The “Holiday” Season is upon us. There are lots of gatherings of co-workers, friends and families. Some of these gatherings will be reunions of sorts. The people you see only once a year at a cocktail party at a friend’s home. There are the family members who gather for latkes and fly in to visit with one another at Chanukah but may only connect through Facebook and phones during the year. Some of these gathering are wonderful opportunities to make new memories and relive old family tales. But sometimes these gatherings are filled with anxieties of how the family system will work based upon old wounds, hurts and ways of communicating.
In this week’s Torah portion Vayishlach our patriarch Jacob and his brother Esau face such a reunion.
After 20 years in Haran Jacob heads home toward the land of Canaan. He had fled so long ago to his mother’s family. He had deceived his father, Isaac for the family blessing and had gotten his brother Esau to give up his birthright for a simply bowl of lentil stew. When Esau realized not only what he had done to himself but that the self-inflicted wound was compounded by the loss of the blessing he directed his rage at his twin, Jacob and Jacob fled. On the way he encountered God through a dream and began a process of his own spiritual maturation.
In this week’s reading Jacob is renamed. This week he becomes Yisrael-or Israel. It is truly a culmination of his journey towards God. But to make the covenant truly his own, to journey and be in union with the Holy One’s ways he must confront and reconcile a primary relationship in his life He is headed toward reuniting with his twin-Esau. He is returning now, to the Holy Lamd married with children and wealth after fleeing as a young single man with nothing but dreams.
And once again he dreams even as he prepares his family to reunite with the brother he wronged so many years ago. He worries about revenge and built up feeling of ill will through the years. As a result Jacob sends his family to safety and separates them into two camps so that if his brother seeks revenge (and Jacob was warned that Esau was amassing his troops of over 400 men) on Jacob and his family, some would survive.
He sends messengers ahead to meet with his brother, he sends gifts and tries to smooth the waters.
But it isn’t until he wrestles with an angel of God the night before the meeting that Jacob can arise ready for the encounter. One hopes before a meeting to be renewed and refreshed and spiritually strong and ready and centered for such a reunion. But Jacob fought and defeated an angel of God. Jacob demands a blessing even as he is wounded in the encounter. Yet he does rise up stronger with a new name-Yisrael. The Torah tells us his name means, “I have fought with God and prevailed.”
To reconcile with his brother, his twin, Jacob/Israel must encounter and conquer his own inner demons and doubts. He can only spiritually be whole when he recognizes his own weakness. It is ironic that one who must journey on foot is wounded in the thigh, making the journey more difficult. But perhaps in the ins and outs of family we all do that to ourselves.
The challenge of this season of reunions is not to shoot ourselves in the foot, to wrestle with our selves and the past so that we can re-embrace our families and they us. Just as Jacob and Esau kiss and reunite this week. They may eventually go their separate ways but they are spiritually stronger in having made the journey toward each other. And Jacob/Yisrael is stronger in having made the journey towards God.