“I get by with a little help from my friends” goes the famous line from the Beatles song. And John Lennon and Paul McCartney are exactly right – it really pays to have good friends who can help you along. It’s especially great to have friends in high places, influential people who can help get you where you need to go. Whether it’s knowing an electrician who will fix your lamp for free or having a friend whose father owns a hotel, relationships can bring mutual benefits. And who isn’t grateful for that?
This week’s parasha, Vayishlach, is the last of the trilogy on Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) life. As of next week we shift gears and start to look at the life of his most famous son, Joseph. But before we do that, we have to finish looking at how the scumbag Yaakov was transformed into Israel – a ‘prince with God’, or perhaps more accurately, ‘one who strives with God’. And it’s pretty exciting stuff!
We left Yaakov last week having had another vision of God and on his journey away from his uncle Laban. Now, Yaakov suddenly receives a message that his estranged brother Esau is coming to meet him – with four hundred men! Yaakov is convinced that Esau isn’t planning a reunion party and starts to jump into action. Present after present is sent to Esau to try and win him over but it seems to no avail – he’s still coming for Yaakov. Yaakov panics and separates his vast wealth into several camps and then, exhausted, spends the night alone, preparing to face his brother the next day. And yet he’s not alone – of all the nights and of all the times, a stranger encounters Yaakov and spends the night wrestling with him. Not exactly ideal preparation for certain death in the morning! The stranger, who turns out to be a heavenly messenger finally breaks Yaakov by wounding his thigh and then leaves him. Limping, Yaakov prepares to face his brother.
I often ask myself why God decided to break Yaakov on that particular night.
I often ask myself why God decided to break Yaakov on that particular night. After all, surely he needed comforting or even strengthening on that night of all nights. Perhaps God was punishing him for all his scumbag deeds that he’d done up until that point? Or perhaps God loved Yaakov so much, that he decided to teach Yaakov the most important lesson of his life on the most important night of his life: dependency.
Perhaps more than any generation before us, we in the West value independence. It’s very much built into the fabric of society, be it with custom-tailored entertainment packages or even in the concept of democratically electing a government. We want to choose – we want what we want and we don’t want anyone else to deprive us of this independence. Our society praises figures who are strong on their own and don’t need the support of others.
While we might like to be strong and independent, at the same time we somehow recognise our intrinsic need for others. The concept of friendship is, after all, based on the concept of interdependence – a need of each other. If we’re going to thrive or even survive in this world, we need to have healthy relationships.
Which is why God breaks Yaakov’s thigh.
Which is why God breaks Yaakov’s thigh. Up until this point, Yaakov’s been doing pretty well on his own – at least that’s what he thought. Through trickery and cunning he’s managed to get rich, escape certain death and have a pretty good life. But that night was the end of the line – God wanted Yaakov to meet Esau when he was at his weakest so that Yaakov would once and for all understand that it wasn’t his cunning that had brought him all that wealth and brought him to that point (see Bereshit/Genesis 33:11). It was God.
We tend to underestimate God’s influence in our lives. I remember as a young boy thinking that God was far away and certainly not interested in the ins and outs of my life. I saw him as a teacher supervising an exam – relatively passive and uninterested, someone who might not see my cheating if I was clever about it. He’d only get angry if I did something really bad.
But this is not the God that we read about in the Bible. The God we read about in the Bible is not only intensely interested in every aspect of our lives, but is also able to govern world events and shape world history. Over and over again in the story of Yaakov we see God intervening to bring about success for Yaakov. Finally, as Yaakov faces his brother Esau, he realises that there’s nothing left that he can do. God has broken him and he has to totally be dependent on God that his brother won’t slaughter him and all of his family. God has changed Esau’s heart over all of the years and instead of revenge, Esau seeks peace. Yaakov survives, but more than that he’s been changed. He’s come to realise that he needs God and that God has always been there for him, smoothing the way ahead of him. In his own words, “Let us arise and go up to Bethel so that I may make an altar there to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” (Bereshit/Genesis 35:3)
We too must come to realise that we need God. Perhaps you think about God the way I used to. Perhaps you don’t believe in God at all. In any case, I want to plead with you to realise your need of Him before it’s too late. For me it happened at age 16 when God revealed to me that I had done, said and thought many wrong things and that I needed someone to forgive me for all of it. I realised that He was the only one who could and that the Messiah Yeshua had already taken the punishment on himself that I deserved when he died and rose again. Thankfully, God only had to break me inside and not outside like Yaakov. But He had to break my pride nonetheless, because pride and dependence don’t belong together.
Looking back on my life shortly afterwards, I could see how God had been silently working in the background in the events of my life to lead me to that point. And since putting my faith in the Messiah Yeshua, I can see how every day, God is working behind the scenes in the events of my life to give me greater dependence on Him and greater trust that He is powerful and able to change my life and the lives of others. To put it another way, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Do I still have problems in my life? Yes, of course (so did Yaakov – see Bereshit/Genesis 34)! But I now know that God is using even the problems to bring about good.
In our day and age, we have to learn the lesson of Yaakov – a dependency on God. Why? Because the reality is, that by ourselves we can do nothing of consequence. We need someone in the background to give us a helping hand to bring about His purposes through us. Why struggle against Him like Yaakov did? Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can please Him through religious rituals or being a good person. Leave your pride and self-righteousness and come to the Messiah Yeshua! Accept his gift of wiping out the debt of all the rubbish you’ve done, just like I did. After all, it pays to have friends in high places.