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A Man in Full, Finally

Torah Talk on Vayishlach 5780

What marks a man as an adult? How do we know when he moves from youthful immaturity to become a grown-up, a man in full?

This week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach focuses on the man who is the true father of our nation, Jacob, and the way in which he becomes Israel. Throughout his colorful life, until now, Jacob has been less than a full man. Oh, he has been attractive to women—he has four wives by now. And he has been prolific, having produced 12 children. And he has acquired wealth: cattle and sheep, livestock, real and valuable property. But he has also proven to be a manipulator, a trickster whose most important priority is always his own needs. And while he is a strong, able man, it is his brother Esau who has always been the athlete, the hunter, the toughest guy on the block.

Jacob has never yet met a situation he will not try to manipulate to his own advantage, almost always at the expense of others, including his own immediate family members. Suddenly—admittedly in the face of threatened destruction—he realizes that it is more important to him to save others than it is to save himself.

Jacob is returning to his homeland, Canaan, approaching the border, the Jordan River, when he is informed that his estranged and wronged brother Esau is coming to meet him at the head of an army. Forced to face Esau, he chooses to do perhaps the very first altruistic act of his entire life: he tries to save his family before he saves himself. He divides his family into two camps, sets up a rich present—a bribe—for Esau. And then he confronts his fears.

Jacob gets up in the middle of the night, terrified of the coming encounter with his well-armed and accompanied brother, and goes alone to an island in the river.

We don’t know why he ends up in a famous wrestling match, the cage-fighting-championship-of-Canaan, nor do we know against whom he is wrestling. We only know that Jacob ultimately prevails, at the cost of a serious physical injury, a limp that plagues him the rest of his life. And we know that his name is changed to Israel, the name that becomes our name as a people, Am Yisrael, B’nai Yisrael, the the People and Children of Israel, and the name of the land that will be ours, Erets Yisrael, the Land of Israel.

It is notable that Jacob, in this encounter, shows his physical prowess, as we are taught men must. But it is perhaps most noteworthy that Jacob demonstrates that prowess over someone other than a human opponent. For in Vayishlach Jacob overcomes his own Yetzer, his own nature, which has directed him towards selfishness and manipulation. He becomes for the first time a man in full, and when he rises to meet Esau, limping off to greet him, he does so with the deepest possible commitment to his children, his family, and the future of his people.

It is those commitments that mark how Jacob becomes an archetypal Jewish man, dedicated to the values that ultimately matter most. And it is this moment, this transformative growth that allows the brothers to surprisingly resolve their life-long differences and reunite.

It is that transformation of our own natures, the ways in which we grow from adolescence to maturity, that allow each of us to fulfill the commitments we make. May we learn from Jacob’s struggles what it takes to truly be a man. And may we demonstrate those great qualities, and so go from strength to strength.

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