This week’s portion continues the story of Jacob’s physical, emotional and spiritual journey, his reconciliation with Esau and the tragedy surrounding the rape of Dina.
As the portion begins, Jacob is returning home after having worked for his uncle Laban. He is with his family, servants and flocks, preparing to meet with his brother, Esau, for the first time since stealing Esau’s birthright many years earlier. Both men are now wealthy and powerful.
Jacob learns the Esau is approaching with 400 men, and Jacob fears that his brother will attempt to exact revenge for the stolen birthright. To guard against this possibility, Jacob divides his camp in two and finds himself alone at night in the wilderness.
Jacob stands open and vulnerable, facing both his worst fears and deepest wishes. It becomes a profound moment of reflection and soul-searching. Perhaps he can now see the truth: his deception of Esau and how he had been manipulated by his uncle Laban.
In her book “Wrestling With Angels,” Naomi Rosenblatt asks, “Was [Jacob] finally ready to emerge from darkness into light, to assume responsibility for leading his clan and fulfilling Abraham’s covenant? Or was it death, the final veil of darkness, that awaited him on the far shore of the river?”
We’re never really alone. Jacob himself taught us that in the beginning of his journey when he awoke exclaiming: “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). And so Jacob wrestles:
That night “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25), and when it became clear that the assailant would not win, he told Jacob: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and humans, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29).
Jewish tradition loves to speculate on with whom Jacob wrestled. Whether it was a man, angel, God, Esau, the spirit of Esau or Jacob himself, it was a transformative experience. Jacob becomes less fearful, more confident in who he wants to be and is able to greet his brother in a glorious moment of fear, humility, acceptance and love.
We are the Children of Israel — God wrestlers, with the ability to struggle and learn, and to correct our course.
Deep and meaningful change cannot happen without facing ourselves and God, and confronting our beliefs, fears and dreams.
Questions for discussion
Does it have to take a crisis in our lives to bring meaningful change toward self-improvement?
The prophet Micah teaches us “to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). How do you do that in your life?
What ideas do you wrestle with? What would bring greater clarity?
What relationships do you wrestle with? How can you bring deeper understanding and love?
Cantor Allen Leider is director of lifelong learning at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.