Vayishlach by Roberta Baruch - date unknown
Each story in our Torah tells in some measure the story of our lives: a memory that is built from our very protoplasm, a consciousness that surfaces when we find a story that touches us, explains our being, informs our present and portends our future. Torah contains many such stories, and the one I speak about tonight is one that has touched me deeply, troubled me, changed me and continues to tell me who I am, where I come from, and where I am going: The eternal questions, the answer to why I study Torah, why Jews study Torah.
Jacob becomes Israel: I concentrate on only a few verses: Genesis 32:25-32. This cryptic tale takes place during the night after Jacob attempts to mollify his brother Esau - you remember this story, Jacob's mother Rebecca conceived when her husband Isaac asked the Lord to give her a child and she bore twins, Esau the red, the hairy, the hunter, and Jacob. Pay attention! Names are important in the Bible and to our own lives. Jacob, Ja-a-kov. The name evokes laughter, Ja-a-kov. It means the heel in Hebrew. Jacob emerges from the womb holding his brother Esau's heel. It also means to overreach - and to be deceitful. Jacob the overreacher, Jacob the deceitful, who lived, like all overreachers, like all deceiver, in anxiety and confusion.
You remember Jacob took Esau's birthright for a mess of pottage. And Rebecca insisted Jacob steal Esau's blessing. She disguised Jacob when Isaac was old and his eyes too dim to see, by putting hairy animal skins over Jacob's smooth skin. So Isaac gave Jacob Esau's blessing "May God give you the dew of heavens and the fat of the fields the Lord has blessed. Abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you. Be master over your brothers and let your mother's sons bow to you. Cursed be those who curse you and blessed they who bless you."
Esau cried for his own blessing and hated Jacob, harbored a grudge against Jacob and swore to kill him. Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to Haran, to his uncle Laban. There Jacob sees Rachel by the well and falls in love at first sight. There he is deceived by his uncle Laban and marries Leah instead of Rachel. Anxiety and confusion? Jacob often seemed not understand what was happening around him. He fell in love with Rachel but marries Leah of the weak eyes, the elder, tricked by Laban. How did that happen? Jacob didn't know, or did he?? - in this story of intrigue, he may indeed at some level have known, how could he not?? Whatever the motive, whatever the knowledge, Jacob indentures himself to Laban for 14 years to pay for this confusion. He has six sons during those years with Leah. He cohabits with Leah's maid Zilphah and fathers two more and then with Rachel's maid Bilhah and fathers two more after that. People have served him. Finally, after many years of barrenness, Rachel is blessed by God and bears Joseph, and then his last born son, Benjamin - 12 sons, the 12 Tribes of Israel. "Nations shall serve you." No, not quite yet. It is still Jacob. His sons give him nothing but trouble. He bears the blessing of Esau - he has carried out the prophesy of his mother's late conception. He has lived in deceit and with the burden of the blessing.
Twenty years pass - Jacob has become rich. He fears God. He has changed greatly. He now must return home to fulfill the prophesy: to meet his future, he must confront his past. Jacob is still greatly afraid Esau will kill him but he starts his journey and sends a message ahead to Esau. And he sends ahead the rich gifts, the munificent bounty of his 14 years of subjugation, across the stream so that perhaps his brother will forgive him. There is something to be said about these 14 years of indenturehood. What does he learns from those years: can we assume patience? kindness? tolerance? At least we know that he has become financially independent - some call his methods of obtaining that security trickery. Can we be kinder? Maybe those years signify a metaphor of toil, subjugation and ultimately of survival, even prevailing, that brings Jacob to the point where he can give away what he once had to steal. Esau, by now himself rich, does not need the gifts but Jacob remains frightened of confronting his past, and he needs to give the gifts even if Esau does not need to receive them. Jacob stays behind by himself, does not cross the stream, his gifts are sent on but he waits on the other shore by himself. Perhaps he cannot bring himself to confront Esau. He does not know how Esau will be changed after twenty years. Perhaps Jacob is, as Jacob is wont to be, anxious and confused. And not exactly ready to see Esau.
And so to the verses. I use the text from the Jewish Bible according to the Masoretic Text from Sinai Publishing: And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day/And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him./And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me./And he said unto him. What is thy name? And he said, Jacob./And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel, for as a prince has thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed./And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there./And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel; for I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved./And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him and he halted upon his thigh.
