On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Vayishlach: Knowing When to Wrestle and When to Hug

In Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob has a transformative night encounter where he wrestles somebody—but who? Is it a guardian angel, an actual adversary, his conscience, or something else? Rabbi Jacobs talks through his theory, and what we can learn from wrestling—and from hugging—in this episode of On the Other Hand.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a bit of a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Vayishlach, and he asks: when does hugging need to shift to wrestling so you can gain strength?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Vayishlach from the Book of Genesis. That dramatic reuniting of the two twins, of course, Jacob and Esau, they're completely dissimilar, right? It's a little bit like that movie Twins, with Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I mean, they could not be more opposite. And what we remember from last week's parasha is that Jacob had to escape because he feared for his life, that his brother Esau is going to crush him and harm him, because, remember Jacob makes off with Birthright and with the blessing. Well, years have elapsed, and now Jacob is on his way home. And it's the night before. And all of us remember the night before, right, the night before your bar or bat mitzvah, the night before your taking the SATs, your night before you -- fill-in-the-blank. And the night before is a frightful time, and getting a good night's sleep on the night before....not so much...That's not how it works. And Jacob has this moment of separating himself from his wives, and his children, all of his things, and he's left alone. And he has a night encounter that is transformative: transformative of him, but also of this Jewish narrative of ours.

One of the big questions is who done it? All right, we all like a good mystery. Don't you like a mystery, you know, [was it] the butler who did it? Well, the big mystery for the nighttime encounter is: Who is Jacob wrestling with? Is he wrestling with A: a guardian angel of his brother Esau? Is he wrestling with, maybe, an actual adversary? Maybe even his brother Esau, who sneaks across and has this night encounter. Or maybe he's wrestling with his own conscience, wrestling with his own sense of what he did long ago to his brother, and how the years maybe have mellowed or changed him. And it's unclear exactly from the text which of these options is the most valued. Now, it turns out, of course, that this wrestling is hard to completely understand. The word for wrestling is not so dissimilar to the word for hugging. And if you've ever seen two boys wrestle -- I actually, we have two boys and a girl in our family, and I remember many opportunities to see two boys wrestling, and at times I'd look more closely and say, "Are they actually hugging, is this friendly, or is this something more aggressive?" And what's amazing about wrestling is there's something intimate. You have to really be close, and you feel almost that sense of becoming intertwined. Rashi, in getting inside this, says that, he says in Hebrew "she'chovko v'ovko." That one is embracing, and the other is wrestling or fighting. And it's, in some ways, indistinguishable. And there's something, you know, uniting about hugging and wrestling.

So, as we think about this question, it feels like we're also at a moment as a Jewish people, where in particular, thinking about Israel and Diaspora and world Jewry, there's certainly some hugging and there's some wrestling. I think, particularly, of the response to the shooting in Pittsburgh, and it was really important for Israel and Israelis to give their North American brothers and sisters a hug. That's what we needed -- we didn't need to wrestle over, you know, all the complexities. We just needed to know we were somehow bound together. I have to say, as I'm recording the podcast this week, the rockets are flying -- hundreds of them from Gaza, causing not just fear, but actually killing and causing enormous, enormous fear and an apprehension in Israel. And at the same time, Israel needs to feel a hug from us. There are all these complex issues -- believe me, I know them. I live them. This is a moment for us to say to our Israeli brothers and sisters: we're with you and we feel and want to draw close.

But let me zoom out if I could, because this whole image of hugging and wrestling is a brilliant framing that came to us from the leaders of Makom, which is a part of the Jewish Agency. And Robbie Greengrass and Johnny Ariel, two remarkable leaders of Makom over the years, said that the paradigm for Diaspora in Israel has usually been hugging. You know, we don't want anything complex, we don't want to actually, kind of, push and pull around tough issues. And they said -- and I think they're right -- we need to move from hugging alone to maybe be able to wrestle. To wrestle with hard issues, wrestle with the different experiences. It's different to be Jewish in North America than it is to be Jewish in Israel. And one of the things that's happened in the last months, and particularly our work with our partners in Israel, is to actually draw closer. Israelis don't know that much about North Americans and Americans, even though we work hard at it. We send our young people on Birthright, and many trips we actually don't know close up what life is like in many, many core ways. And so, this is a moment of drawing closer and being able to both wrestle, debate, even argue -- but argue from that place of respect, argue from that place of depth, argue from a place of deep love, and to know that that's actually our Jewish tradition. Our tradition isn't simply, you know, to publicly hug one another on big issues. But actually, how do we get in and find the hard pieces of it? And that I think is also part of this narrative of Jacob.

