for war, invokes the Kadosh Baruch Hu and sends hundreds of head of sheep and cattle to seek reconciliation. Esav refuses the gifts and in a final Hollywoodian scene, hugs his brother and forgives him.
The Rambam in his book Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter 2:10 tells us that "the individual is forbidden to act cruelly and not reconcile with anyone who has committed a fault against him, but must be easy to appease and difficult to anger. When the transgressor apologizes to him, he must forgive him wholeheartedly and soulfully. Even if he made him suffer and committed a great sin against him, he should not take revenge or hold a grudge against him. This is the path of the descendants of Israel.”
In Hebrew there are three words that mean forgiveness: Slichah, Mechilah and Kaparah. Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon identifies in these three terms, which we repeat several times in our prayers these days, three distinct levels of forgiveness. According to Rambam, Slichah is the forgiveness of one with another, Mechilah, of one with God or with life, and Kaparah, the forgiveness of one with oneself—the latter being the most difficult to achieve.
Now, what happened between Esav going hunting for Yaakov, until the brothers' embrace of reconciliation?
“Yaakov was left alone and a man fought with him until dawn. But seeing that he had not prevailed against him, he hit his thigh and dislocated Yaakov's thigh when fighting with him. The man said: ‘Let me go because it is morning.’ But he [Yaakov] said: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ [The other] said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Yaakov.’ He said: ‘Your name will no longer be Yaakov, but Israel, because you have fought with the angel of God and with men and you have won.’ Yaakov asked and said, ‘Now please tell me your name.’ He said, ‘Why do you ask for my name?’ And blessed him there.” (Genesis 32:25-30)
The divine envoy tells Yaakov “...you have fought with the angel of God and with men and you have won.” According to Rambam's concepts, Yaakov was able to advance on Slichah and Mechilah, but he had to retrace his steps to achieve Kapparah.
Forgiveness involves recognizing the situation and renouncing any claim, but above all accepting the imperfection of the human being, who is plausible to make mistakes. Perhaps over and over again, to later achieve reconciliation.
Going back to Rambam, but now to Chapter 3:1, we read that “All human beings have merits and transgressions. He whose merits outweigh his transgressions is a Tzaddik, a virtuous one. He whose faults outweigh his merits is a Rasha, an evil or wicked one. And if the faults are half and half, then it is a Beinoni, an intermediate.”
It's not about not having faults. Surely we have them and we will have them again. It is about recognizing our fallible human condition by then, repairing them, forgiving and being forgiven. But, on top of that, to pursue reconciliation.
Yaakov is part of our Avot for many reasons, and the main ones are that he was able to acknowledge that he had done things wrong, he changed his course and sought reconciliation. Above all things, he sought the three pardons: that of his brother, that of the Lord and that of himself. When the Yamim Norayim arrive, the Terrible Days that include Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, his story helps us to reflect on the last and most difficult level of forgiveness: that of one with oneself.
Let's imitate our patriarch and take advantage of this date that is imposed in our year to harmonize on all levels: Slichah, Mechilah and Kapparah. And let's achieve a better world, with better interpersonal relationships.
Le Shanah Tovah Tikatevu Vetechatemu.
May we be inscribed and sealed for a good year.