Our father Jacob is a man in motion. Even in the womb, he struggled to get out. Of all the patriarchs, we know him best. We've followed the ups and downs in his life. He is complex, always changing, ever-growing. Perhaps that is why we, his descendants, are always pressing forward, always taking risks. But by the time Jacob is preparing for his reunion with his brother, Esau, in this week's parashah, he has become reticent and fearful, his bravado gone. Now Jacob knows that there is too much at stake―too many women, children, and possessions.
At this time, before the meeting with his brother, Jacob desires quiet. He chooses to remain alone. But in the dead of the night, Jacob, having left his encampment set up and his servants prepared to placate his brother with gifts, is confronted by a mysterious visitor and once again finds himself wrestling. The struggle continues all night. But what is this encounter about? Who is this ish, this man who cannot overcome Jacob? And why does this incident occur at this time?
At the end of this encounter, Jacob is renamed. From now on, he will be called Yisrael to mark his ongoing struggle with "beings divine and human." (Genesis 32:29) This dramatic gesture moves Jacob/Yisrael forward, but is he transformed? Not really. While his fear and anxiety about facing Esau have been dissipated, during the actual reunion, it is Esau who takes the first step and runs to embrace Jacob.
Many stories that follow this incident show us actions by Jacob that fall short of the ideal. Perhaps this is why Jacob remains our most authentic role model. His late-night encounter teaches us that we are allowed to confront our fears and be turned upside down by them. However, it does not follow that in the morning we will necessarily be new people. At best, we will be improved, more sober, ready to face the challenges of the day. The lesson that Jacob teaches us here is that like him, we must strive to face our anxieties, try to calm them, and then be ready to move on.
There is a Hasidic custom to read this story at the Havdalah service as a reminder that Shabbat is a time for spiritual wrestling. By anticipating the confrontation with Esau, we prepare ourselves to face the week ahead with more clarity of thought, more energy, and more humility. In this way, we move our lives forward, taking with us our strengths and leaving behind our fears.
At the time of this writing in 1997, Rabbi Na'amah Kelman was the coordinator of Beit Midrash, the Liberal Yeshivah in Jerusalem, and rabbi at the Tali Bayit Ve'gan School.
Our Torah portion begins with Jacob's seeking to find ways to make peace with his brother, Esau. After all, Jacob knows that he attained his status through trickery and by deceiving Isaac. Jacob sends an incredible array of gifts to Esau as a prelude to his visit. Upon meeting Esau, Jacob is overcome by his feelings of guilt. He bows down to Esau and treats him as if he were a god. It seems as if Jacob has changed. But who is he? Who has he become?
Jacob himself appears to be asking these same questions. He seems conflicted about how he came to assume his brother's birthright. It took him twenty years to drum up the courage to approach his brother. Even though Jacob had a connection with God during those intervening years, he remains conflicted. But we have come to expect this from Jacob. Whether we examine his relationship with his wife Leah, his brother, Esau, or his God, we see that Jacob's motivations and actions are complicated and multilayered.
In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, we see Jacob the fighter, Jacob the wrestler. We know that we ourselves sometimes fight when we have something to protect. Wars, arguments, and quarrels are the battleground of self-protection. Keep the outside from coming in. Jacob's story is somewhat different. Perhaps it is about a fight to keep the inside from coming out. Perhaps it is also a story of uncertainty leading to clarity of thought and action.
In this parashah, we also see Jacob the skeptic. This is the Jacob who makes deals: "If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father's house―the Eternal shall be my God." (Genesis 28:20-21)
Jacob returns with more wealth than he could have imagined. But despite this wealth, "Jacob was left alone." (Genesis 32:25) He soon finds himself embroiled in a wrestling match with a divine being. The match lasts all night. Jacob refuses to stop wrestling until he is blessed. This is an unusual sequence of events because it is the loser who is "calling the shots." And through the blessing he receives, he is transformed: "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel. . ." (Genesis 32.29). Ultimately, Jacob does change. He grows. He becomes Israel.
Questions for Discussion
- Think about how you changed as you grew throughout your life. Is it possible to change without a significant struggle?
- Prior to his wrestling with the divine being, Jacob returned to see his brother, Esau, with the hope of making amends for his earlier deception of him and their father, Isaac. Jacob lavishes gifts upon Esau and begs his forgiveness. What does this incident tell you about Jacob's own transformation? What has he learned? How has he grown?
- How does Jacob emerge from his wrestling match with the Divine? What does his injury suggest to you?
For Further Reading
Peter Pitzele, Our Fathers' Wells (HarperCollins, 1995)
At the time of this writing in 1997, David Friedman was director of Eisner Camp and the Camping and Youth Department director of the Greater New York Council of Reform Synagogues.
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