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).