December 13, 2019
(This week’s d’var Torah is an interpretation of a sermon by Rabbi Jonathan Sachs of England – I wish you a wonderful Shabbat as I will be in Chicago attending the URJ Biennial.)
We see in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), the story of Jacob’s wrestling match with an unnamed adversary, alone at night. With whom was Jacob wrestling? The text itself calls him “a man.” According to the prophet Hosea, it was an angel. For the sages, it was the guardian angel of Esau. Jacob himself had no doubt. It was God. He called the place of the encounter Peniel, “because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” The adversary himself implies as much when he gives Jacob the name Israel, “because you have struggled with God and with man and have overcome.”
The passage resists easy interpretation, yet it holds the key to understanding Jewish identity. It is not we, the readers, who give it this significance but the Torah itself. For it was then, as dawn was about to break, that Jacob acquired the name that his descendants would bear throughout eternity. The people of the covenant are not the children of Abraham or Isaac but “the children of Israel.” It was only with the division of the kingdom and the Assyrian conquest of the north, that those who remained were called generically Yehudah (the southern kingdom), and thus Yehudimor, in English, Jews.
Names in the Torah – especially a new name given by God – are not mere labels but signals of character or calling. The moment at which Jacob became Israel contains the clue to who we are. To be sure, our ancestors were later called on to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” but we never lost that earlier appellation. We are the people who struggled with God and with humanity and yet survived. What does this mean? One way into the text (to be sure, only one of many) is to ask: what happened next? By reasoning backward, from effect to cause, we may gain an insight into what transpired that night.
The events of the next day are little short of astonishing. We have been prepared for a tense encounter. Hearing that Esau was coming to meet him with a force of four hundred men, Jacob was “very afraid and distressed.” He made elaborate preparations. As the sages said, he adopted three tactics: diplomacy (he sent lavish gifts of herds and flocks), prayer (“Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau”) and readiness for war (dividing his household into two camps so that one at least would survive). Yet when Esau finally appears, all the fears turn out to be unfounded . He “ran” to meet Jacob, threw his arms around his neck, kissed him and wept. There is no anger, animosity or threat of revenge in Esau’s behavior. That is not to say that Jacob’s fears were irrational. They were not. After all, Esau had vowed revenge twenty two years before. The anti-climax when the brothers meet remind us of Roosevelt’s famous words that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Second, and far more consequential, is Jacob’s behavior when the brothers meet. It is little short of extraordinary. First, he “bowed down to the ground seven times,” prostrating himself before Esau. Each of his family members does likewise: The threefold repetition is significant. No less striking is Jacob’s use of language. Five times he calls Esau adoni , “my lord”. Twice he calls himself Esau’s eved , “servant,”. As with his physical gesture of sevenfold prostration, so with his sevenfold use of the words adon and eved , this is the choreography of self-abasement.
How are we to connect this with the wrestling match of the previous night? Surely Jacob had won a victory over his adversary. At the very least he had refused to let him go until he blessed him. The new name implied that henceforth Jacob should have no doubts about his ability to survive any conflict. In essence, Jacob returns to Esau the blessing that he had taken earlier. Now that Jacob has wrestled with God, he himself has a renewed covenant. In addition, the reconciliation between Esau and Jacob allows the descendants to not fear retribution as that feud has ended. We must not hate Esau and his descendants.
The Torah does not ask us to think badly of Esau. To the contrary, it commands us: “Do not hate an Edomite [ie, a descendant of Esau], for he is your brother.” It did however ask us to wrestle, as did Jacob, alone, at night, in the depths of our soul, and discover the face, the name and the blessing that is ours. Before Jacob could be at peace with Esau he had to learn that he was not Esau but Israel – he who wrestles with God and never lets go of the dream to be a sacred people.