There are various translations from the Hebrew of the creature with whom Jacob wrestles. It may even be that Jacob thinks he is wrestling a demon from the stream that he has been afraid to cross. Or it may simply be a man, or a messenger from God, or an angel, or God Himself. Or could it be, as some say, a dream, so that Jacob wrestles with his own unconscious, personified as a man who asks his name?
Emily Dickinson, in "A little east of Jordan," calls Jacob the "bewildered Gymnast" who "found he had worsted God" and "sublimely inverts" the blessing and takes it for herself: "I will not let thee go except I bless thee." She takes the act upon herself and blesses the man, the angel, the messenger of God, God Himself. But Jacob in our story does not bless the other. He wrests a blessing from the man, and gets permanently damaged in the struggle. If we think of this as a dream, the injury may be metaphor - expressed as injury to the thigh muscle, or the hip joint. Whatever it is, Jacob limps, or walks haltingly in the morning to met his brother Esau after twenty years. Jacob is humbled.
The man asks Jacob his name - don't forget names. Jacob replies very simply "Jacob." And the man gives Jacob a new name: "your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and you have prevailed." From Ja-a-kov, the heel, the overreacher, the deceiver, the confused and anxious one, Ya-a-kov-el, the one whom God makes to limp, Ja-a-kov, the laughable - to Israel, the striver, Ya-shar-el, the one whom God makes straight.
Jacob becomes Israel only after he has striven with the mysterious "Beings divine and human and prevailed." Jacob insists on a blessing but the blessing is not specified. How are we to understand this story? The outlines are simple, the words are few, but the psychological impact is profound and powerful. Jacob's very sense of himself - his very self, from the moment of birth - literally hangs on his brother. And his mother. And his mother's view of him as not quite capable - a son for whom she has to lie and prevaricate and manipulate and devise schemes or he will never be able to fulfill her God given prophesy. We are never given a sense of Jacob's actual capabilities. We do not know much about Jacob. We have a physical description: he is smooth. Nor do we know if he is smart, or decisive or courageous, we do not know these things, that is, until he wrestles with the man. Until then, it is his mother who provides us all we know about Jacob - she dresses him in animal skins. She tells him to flee to Haran where Jacob promptly falls in love at first sight - a journey's time away from mom and his first action is to fall in love and then pay for it with 14 years of work.
And what of Jacob's father, Isaac? Is he really fooled by the feel of the animal skins on Jacob's arms? I think not. Isaac asks twice if this is Esau. Is this confusion of old age? Or is this, perhaps, conspiracy? In the end, Isaac bestows the blessing of founding a people on Jacob and Esau again gets a mess of pottage.
What are we to think of these, our patriarchs, our forbears? Isaac and Rebecca have taught Jacob that deceit begets family prosperity, that fulfilling a higher purpose demands conspiracy and manipulation, that the end justifies the means. It is not hard to imagine why Jacob continues to make bad mistakes, continues to be anxious and confused, that it would take divine intervention (if that is how we are to understand the wrestling in the night) to impel Jacob on his journey of change, of transformation, into adulthood.
Confronted by the man, Jacob, true to his name, hangs on. He does not quit even though he has now been broken. And not only does he hang on - he also asks for the blessing for himself. He asks. When he was younger he stole the blessing - his mother inspired, no, required him to receive the blessing - he was it seems a willing co-conspirator - after all, it appears he was some 35 years old at the time of the stolen blessing. But now, wrestling with the man, he demands the blessing, and, as Emily would have it - he blesses the wrestler. No conspiracy. No manipulation. Just straight out - "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
What is the blessing? It is not spelled out in this story. Perhaps the blessing is the new name. Jacob has been afraid to meet his brother. He does not cross the stream. He stays alone on the other side. He wrestles with the man. He is injured. He does not let go until he is blessed. He gets a new name. And in the morning, he limps toward his brother who, perhaps to Jacob's surprise, no longer seems to harbor the grudge, no longer wants to kill him. Again, we are given precious little detail. But Esau too has changed over twenty years. If the ages are right, the twins are now 55 years old. Hard to carry grudges - takes too much energy.
Can we expect that Jacob has changed overnight? Is this a miracle? No, I quote the very next chapter, 33:1: "Jacob saw." We are back to Jacob. But now Jacob is also called Israel. Perhaps two traditions, but intricately interwoven, like our own selves - intricately interwoven parts - not all of one thing or another, but caught by the heel, caught in the circle.
