Vayishlach 5781

Vayishlach 5781


5 Dec 2020

by Rabbi Leah Jordan

Last time we gathered here for Shabbat morning, I spoke about how much I struggle with Jacob’s actions in his early life — his resting of his birthright away from his older twin, Esau, when Esau is famished — his deceit of his blind and aging father, Isaac, to get the firstborn son’s blessing meant for Esau…

I think this week’s story, at last, could soften us toward Jacob… In the passage right before the section Daniel read for us — Jacob struggles with a faceless, nameless entity in the night, and is renamed Israel. And then Jacob goes in the morning after that, at last, to reconcile with his brother Esau. As Daniel, wrote recently, “It’s a very moving piece. The change of name of Jacob to Israel (Yisrael) always moved me. Struggling with God…”

Jacob returns, after many years, to his homeland. He is married now, with many children, and wealthy, and very different, one imagines, from the anxious and imperfect youth who fled his family and his brother’s wrath decades before. And the night before he is to reunite with his brother, he wrestles with a man and is renamed Yisrael. Then he meets his brother and, surprisingly, they are reconciled. What’s going on here?

Rashi believes that Jacob supposes he fought with Esau’s angel that night. This means Jacob’s nighttime wrestling experience is linked very closely with the events of the next day and the reconciliation, pulling those two moments together.

Before night had fallen, Jacob very much believed, and with good reason, that Esau was marching to attack him. As far as Jacob and we know, there is only bad blood between them, and four hundred men seems an overly large number to assemble just to greet your younger brother. Yet, by the next day, immediately upon seeing one another, Esau pardons Jacob. Clearly something has changed, something to do with the man in the night. But although, as Rashi comments, Jacob may believe it was Esau’s angel, we know that it was in fact God, or his messenger. And, indeed, when Jacob does finally see his brother Esau for the first time in years and years, Jacob says, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God,” and falls weeping on his neck. Perhaps Jacob at last sees his brother’s humanity, having wrestled with the Divine. 

Or, as my friend Rabbi Daniel Lichman writes, “The Torah’s repetition of the metaphor “face of God” suggests that encounter with God…we can understand…to mean encounter with the inner self,” and it is this encounter with the Sefl that “enables Jacob to overcome fear, anger and hatred and to genuinely see God in Esau.”

And this renaming, Yisrael, echoes Jacob’s grandparents’ renamings, Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah, and symbolises that Jacob, now Yisrael, truly is taking on his ancestors’ covenant with God as his own. Not so different from when we are called to the Torah the first time by our Hebrew name at our bar or bat mitzvah. Or when we convert and choose our own meaningful Hebrew name. Or choose a different name as an adult. 

The Jewish teaching on this parsha is repeated so often it risks cliche — but, like most cliche, is worth repeating! What does this teach us about the nature of the Jewish people’s relationship with God that the word “Yisrael” means to struggle or wrestle with the Divine? Perhaps that we are not just to follow God’s commandments unquestioningly, but that there is something inherent in being Yisrael that involves struggle.

Or, perhaps, as my Torah teacher Rabbi Shimon Felix writes, Jacob’s wrestling is a reminder to us never to assume that “God is in our side,” that we are surely in teh moral right. That our spiritual ancestor wrestles with the cosmos in the night means that we, too, may be lost in the dark sometimes, unsure if we are making the right choices, and that we should embrace the humility of that, never be so sure of ourselves.

And is of course this “new” Jacob, now Yisrael, the one who has struggled, who finds reconciliation with his brother. One can well imagine how the Jacob of old, sly and superior, would be a character to inspire great anger in Esau, anger enough to amass an armed force. And one can equally imagine how the sight of this new brother, one who has seen God’s face—and now limps from the hip—would be an altogether different sort. It is only in struggling with God that Jacob can come to terms with what he did to his brother, and that Esau can forgive him. Wrestling with God, as the people Yisrael seem commanded to do, leads here to a reconciliation otherwise impossible.

And Jacob is limping. He has been made vulnerable and humble by his struggle. There is a lesson here too. 

Many many years later, when Jacob at last is reunited with his own son, Joseph, in Egypt — after years of grieving Joseph and giving him up for dead, Jacob meets him again in his old age. And Pharaoh, Joseph’s boss essentially, asks Jacob, “How old are you?”

To which Jacob responds–

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַעֲקֹב֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י מְגוּרַ֔י שְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָ֑ה מְעַ֣ט וְרָעִ֗ים הָיוּ֙ יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיַּ֔י וְלֹ֣א הִשִּׂ֗יגוּ אֶת־יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵי֙ חַיֵּ֣י אֲבֹתַ֔י בִּימֵ֖י מְגוּרֵיהֶֽם׃

And Jacob answered Pharaoh, “The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns.” 

Few and hard have been the years of my life, says Jacob. 

Jacob began a callow child– when we met him a couple weeks ago, stealing his brother’s inheritance. Now he wrestles with himself, with an oppositional force, perhaps with his brother, and at last reconciles with himself. Perhaps this too is what the struggle implied in the name Yisrael is about. 

“Few and hard have been the years of my life,” says Jacob years later. But he has changed and learned a great deal, which is perhaps all we too can hope for ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom.