By Francesco Hayez – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=152649
Vayishlach: What Do We Wrestle With?
by Rabbi Stephen Karol
My favorite Torah portion is Vayishlach, (Genesis, 32:4-36:43) because it was my Bar Mitzvah portion almost 60 years ago. Throughout my life, I have found inspiration and guidance from its messages. So, in considering two questions; “How can we live until we die?” and “How can Torah help us do that?”Vayishlach provides great answers.
At the end of the previous portion, Jacob is “on his journey homeward” with his wives Rachel and Leah, their servants Bilhah and Zilpah, and their 11 children–after 20 years of servitude with his Uncle Laban. Vayishlach begins with Jacob being encountered by “angels of God” as he is traveling “in the land of Seir, the country of Edom” where his brother Esau resides. This is the same brother who swore to kill him for stealing their father Isaac’s blessing. Jacob sends messengers to his brother who are to tell him that Jacob has become rich with animals and slaves. They return with the news that Esau “is coming to meet you, and there are 400 men with him.” Jacob is “greatly frightened (and) in his anxiety,” he divides his camp into two, strategizing that if Esau attacks one camp, the other “may yet escape.”
The question “How can we live until we die?” is literally on Jacob’s mind here. Can you imagine having to face the possibility of death at the hands of a friend or foe who has had 20 years to build up a reservoir of anger and a desire for revenge? Having had no contact with his brother during that time, Jacob’s fear and anxiety are warranted. He anticipates the worst, and it is easy to understand why. In our own lives, we may do something that results in someone else getting angry. Like Jacob, we may choose to run away literally or figuratively and to avoid dealing with what has happened.
However, living with fear for the rest of our lives is not the way to handle this situation. I believe that-in describing what Jacob is going through emotionally–the Torah is helping us to understand that having unresolved conflict is not the way to live.
From a practical standpoint, we could question how Jacob might have approached his brother during those two decades. But, for us, we can wonder if the accumulation of fear and anxiety caused by avoidance in our own lives is worth it. There are many times when we are like Jacob and fear the worst because we just don’t want to deal with the conflict.
So, what does Jacob do with his fear? He prays to God, “Deliver me… from the hand of Esau” and reminds God of the promise that “I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea…”. He prays to God to get him through this potential crisis and reminds God that he has been promised a future that includes none of his offspring getting killed. And then, for good measure, he sends an incredible number of animals for Esau and instructs his servants to tell his brother that they are presents. Getting into Jacob’s head, the text says: “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor.” You could call this a bribe, but I prefer to view it as an attempt to resolve a potential conflict in a way that will benefit both parties.
The lesson I derive from these Torah verses is that we need to seek an end to years of anger and the potential for revenge by being assertive and hopeful that we can make atonement for what happened. That lesson comes from the Hebrew words “achaprah fanav bamincha,” with the first word coming from the root kaf/pei/reish, the same root as the word “kippur.”
Jacob is trying to atone, and he does so in a way that he thinks will satisfy his brother. And, it’s not just about him and his brother anymore. He has a family to take care of, to look out for, to protect. I have found that, as I grow older, I have more of a need to be assertive in trying to resolve conflicts and bad feelings that should have been addressed a long time ago. Having lived with the fear of failure and with thinking about the worst possible scenarios, I have discovered that my faith in God and in myself have given me the confidence to make things right. That sometimes includes confessing to someone that I was wrong or could have behaved better, resulting in our mutual benefit. It is a much better way to live the rest of my life.
It is the next, brief episode that was my Bar Mitzvah portion. After positioning his family and possessions safely, Jacob is by himself, and “a man” wrestles with him “until the break of dawn.” The man injures Jacob in an attempt to get away, but Jacob won’t let go of him until “you bless me.” Jacob is asked what his name is, and “the other” says: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and you have prevailed.” The wrestling match ends, and Jacob realizes: “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The Torah teaches here that it is the Godly thing to do to confront our issues and conflict, to wrestle with them, and to emerge as a new person. I believe that this is what God wants me to do. Like Jacob, the process may cause us to “limp” for the rest of our lives. But it’s worth it.
You can overcome fear by facing your problems, admitting your failings, having faith in God, and assertively wrestling with conflict–emerging with the blessing of becoming a new you.
A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Rabbi Stephen A. Karol is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York. He has been a blogger for and jewish-funerals.org of Finding Hope In The Face Of Death: Insights Of A Rabbi And A Mourner, and his new book, Embracing The Supernatural in Judaism: Signs From Deceased Loved Ones and Stories About The World-To-Come will be published within the next year.