Parshat Vayishlach begins with Yaakov’s worries over finally meeting Eisav after many years apart. And while that encounter goes surprisingly pareve-ly, his next significant stop, in Shechem, destroys his daughter’s life and almost destroys his family.
It is easy to see that our forefathers had their challenges and even extended periods of difficulty. I think Yaakov had it worst, as we’ll soon see. But even after Shimon and Levi wipe out Shechem, much to their father’s disappointment, Yaakov still manages to go to Beit El, under G-d’s reminding instruction, and declare, “I will build an altar there to G-d who answers me on the day of my distress, and has been with me on the path on which I have gone.”
Not to make light of Avraham or Yitzchak’s challenges, but Yaakov, particularly in the realm of dealing with other people, was in a class by himself. Avraham dealt with the king of Sodom. Once. For one minute. He didn’t live in Sodom. Yitzchak had a couple of encounters with Avimelekh.
But Yaakov lived the first 63 years of his life with Eisav, 20 years with Lavan, and then, in the place where he bought land and tried to make friends, his daughter was abducted, her life destroyed.
And the irony! Even after Eisav and Lavan and meeting Eisav again, we are told that Yaakov came “Shalem” to Shechem. Things were good!
There are a number of possibilities of what Shalem means (one of them being the name of a city): he was healed from his injury from the pre dawn fight; he was “Shalem b’mmono,” that what he gave to Eisav didn’t even make a dent in his wealth; Shalem — he was at peace.
In his first home after coming from Padan Aram, he tried to charm his new neighbors, wanting desperately to fit in, to be liked, to get along with people. And then Shechem came along.
This is all the background to his arrival at Beit El, a place where Yaakov expresses his gratitude to G-d (Bereshit 35:5): “The surrounding nations did not give chase.” That’s the aftermath of the Shechem massacre not having a negative impact on the family.
Bereshit 35:6: “Yaakov came to Luz, in the land of Canaan, with the ‘nation’ that was with him,” in safety from Lavan after making a border between him that will not be crossed.
Bereshit 35:7: “He built the Mizbeach, called the place Beit El, in homage to the spot he had stopped at when he was running from Eisav his brother,” reflecting his being saved from Eisav’s anger.
Despite everything, things are looking a little better for Yaakov, and G-d even affirms his name change to Yisrael. And then he hears about the death of his mother, at the time of the death of Devorah, and then his wife dies. Blow after blow. What a sad life. And we haven’t even gotten to the loss of Yosef and the almost loss of Binyamin, which destroyed his existence over an additional 22 years, all of which leads to the only other time Yaakov expresses happiness in the Torah, when he is reunited with Yosef.
Giving thanks is good. It is also sometimes very hard.
There is a story of a Chassidish rebbe who was known to be joyous and happy. When asked why, he explained that he had a turning point in his life when he was 10 years old. During a difficult time his family was facing, people found him dancing. When asked why he was dancing he explained.
He was very hungry. There was no food. And he became angry at G-d. But before he could express his rage, he realized that he hadn’t adequately thanked G-d for all the good in his life. So he was dancing before the Almighty, to thank Him for all the goodness. Only once he felt he had adequately praised the Almighty did he feel he could complain of his current circumstance.
Are we careful to declare “Modeh Ani” every morning, or to pay attention when we say “Modim” in our Amidah prayers? Are we grateful for the many good moments that come in between the far less frequent trying times and difficult times?
Do those of us blessed with children express gratitude for having been blessed to be parents and grandparents? Do those of us who are not yet parents express gratitude for the goodness in our lives, for the life we might share with another person, for the relatives and friends we have, for other areas in life which give us fulfillment and joy?
The source for goodness and bounty is the Almighty. Maybe our job is to learn from Yaakov that goodness should be noted, and thanks should be expressed, perhaps more often than less often. Certainly, Yaakov knew, goodness sometimes needs to be found within the pain that we are bound to experience.