What's amazing is after the -- first of all, he's wrestling, and we think maybe Jacob's around 70 years old. And remember Jacob, he's the guy who loves to sit in the library. He's the guy who loved Hebrew school when you were a kid. He's the guy who just loves reading a book. I mean, going outside, playing football? Not so much. So, here is our Jacob finding his strength. It's kind of remarkable, because you have this -- you know, if I think of our overnight camps. He's probably -- Jacob's more likely to have been at our side tech camp. But in this parashah, he's part of six points sports. He has found his inner strength, and he wrestles -- either with this angel, with, maybe his brother -- who is first of all, not completely recognizable, because it's been 20 years since they've seen each other -- or he's wrestling with himself. But he has strength, and it's powerful. And at the end, right as dawn's breaking, there's this moment where Jacob insists on being blessed by this adversary and comes [out] with a new name. His name will no longer be Jacob, but Yisrael: one who wrestles with God, and with others, and prevails.

And moments after he wakes up from this not very restful sleep -- first of all, he's limping, because in the course of this night's wrestling/hugging, he has wrenched his hip socket. So he limps from this place, and he actually encounters his brother Esau. What's truly extraordinary is he looks at his brother and says, "To see your face is to see the face of God," which -- OK. Remember the whodunit. Well, is that encounter with his brother seeing God? Was the night wrestling with the adversary, was that an encounter with God? Is an encounter with God oftentimes an encounter with our brothers or sisters? Do we learn from that intense activity? That's all part of the backdrop to this story.

And I think, as we take away from this narrative lessons for us. First of all, that each of us somehow be able to develop that weaker side. You know, if we're that Esau-like character and we'd love athletics, to develop that softer side, that more reflective side -- which of course, Esau has, because in the encounter with his brother, he's not thinking about fighting. He's not thinking about harming him. He just hugs his brother. "It's so good to see you." So, Esau has conquered and found his inner quiet. And Jacob has found his inner strength. It's remarkable. Those are two halves in a sense of a whole person.

And you have this notion of reconciliation. You have a feeling of having drawn much closer to these two brothers. I hope at the end of the day with our brothers and sisters in Israel and those of us here in North America will also draw closer. That's what wrestling and hugging can be -- two sides of the same coin. And we'll do that by knowing each other better, knowing the reality of our lives better, and being able to both empathize and understand, and also know when a hug is what is needed, not a wrestling match over tough issues.

So, as you're listening to this, it's also going to be the week of Thanksgiving. There's a lot of hugging and wrestling that comes usually with that turkey dinner. So let's actually, you know, think of this frame as a way to both come to grips with those who are not like us, who are different, but somehow are still a part of us. And in that sense, this narrative gives us the tools for living in a complex world, with complexities and families in the larger peoplehood of ours. And this simple little narrative echoes. So who was it? Was it the angel? Was it Esau? Was it Jacob's conscience? I kind of think it was all of them. But I tend to gravitate towards Jacob wrestled with his conscience. Which, with his inner struggle to come to grips with who he was, and to his brother was, and that can leave us wiser. It can also leave us -- as Jacob was -- physically changed by it. And I think there's so much to grow, so let's know when to hug, let's know when to wrestle, and let's find the closeness -- because either way, you got to be right up close. Not from a distance, not from across an ocean, not from across the country, if it's a relative. Let's draw closer, and in that, let's notice the other for all of our similarities all of our differences. And let's find that inner strength. Who done it? That's up to you. The text leaves it open. But for us, we know who we are. We know who we're becoming. And we know who our siblings can help us to be.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!