The rest of the Jacob story is summary. The wrestling in the night, I believe, is the denouement of Jacob's life. His son Joseph becomes the focus for the next chapters. But Jacob - Israel - moves at last from childhood to adulthood. Our tradition tells us, in so few words, what it is really like to become an adult. We can limp into our own future no matter what we have been taught, no matter how old we become, no matter how we have been damaged along the way, we continue to have the capacity to grow and change.
Some of my friends have asked me why I chose the story of a patriarch instead of one of the noble women of the Bible. They know I consider myself a feminist - why Jacob? Because I believe Jacob and the blessing he wrests from the man are interchangeable - if you read the passage for the first time it is difficult to know who is talking to whom, which line is whose - "I will not let thee go unless you bless me/I bless you." In the end, it comes to the same thing. Just as it comes to the same thing with male/female and with ends and means. Jacob's gender does not matter in this story. It is Jacob as archetype, Jacob as infant, Jacob as child, Jacob as sibling, Jacob as parent, and most of all, Jacob as striver/wrestler/prevailer, with whom I identify.
At some point in my own life barely knowing what I asked for, and not knowing the bounds of the journey, I asked for truth. And with that search for truth came a name change. I chose it myself. I shall say I chose to change my name but the rabbi can attest that did not come easily: it took several years and in the end, it was not a choice but a blessing.
Remember how important names are. My name, Baruch - it means blessed and praised. It is I who have learned to bless and praise. The promise that Jacob received, the blessing that he wrested from the man, the name change, has power in it. The power frees those of us who either seek it or are given it. Jacob, near the end of his sojourn on earth, called the days of the years of his life short and dark. I hope to be able to say near the end of my days that they have been long and light. I know that my Torah, my story, my heritage, my mess of pottage, my blessing, and my study will continue to bring me light and joy. And so may it be for you also . . .
D'Var Torah for the Portion Va-Yishlach
Judy E. Gross, 29 November 1996
The past several weekly Torah portions have been stories of Jacob -- and Jacob's actions, except with respect to Rachel, have ranged from the ethically questionable to the unquestionably unethical. What we know about Jacob is that he wants a blessing, but he apparently doesn't know any better than we do what the blessing is or how to get it.
First, he thinks that property is the important thing, so he bargains with Esau to exchange a bowl of soup for a double portion of an anticipated large inheritance from Isaac. His mother, Rebecca, then convinces Jacob that what he really needs is a paternal blessing, so Jacob impersonates Esau to get the first-born blessing from Isaac. When he must then flee from Esau's justifiable wrath, Jacob, as part of his dream of angels on a ladder to heaven, dreams that God has blessed him. However, Jacob discounts this blessing and tries to bargain with God for safety and property. He then seems to confuse the blessing with marital bliss. After his uncle Laban cheats him over Rachel and Leah, and over his share of the livestock herds, we arrive at this weeks parsha.
Jacob is heading home, with his two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, one daughter, and vast herds for which Jacob had out-cheated Laban. He is returning to meet Esau, but neither Jacob's nor Esau's motives are clear. Why is Jacob hunting for Esau? Is he looking for trouble, as Rashi criticized him for doing? Does he want to make up? Is he instead hoping that Esau won't really be there? Does he long for a family reunion?
In any case, Jacob sends messengers to look for Esau. They return, reporting that Esau is coming to meet Jacob, and is accompanied by four hundred men. Although the commentators are unanimous that this constitutes a threat, the text is intentionally ambiguous. Was Esau hunting for his brother to get even, or to give him protection, or was Esau hunting for something else entirely? After all, Esau had originally threatened harm to Jacob after Isaac's death -- and the text does not indicate that Isaac had died.
Jacob assumes the worst of Esau. He takes defensive measures with his camp, prays to God for protection, and then takes action to propitiate his bother. He prepares a large gift of 550 valuable animals from his flocks and sends them in groups one after the other in a manner reminiscent of Puss in Boots. Jacob says (in Everett Fox's translation):
I will wipe (the anger from) his face
with the gift that goes ahead of my face.
Afterward, when I see his face,
perhaps he will lift up my face? (Gen. 32:21)
Then he discovers that the blessing he seeks has nothing to do with saving face.
