The stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs, so richly interwoven in the book of B’reisheet (Genesis), are informative, puzzling, thought-provoking and even entertaining. This week’s portion, Vayishlach, contains one of my favorite narratives in the Torah — the incident in which our patriarch Jacob, alone on the shores of the Jabbok river, wrestles with a mysterious personage until dawn.
To understand the context of this conflict, we need to review Jacob’s history. After working for his uncle Laban for 20 years and taking as wives Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel, Jacob is instructed by G-d that it is time to return to his birthplace. Jacob knows all too well this means facing his brother Esau, whom he wronged so many years ago when, by trickery, he obtained Esau’s birthright and blessing as the firstborn. Because of this chicanery and Esau’s subsequent wrath, Jacob had to flee the family home in Canaan.
Jacob hears from his spies that Esau is on his way to meet him and his entourage — wives, children, servants, and flocks — along with 400 well-armed men. He fears Esau is coming to attack him and his family. For reasons the Torah does not explain, Jacob sends everyone else across the river Jabbok, leaving him alone. During the restless night before he is to meet Esau, Jacob is attacked by a being with whom he wrestles until dawn. In the fighting, Jacob’s hip is badly wrenched, yet he will not release his mysterious antagonist. Neither can claim victory when dawn comes, and the entity begs to be released.
The Torah relates: “But he [Jacob] answered, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ Said the other, ‘What is your name?’ He replied ‘Jacob.’ Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.’ Jacob asked, ‘Pray, tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘You must not ask my name!’ And he took leave of him there.”
Our commentators have grappled with this portion for thousands of years. Who was the mysterious wrestler? Was it G-d? An angel sent by G-d? Was it Esau, Jacob’s wronged brother? Or was Jacob wrestling with himself, with his conscience and memories of a life of being a trickster?
The Torah gives us no definitive answer. Further in the narrative, a miraculous event occurs. Jacob crosses the river to meet Esau and his armed men, only to have Esau fall on his neck weeping. Esau sees that which Jacob has not — that Jacob indeed has changed from the wily boyhood brother. Jacob has matured and he will limp the rest of his life as a reminder of the night’s battle.
As Jews, we wrestle with this Torah portion as we seek relevance and guidance for our own lives. Many of us follow the suggestion of one of our sages, Ben Bag-Bag, to turn the Torah over and over to reveal meaning for our time. For me, this begs the question, “With what adversaries are we wrestling with in 2020?”
Three immediately come to mind: the pandemic; the unrest in our country brought into focus by the Black Lives Matter movement; and the broader political and social polarization of our country. These are huge topics, well beyond the scope of this d’var Torah, yet they are topics that do concern us — or should concern us — every day. All involve adversaries whose visages may not be clear, much like Jacob’s mysterious opponent.
Our individual battles, internal or external, can raise the following questions:
How are we dealing with the pandemic? Are we following the guidelines scrupulously or have we erred on the side of personal convenience? Have we found a way to reach out to or help others who might be suffering?
Have we already forgotten the issues giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement because they no longer make daily headlines, or have we decided to learn more about the lives and experiences of our neighbors of color? Do we dismiss their history, because it doesn’t affect us personally, or embrace it and them because of our own definitive story of servitude?
How are we dealing with others whose political or world view differs from our own? Do we dismiss them out of hand, or try to understand why they might think as they do? Following the election, have we reached out to those we know were disappointed, just to let them know we recognize their humanity?
Our Torah portion gives us the paradigm that we are a wrestling people. Jacob’s name is changed that fateful night on the Jabbok to Israel, most often translated as “wrestling with El, G-d, and prevailing.”
We take on our ancestor’s name, as we take on his actions. Forever, we are called to wrestle with the Torah in order to derive meaning, as we always will be called upon to wrestle with the issues of our day. PJC
Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer is spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.