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Jacob and wrestling:This week’s torah commentary

Parshat Vayishlach
Genesis 32:4-36:43
Rabbi Denise L. Eger

Bob Dylan sang “the times they are a’changin’”. But it isn’t time that is changed or really even society. The changes reflected in time and societies are those changes that are made in each one of us. Collectively when we learn, grow or even if we give in to peer pressure, political pressure, or social pressure, these have an effect on our beings and our souls. As debate about values, ideals, and methods are exposed and processed, how we reflect on them and yes, actualize the changes impact our day to day lives and our own minds.

We read in this week’s torah portion about our patriarch Jacob wrestling with an angel of God on the night before he encounters his brother, Esau. One way to understand this is as a description of Jacob’s struggle to synthesize what happened between them so many years ago and the anticipation of meeting again. Jacob is not the same as he was when he deceived his father, Isaac for the blessing, thus depriving his brother. Jacob’s experiences in Harran serving his uncle Laban for the hands of wives and the deceptions he endured changed him. Jacob grew up. And now as he sent his wives and children ahead, across the River Jabok before him, Jacob is clearly unsettled. And yet, Jacob isn’t just tossing and turning in his sleep. He is struggling, wrestling with ideas and as our Torah portion, Vayishlach describes it, wrestling, striving with an angel of God.

With what is Jacob wrestling? What does the angel represent? Is Jacob wrestling for what ought to be, or how he ought to be? Is Jacob wrestling for the ideals of moral behavior? Or is he wrestling with the angel of remorse? Or fear?

Our text doesn’t describe the exact issues with which Jacob wrestles only that he strives with a man and is wounded by this person as the sun rises. He refuses to tell Jacob his name but blesses him none the less with a new name. Jacob becomes Israel. In a translation by Everett Fox, Yisrael –is God fighter. Indeed, Jacob believes that the angel or man he fought with is an aspect of the Divine. Jacob names the place of his struggle, Peniel (the face of God) “for I have seen God face to face and my life has been saved” (Gen. 32:31). Jacob is changed by this encounter. He is physically changed because he limps forever after from being wounded. Thus he limps—and walks with impairment. Perhaps it is a physical reminder of the impairment that he caused in his own relationship with his brother so long ago. Also his name is changed from Yaakov to Yisrael. His own name morphs into the name of the people. And he can only be the leader of the people when his own foibles are overcome. But more importantly there is a deeper change in Jacob. He can face his brother (face his fears) with the rising of the morning sun.

Now in truth we know that Jacob has much to answer for. How does one face a brother after so many years who he tricked out of the birthright and blessing? How does one come back to the home country after years of exile in Harran? Now returning with two wives and many children and servants? Indeed his struggle the night before the meeting with Esau with the mysterious visitor leaves Jacob changed forever.

When we strive or wrestle with ourselves and God we too are changed. We change our minds, our psyches, and our essence. But we must let those changes seep deep within us. Wrenching us and perhaps turning us upside down. But those strivings and inner transformations from fear to faith, from darkness to light, from cynicism to hope shape our souls but in turn will lead us to shape our environments. Thus Jacob could become the People Israel. And for each of us we can make impact on our world.