So what happened? Jacob's earlier interaction, especially with Esau, Isaac, and Laban, can all be seen as wrestling matches. Jacob literally wrestles with Esau in the womb, and he figuratively wrestles with Esau over the birthright, with Isaac over the paternal blessing, with Laban over his wives and herds, and with God in his dream, bargaining that if God will give him stuff, he will believe in God.
Then Jacob spends the archetypical long, dark night of the soul. Alone at night, he wrestles with a man. Again, the text is intentionally ambiguous. Is the man really a man, an angel (either good or bad, and maybe even Esau's evil spirit), God, or even Jacob himself? Commentators have chosen all of these interpretations and more, but then most commentators have also described the struggle as more violent than a literal reading of the story seems to support.
Jacob wrestles all night. We know that. We also know that when he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his thigh. Again, the pronouns are ambiguous. However, we have no reason to believe that this is a life or death struggle. One of the beings called he says Let me go for dawn is coming up. One demands a blessing to release the other. The man then asks Jacob his name and changes it to Israel for you have fought with God and with man and have prevailed. (Gen.32:29) To me, this suggests a possibility that Jacob struggled simultaneously against God and a man. That man could have been Jacob.
Jacob asks his opponents name, which the man refuses to answer. Nevertheless, he blesses Jacob. Who blessed Jacob? Why don't we take Jacob at his word? Jacob names the spot Face of God (Peniel) and states, I have seen God face to face and my life has been saved. So Jacob believed he had wrestled with God. I do, too. I also believe that both contestants prevailed.
Jacob was desperately uncertain of his relationship with his brother, himself, and God, so he struggled all night to figure out these relationships. His struggle was with both God and himself. Perhaps these can be called his conscience. When they wrestled, the man asked Jacob, Who are you? - a question reminiscent of Gods query of Adam and Eve, Where are you? and of Cain, Where is your brother?. Did Jacob know who he was? He had lied to his father, saying he was Esau. After a night of wrestling, he knew he was Jacob, but the struggle transformed him. His name was changed to Israel, creating us, a people who must wrestle with God and ourselves to determine our blessing, the meaning of our covenant.
Some commentators object that Jacob could not actually have wrestled God. They are concerned, first, with the corporeal image of God. But we don't have to take it quite so literally. To borrow Steinsaltz's comment on descriptions of angels: any such description must tend to be anthropomorphic because they are ways of representing an abstract formless spiritual reality in the vocabulary of human language. (The Thirteen Petaled Rose, Adin Steinsaltz, pp. 13-14) Second, they are troubled that Jacob defeats the man because the man only won by crippling Jacob. If it were God, how could Jacob have come so close to defeating Him? But this issue presents an interesting issue of translation. According to Fox and some others, the man did not strike Jacob on the thigh but only touched him. (See, e.g., Genesis, Robert Alter, p. 8, n. 6.) To me this sounds suspiciously like a little joke: I could have beaten you with my little finger. The point is clear: God could have destroyed Jacob at any time. He didn't.
And what about the line, "Let me go for dawn is breaking? The traditional interpretation is that demons lose their power in the light, so the man was some sort of angel or demon that could become powerless. But let's turn it around. If Jacob was wrestling God, it had to be in the dark because Jacob would have died if he had seen God's face in the light. So, rather than pleading, this is a warning. Jacob got his blessing, not by pinning his opponent. He earned the blessing by proving that the blessing was worth his life (in contrast to Esau's indifference to it) and by the struggle with himself and God to understand his relationship to God. After receiving the blessing, Jacob asks his opponent's name. Does he hope to control God with His name, or merely end his own confusion? The response is similar to a similar request from Moses, when God answered Moses: I will be what I will be. (Exo. 3:14). No name can contain God's attributes or essence.
Jacob now has God's blessing in two distinct manners: first, he was chosen (before birth) to receive the blessing and carry on the covenant and, second, he earned it by his struggle at Peniel. His guile did not win him the blessing. He still may not have understood the blessing, but at least he had learned that it does not relate to inheritance of property. Where the day before Jacob sent a gift to propitiate Esau, I believe that he now goes a step further to show he is worthy of Gods blessing. I believe that Jacob actually returned Esau's birthright. The substantial gift of property is restitution for the taking of Esau's right to property. In addition, Jacob approaches Esau, calling him my lord and prostrating himself seven times before Esau. The bowing restores Esau's seniority.
