Survival and Mourning
Rabbi Jacob Galinsky was the only one of his family who survived the Holocaust. He himself survived Siberia, the only one on death row to escape. The title of his Hebrew biography is Genesis 32:25: “And Jacob remained, alone.” Alone among his family and fellow inmates, Jacob Galinsky remained.
When another Jacob, Rabbi Jacob Lesin, died in 1977, he was eulogized by Rabbi Jacob Kaminetsky. Jacob eulogized Jacob. The two had been friends in a pre-Holocaust yeshiva. From it, the only Jacob who remained was Rabbi Kaminetsky. In his eulogy, he said of himself, “And Jacob remained, alone.”
This expression is plucked from its context for personal use; it has an existential allure. It also has historical and theological power, as we shall see. Perhaps its power derives from its original context.
Honesty, Values, Struggle
Look at Genesis.
Patriarch Jacob remains behind on the far side of the ford of Jabbok the night before his frightening reunion with Esau, his estranged brother. Jacob has supervised the river-crossing of his family and flocks, but he crosses back over, “and Jacob remained, alone.”
Tradition has it that Jacob recrossed the ford to fetch some forgotten, small jugs because “to the righteous their money is more precious to them than their bodies.” Question: At this critical juncture of his life, why must Jacob recross a ford in the dead of night for insignificant items? Why not just let them be?
Many answers are offered. One is that Jacob was scrupulously honest; nothing he owned had a taint of thievery. This made each of his possessions precious to him. They represent his total commitment to the Torah. Expanding on this, I would say that when a person uses every minute wisely and honestly, he acquires only that which is essential. That is why Jacob needed to retrieve even small jugs, even on the eve of his risky reunion. But wasn’t Jacob wealthy? Even his wealth was essential, as is evident from the large tribute he paid Esau. And so, on the other side of the Jabbok, “Jacob remained, alone.”
Don Isaac Abarbanel says the opposite. He sees “small jugs” as a metaphor. Jacob’s ample possessions, his herds, were no more valuable to him than small jugs. It was his wives and children who were important. Jacob recrossed the ford not to fetch anything, but to make certain that none of his family or servants had been left behind. And Jacob remained, alone, with his values.
This prismatic phrase is not even a whole verse. Look at Genesis: And Jacob remained, alone, whereupon, a man struggled with him. The salient struggle of Jacob at night with this mysterious “man” (in the next verse called a Divine being, or angel) came only when Jacob was alone. Perhaps the power of Genesis is this: The most difficult struggles of life are those we face alone, without support from anyone. And Jacob remained, alone.
Or, Jacob’s aloneness might connote another lonely condition: integrity.
Observe: As Jacob approaches Esau, Jacob is brimming with evidence of his success. He brings his two wives, two handmaids, 11 sons and his servants. As a tribute to Esau, he dispatches 200 female goats, 20 male goals, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 nursing camels with their colts, 40 cows and 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys. Perhaps Genesis’ description of Jacob as alone, across the ford, separated from all of his possessions, is a challenge to his integrity. Perhaps G-d is saying to Jacob:
“I see you now, no longer surrounded by your wealth and family; I see you alone, when no one else and nothing else can testify to your character. No wives, no children, no herds. It is just you, alone. Do you serve Me when you are absolutely alone, without status, external support and character witnesses? Are you for real?”
Perhaps Jacob’s aloneness means that he is replying to G-d:
“Yes, I have the strength and the power to be alone. I serve You because I want to serve You from the depth of my being. Nothing else prompts me, not family, not wealth, not status. If I am all alone in the world, nothing will change.”
Genesis teaches integrity. And Jacob remained, alone.
Of the twin sons of Isaac, only Jacob retains his integrity. Jacob alone is challenged by the angel, since Jacob alone is the heir apparent to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob was born a twin and the two brothers were meant for a joint mission. But it did not work out that way. It is only Jacob whom the enemy of the Jewish mission in history must destroy. And Jacob remained, alone; he alone must be attacked by the forces of evil.
National Destiny and Character
This one Hebrew word, levado, “alone,” reaches into history and theology. Historically, the Jewish people are called “a nation that dwells alone, levadad” (Numbers 23:9). Theologically, “the L-rd alone, levado, will be exalted” (Isaiah 2:17). Jacob, history and theology are interrelated.
Jacob is another name for the Jewish people, for just as Jacob remains alone, the Jewish people is a nation that dwells alone. The name Jacob virtually disappears from the Bible after Genesis, only to reappear in Numbers in precisely the context in which it is “Jacob,” the Jewish people (“how goodly are your tents, O Jacob”) that is called “the nation that dwells alone.”
Jacob, as the patriarch who bears the 12 tribes, can readily be identified with the Jewish nation. It, like Jacob, is alone. But how can Jacob be identified with G-d? In a sense they are equated, as they are essentially isolated, “alone.” “G-d alone will be exalted.” “And Jacob remained, alone.” Jacob’s divine aloneness connotes being above the crowd, “his heart and mind above every concern but what truly matters. He was, so to speak, as far removed from the mundane affairs of his contemporaries, as glorious in his exaltation on earth, as is G-d Himself.”
In the larger sense, the aloneness of Jacob, as a symbol for the Jewish people, is clear. Beginning in ancient Egypt, flowing down to Greece and Rome, on through the Inquisition and Holocaust, the Jewish nation has dwelled alone. But the aloneness of Jacob, the individual Jew, is not so clear.
For individual Jews, aloneness is not only a condition but a challenge. Individual Jews can lose their metaphysical aloneness. Individual Jews can assimilate, lose their uniqueness and shed their identity. Within the nation that dwells alone are Jews who surrender their Jewish soul. Individual Jews struggle with the angel that comes to diminish their identity, and the angel triumphs.
And Jacob remained, alone: this is, yes, a historical reality and metaphysical status, yet also, it is for some Jews an irksome challenge; and thus it is for the Jewish people, at least in this stage of history, a dream.
In three Biblical words — “Va-yivaser Yaakov levado, And Jacob remained, alone” — we have an apt illustration of the Oral Torah. It can project the Written Torah, the biblical word, onto a canvas with infinite shades of meaning. “And Jacob remained, alone” denotes a single moment and place in time, but it extends into survival and mourning, into honesty, values and struggle — into integrity, national destiny and metaphysical character, and surrender. The list goes on, springing infinitely anew since the Torah is rooted in divinity, in infinity.
Forgotten, small jugs: Chullin 91a.
Abarbanel: Gen. 32:25.
Integrity: Shlomo Katz, ed. The Torah Commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Genesis, II (Urim, 2013), pp. 68, 70, 71.
Heir apparent: Leon M. Mozeson, Echoes of the Song of the Nightingale (West New York, NJ, 1991), pp. 30-32; joint mission: P. G. Waxman, “Forced Blessing,” internet essay, citing Sefat Emet, Shem mi-Shmuel, Mishnat R. Aharon and Afikei Mayyim.
Reappearance of Jacob: I thank Prof. Sam Rascoff for this insight.
“Above every concern”: Nosson Scherman, Bereishis, vol. 4 (Mesorah, 1980), p. 1390.
Assimilation: Y. Nachshoni. Trans. Shmuel Himelstein, Studies in the Weekly Parashah: Bereshis (Mesorah, 1996), pp. 201-202.