Confronting the Sitra Atra

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43

D'Var Torah By: Burt E. Schuman

Parashah Overview 

  • Jacob prepares to meet Esau. He wrestles with a "man," who changes Jacob's name to Israel. (32:4-33)
  • Jacob and Esau meet and part peacefully, each going his separate way. (33:1-17)
  • Dinah is raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, who was chief of the country. Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi take revenge by murdering all the males of Shechem, and Jacob's other sons join them in plundering the city. (34:1-31)
  • Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin and is buried in Ephrah, which is present-day Bethlehem. (35:16-21)
  • Isaac dies and is buried in Hebron. Jacob's and Esau's progeny are listed. (35:22-36:43)

Focal Point

I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: With my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. (Genesis 32:11-12)

The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip. That is why the Children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob's hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle. (Genesis 32:32-33)

Your Guide 

  1. Why does Jacob say that he is "unworthy of all the kindness that You have steadfastly shown Your servant"? (Genesis 32:11) What does he now understand about his life and his relationship with God?
  2. Have you ever had a moment of insight and recognition similar to Jacob's? How did your life and your relationship with God change as a result? Do you see any connection between such a moment and the events of September 11?
  3. To what extent is Jacob's wrestling with the "man" a consequence of his newfound understanding? To what extent is it a reward?
  4. Who do you think is the "man" who wrestles with Jacob? Does he represent an external or an internal force? Is Jacob delivered "from the hand of [his] brother" (Genesis 32:12) as a result? Why does Jacob experience this wrestling match alone?
  5. Is it common in the Reform Movement to talk about wrestling with God? To what extent do Jacob's experience and the consequences of this wrestling match mirror our own encounters with God, Torah, and Israel?

By the Way…

  • Pious people think they are unworthy of God's gift, while others think they are deserving of such gifts, and even more. ( Sefat Emet, Itturei Torah, volume 1, p. 293)
  • It is said that Jacob suffered both fright and anxiety [Genesis 32:8]. Fright―that he might be killed by Esau; anxiety―that he might himself be led to kill. (Rashi)
  • Suffering in itself does not heal. Only suffering that has meaning and is accepted willingly has the power to heal and to transform an individual into a whole person…. Jung named this process of growth from one stage of awareness to another individuation. Transformation, or real change of character, can take place in a person only when, through suffering, he engages in an active struggle with the Shadow, the dark side of himself. (Esther Spitzer, "A Jungian Midrash on Jacob's Dream," The Reconstructionist, October 1976, pp. 22-23)
  • Hama bar Hanina said [regarding the "man" who wrestled with Jacob]: It was the guardian Prince [angel] of Esau. To this Jacob alluded when he said to him [Esau], "for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably." (Genesis Rabbah 77:3 on Genesis 33:10)
  • The essence of a nation is not synonymous with its physical appearance but with its spiritual character. No nation disappears completely until the spirit animating it is destroyed and disappears. The spiritual essence animating and distinguishing each people was personified. Just as the king of a nation represents its visible external linking and unifying factor, so its god represents its unifying and coherent inner essence. (Abraham Krochmal, Guide of the Perplexed of This Age)
  • The mysterious being whom Jacob confronts will not let him escape. Perhaps it is that very fact that results in the blessing of a new name for Jacob. He has for the first time in his life refused to run away or dissemble and for that, as a reward, he is now Israel. Jacob's transformation is complete. His very character has turned with the change of name from "heel/deceiver" to Yisrael, explained in the biblical etymology in our own parashah as "one who strives with God" [Genesis 32:29]. (Barry Holtz on Parashat Va-Yishlach in Learn Torah with..., Los Angeles, CA: Aleph Design Group, 1996, pp. 60-63)

Your Guide

  • Do you agree with the Sefat Emet that the righteous ones always believe that they are unworthy? Does Jacob's confession of unworthiness complete his act of t'shuvah (repentance/turning)? If not, what actions by Jacob would complete this process?
  • Do you agree with Rashi's implication that Jacob fears his own actions as much as he fears those of Esau? Why or why not?
  • To what extent is Jacob wrestling with what Esther Spitzer calls his "Shadow"? Whom does the Shadow represent in Jacob's life? Do you agree with Esther Spitzer that only suffering that has personal meaning can lead to individuation and character development?
  • To what degree do you view Jacob's transformation as a symbol of the transformation of the Jewish people? What does this suggest about our people's own national and spiritual growth?
  • Do you agree with Krochmal's definition of our relationship with God as our "spiritual essence"? What message was Krochmal, the leader of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) in Galicia, conveying to his fellow Eastern European Jews in the mid-nineteenth century? Have there been other times in our people's history when Krochmal's thesis has been proven to be correct?
  • Do you agree with Barry Holtz's interpretation of the transformation of Jacob's character? If you do, does this mean that Jacob's t'shuvah (repentance/turning) is now complete?

D'var Torah 

We like to think of ourselves as decent, enlightened, and rational human beings, motivated only by the best of intentions. Yet experience and honest self-examination tell us that even the most righteous and generous among us possess a murky and more hidden aspect of our psyches. Our rabbinic tradition calls this the sitra atra, the "other side."

Our sitra atra can lie deep within our subconscious and disguise itself as virtue. Thus ruthless ambition can masquerade as "work ethic," cruelty and vindictiveness toward others as "honesty and sincerity," vicious gossip and backstabbing as "interest and concern," and two-faced hypocrisy as "keeping the peace." The human capacity for self-delusion is almost limitless.

If the sitra atra is to be confronted, we must first, like Jacob, ford a river. For Jacob, it was the Jabbok; for us, it is the "River of Denial." Then, like Jacob, we must have the courage to wrestle with the murkiest, seediest, and most offensive side of ourselves―the selfish boor within us, the ruthless schemer within us, the gossip and backstabber within us, the racist, sexist, homophobe, "looks-ist" and, yes, the anti-Semite within us. Only when we have the courage to wrestle with the sitra atra until dawn can we acquire the blessing of becoming Israel and the battle decoration of a wrenched hip.

Only when we confront our demons can we begin to free ourselves from their spell and become truly whole.

Rabbi Burt E. Schuman is the spiritual leader of Beit Warszawa in Warsaw, Poland.

Reference Materials

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 217–237; Revised Edition, pp. 218–240;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 183–208

Originally published: