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Chasing Your Demons: Finding Your Friend

  • Chasing Your Demons: Finding Your Friend

    Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43
D'var Torah By: 

Many years ago, I conducted a funeral for a man who died at the age of ninety-four. What I remember most about that funeral was not the fact that he had achieved national recognition as a biologist, but rather that he had four daughters and none of them spoke to each other. I still see them in my mind's eye at the synagogue service, and later at the cemetery, purposely sitting apart and avoiding even the slightest contact with one another.

I thought about them as I read this week's parashah, Vayishlach. After Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright blessing, Jacob fled his home, spent twenty years in the service of his abusive uncle, Laban, and then stealthily, with his wives and children in tow, hurried back to Canaan where he knew he might encounter disaster at the hands of his brother.

In Genesis 32, he stops running. After fording the Jabbok River, he remains alone and wrestles with someone until dawn brakes. One of the great questions of biblical literature is: "With whom did Jacob wrestle?" It seems clear that he wrestled with God because he said, "I have seen God face-to-face" (Genesis 32:31). And yet, the text tells us that "a man wrestled with him" (32:25). That man might have been his vision of Esau or perhaps he was struggling with himself. Haven't we all struggled with our fears and vulnerabilities at some time in the dead of night? Jacob anticipated Esau's arrival with a small army. That's enough for a nightmare.

While we cannot know for certain what occurred that night, Professor Norman J. Cohen from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion suggests that Jacob "was conscious of all the different forces in his life with which he struggled: God, Esau, the side of himself that haunted him like a shadow. He was surely confronting both the human and divine in his life... That night, all the parts of Jacob and all the parts of his life came together, and he would never be the same" (Voices from Genesis, Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 1998, p. 125).

We do know that in the struggle he was wounded and left with a limp. Aren't we all wounded at some time or another, and left with the scars of life's conflicts?

According to the medieval commentator Rashi, when the text states that "the sun shone on him" as he left the place, it refers to the process of healing that was taking place (Genesis 32:32). We get a glimpse of that healing as his brother, Esau, approaches.

Esau expected to meet the old Jacob, full of cleverness and deceit. Yaakov, Hebrew for Jacob, refers to the "heel" (eikev) of Esau that Jacob was holding as the twins were born (Genesis 25:26). But Jacob's name became Israel (meaning: "and he wrestled with God"). Jacob emerged from the nocturnal conflict a humbled man who bows his head low. The brothers embrace and weep together.

Now let us revisit the funeral that I described at the beginning. What might have happened if the sisters had wrestled with their demons? Or what if prayer had led them to explore their own responsibility for their alienation? What if they could see that this estrangement from each other was of no benefit to them other than encouraging self-pity? What if they had taken to heart the prophet Micah's advice, "do justice, love goodness, and walk modestly with your God" (Micah 6:8)? What if asking themselves these tough questions might lead them to family therapy?

Can people really change? Jacob – now Israel – seems to be telling us: yes, they can! Could the sisters change? And what about you and me?

The scar from Jacob's struggle remained. The healing that occurred did not eliminate the limp. Indeed, perhaps the limp was part of the humbling experience and therefore an essential part of the healing process.

Nor did the limp disappear from the memory of his descendents. To this day, Jews who keep kosher do not eat the sinew of the thigh, which is the part of the body where Jacob was wounded by his antagonist (Genesis 32:33).

This story, like so many biblical traditions, is about personal healing and transformation. It teaches us about what we can become. It is filled with symbols of transformation:

  • Jacob stops running
  • his name changes, but the remnants of conflict endure
  • the pain of the wound subsides, but remains a cultural memory
  • the confrontation with – and defeat of – a mysterious opponent opens the way to a new self

If you are a descendent of Jacob/Israel, this story is yours. If you do not happen to be Jewish, this story can be yours as well. It has become part of our shared Jewish, Christian, and Muslim heritages. You can make it your own by studying the text, midrashim, and commentaries, traditional and modern. (You might start by looking at the text and commentaries in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Edition, [New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005.)

You can make the story yours by asking questions:

  • What am I running from?
  • What are my demons, my fears, my scars?
  • What heavy emotional baggage am I carrying, burdens that unnecessarily weigh me down?
  • Who am I afraid of? Who am I estranged from?
  • How can I change for the better and reach out to others?

What if the sisters had read the story of Jacob and Esau's reconciliation and become emboldened to lower the walls that separated them?

Think about this story. Share it family or friends. Talk about the values embedded in it and the opportunities it opens up for each of us.

Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff , past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of ARZA, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey. He is vice president for special projects at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and author of When Elijah Knocks, A Religious Response to Homelessness (Behrman House) and Reform Judaism, A Jewish Way of Life (Ktav).

Vayishlach: The Road to Resolution for Ourselves and Others
Davar Acher By: 
Seth W. Goren

As Rabbi Kroloff rightly writes, change is painful. Whether wrenching a hip or confronting our past, we can't deny the difficulties inherent in wrestling with and overcoming trauma, as Jacob did.

At times, our original injury is so scarring, and the agony linked with possible transformation so intense, that forgiveness on an assigned time line is unrealistic and unfair. In such cases, it's impossible to shift an emotional state on command, either our own or someone else's, explicitly or implicitly demanding, "Forgive him!" or "Feel sorry!" This can have as little effect as commanding, "Sprout wings and fly!"

I've never met the four sisters Rabbi Kroloff mentions, and, in that way, I am like most of you: we can't say why they're alienated, how long they've been that way, what they've done to reconnect, or how we can fix things. For all we know, sitting in the same room may have been a significant, praiseworthy, and difficult advance for them all.

Acknowledging our ignorance might not diminish our sadness at their estrangement or our hope for their reconciliation. I'd suggest, however, that this limitation spur us, as conflict outsiders, to reflect carefully on the advice we offer and to embrace Micah's prescription of humility (see Micah 6:8).

As companion questions to Rabbi Kroloff's, we might consider the following when serving as "noncombatants":

  • What do I know about this situation?
  • What information am I lacking?
  • How do my experiences affect my perspective?
  • How can I intervene appropriately and constructively?
  • How can I support others' progress toward healing?
  • What is so horrific, in either my past or my imagination, that I would find it unforgivable?

The intertwining paths of atonement and forgiveness are similarly arduous and steep, often as obstacle-ridden and years-long as Jacob's road to his reunion with Esau. No one among us can walk someone else's steps or shove that person forward. We are at our best accompanying others when we recognize that these journeys are theirs, not ours, and when we empower them to take risks, seize opportunities, and make choices for resolution and redemption.

Rabbi Seth W. Goren is Director of Repair the World: Philadelphia.

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