Instead of assuming, as many have, that Jacob's servility is merely to ward off an attack, lets assume that one of the things Jacob recognized while wrestling with God and his conscience was that he needed Gods blessing. He did not need Esau's birthright or paternal blessing. Jacob, in fact, acts out a reversal of Isaac's blessing: the younger serves the older. Esau recognizes this for what it is; he runs to meet Jacob and embraces him, although many translations have both embracing each other. With just a touch of irony, Esau tells Jacob to keep what is Jacob's -- but Esau does accept the gifts and the bows, presumably those things that rightfully were Esau's. Esau has gotten all he was ever interested in, his birthright and his father's blessing. And Jacob - Jacob urges Esau to accept the gifts because Jacob has (depending on the translation) enough or everything. He has the blessing from God, which he had learned is what he always had sought.
Esau, then, has reason to forgive Jacob. They embrace, they weep, and Jacob says that looking at Esau was like looking into the face of God. I am fascinated by this remark. Most commentators have decided that this is merely excessively fulsome praise in keeping with Jacob's servility to Esau. But if it is merely extravagant praise, it at least borders on blasphemy. Robert Alter relates it to the themes of Jacob's wrestling scene (including hoping to survive looking at Esau's face like he survived seeing God's face wrestling) (Genesis, Alter, p. 186, n. 10), but I believe that it goes back to the first story of Jacob and Esau wrestling - in the womb. In both cases, Jacob wrestles in the dark to grab a birthright or a blessing. Jacob could not win either struggle in those terms. He had been chosen in the womb to be born second; paradoxically, if he had won the struggle, he would have no longer been chosen for the blessing. When he wrestled with God, he clearly could not defeat God; one touch crippled him. When wrestling with himself and his conscience, Jacob could only win by surrendering to Esau Esau's property and lesser blessings. Jacob did not need to bargain with or deceive either Esau or God to get the blessing. He merely had to face the consequences of his own actions.
Jacob looked at Esau in the same way that he looked into the face of God during his wrestling match -- praying to survive but in the dark about Esau's or God's intentions in the past or for the future and filled with uncertainty, shame, guilt, fear, jealousy, and love. Jacob's whole history (and ours) was bound up in God and Esau - in his lifelong struggle with God for a blessing and with Esau for his birthright - as was his whole future, by genes and family to Esau and to God by his life and by creation of a nation from his progeny.
But Esau got what he wanted and forgave Jacob. Instead of Esau killing Jacob upon Isaac's death, the two sons (with Esau named first, showing that he had regained his birthright), although living apart from each other, together bury Isaac when he died old and satisfied in days. (Gen. 35:29) Their continuing bond is stressed by the immediately following chapter, which is entirely the genealogy of Esau. Esau was not chosen for God's blessing, and his family did not become Israel, but he and Jacob remained tied. They are brothers.
So Jacob learned from the experience, but he did not become a different person. He doesn't quite trust Esau and lies to ensure that Esau would go away and leave Jacob and his family. Similarly, he doesn't quite trust God's blessing, with the covenant to make him a great nation. But there is one major change in Jacob that I am at a loss to explain. After Jacob wrestles at Peniel, or possibly after he and Esau embrace (Rashi points out that wrestling means the same as embracing), Jacob never wrestles again. Jacob, the one who always had a plan and the will and guile to bring it to fruition, becomes passive. When Jacob's daughter, Dinah, is raped, Jacob hears but does nothing. When his sons plan and carry out their revenge on the rapist and his town, although Jacob later berates them, he does nothing at the time to remonstrate with them or to stop them.
Even his beloved Rachel suffers from this change. God tells Jacob to go to Bethel and remain there. Jacob goes but immediately moves his whole family on, which apparently contributed to Rachel's death during childbirth - and only the midwife, not Jacob, is with her when she dies. Immediately after her death, Jacob's son Ruben sleeps with Jacob's concubine; Jacob is silent. And in the Joseph stories, Jacob remains passive, not even bothering to look for Joseph's body when the sons suggest that animals killed his favorite son. And when Jacob is reunited with Joseph after many years, Joseph embraces Jacob; Jacob does not embrace Joseph.
I cannot now explain why Jacob quit wrestling. It becomes even more remarkable because it is clear that this portion presents wrestling with God as our model for working out and understanding our relationship with God, in other words, our blessing, the covenant. Sometimes the wrestling requires arguing with God; sometimes it requires facing our own misdeeds. Sometimes it ends with us embracing our brothers and sisters. But we all wrestle in the dark; that is the only way that we can look into the face of God.