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Wrestling with God and Family

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Gustave Dore

Torah Talk on Vayishlach 5779

As we work our way through the middle of Genesis we find ourselves in the midst of a sequence of splendid Torah portions, rich in complexity, action and misdeed all blended together with serious family dysfunction. This week’s sedrah of Vayishlach continues the tale of Jacob, the most intriguing of the patriarchs, a man who rises above his own duplicitous nature to become the father of all of the tribes of Israel.

As our story begins, Jacob is returning home to Canaan, having made good in the old country of Sumeria—in Haran, in today’s Turkey near the Syrian border. He has four wives, 12 children—including 11 sons—large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, truly great wealth. As he is about to cross into Canaan he learns that his brother Esau, whom he wronged so seriously just before leaving home in a rush twenty years before, is coming to meet him with an army of 400 men. Jacob is panicked, deducing that Esau is not heading his way with 400 men with spears just to welcome him home.

To try to preserve at least half of his household Jacob divides his family and possessions into two camps, and then carefully arranges a large gift for Esau. That night he goes out onto a small island in the midst of a tributary of the Jordan River, the Jabok, to contemplate his options. While he is there a stranger, called in Hebrew merely ish, a “guy,” comes upon him. The Torah is unclear as to whether this nocturnal visitor is man, angel, a representative of God in some other way or even a character in a dream; some even think it is a personification of his own conscience. In any case, Jacob wrestles with him the rest of the night, and finally as dawn is breaking he prevails over the stranger. His antagonist cannot break away, and before he can escape Jacob insists that the stranger give him a blessing.

It is at this moment that Jacob is blessed with a new name—Yisra’el, Israel, the first time that famous name is used in the Bible. It means either “prince of God” or, more likely, “one who wrestles with God,” and we children of Israel (aka Jacob) have been wrestling with God in one way or another ever since. As the angel tells Jacob “your name shall be called Israel, for you have contended with gods and men and have prevailed.”

Jacob has survived the encounter and the reunion with Esau proves anticlimactic. Esau comes up to Jacob with all his armed men, but instead of attacking him he gives his brother a big hug and a kiss, and if all is not forgiven at least no blood is shed.

The dramatic narrative of Jacob’s struggle and triumph has become a metaphor for our own struggles with belief, and with family baggage. We are all descendants of Yisrael, the one who wrestled with God. If we choose to honestly engage in that process of struggling with our relationship with God, and working towards healing our family relationships, we, too, may triumph and reach our own promised land, as Jacob did.

In fact, it is that very search and struggle that make us the people of Israel, and ultimately gives us a land engaged in that same pursuit.

When we truly are children of the one who wrestled with God, when we choose to wrestle with God daily, we elevate our lives and our experiences. And when we work to heal our families we also strive to imitate our ancestors in building our people. May we work towards both in this holiday season—and in all seasons.

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