In the Torah portion Vayishlach, which we just read this Shabbat morning, Jacob spends an entire night and into the dawn wrestling with a man that many interpret to be an angel. When the man/angel realizes he cannot win, he touches Jacob on the hip and dislocates it. Before Jacob lets him go, he insists the man/angel give him a blessing. The man/angel asks Jacob his name and says he will change his name to Israel, which means, “wrestle with Gd”.
Of course there are many discussions about who this man is that Jacob is wrestling with. One of the ideas is that Jacob is wrestling with himself. I would imagine that since he is about to see his brother Esau for the first time in 20 years he is struggling with what kind of man he was when he last saw Esau and who he is now. He’s wrestling with mistakes he’s made in the past. And who hasn’t experienced that before? For me this is a great lesson to apply now and think about who I want to be once quarantine lifts and life starts opening up again. How will I look at the person I have become? What did I do during this time to improve myself or make a difference in the world? Will I be proud of myself or will I be wrestling with some hard truths? As I move into these next few months it’s the perfect time to create some personal goals so when the time comes to get back to some kind of normal, I’ll know I’ve used this time wisely.
This year, more than any other, I’m seeing a brand new relevance in our Biblical ancestors’ stories. Vayishlach has the story of Jacob and Esau reuniting and reconciling after a 20 year hiatus. When they parted, Jacob had stolen the birthright that was rightly due to Esau, the elder brother. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty, and Esau had legitimate beef. Now, 20 years have passed and they are due to meet. They each have livestock, wives, children. They have grown and matured. The story of their embrace is an iconic one for the ages: “ Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Gen 33:4). I tear up a little when I read it, everytime. It gets better. Jacob offers all kinds of gifts to Esau and begs his brother to accept his generosity. He says “accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
Seeing his brother is like seeing the face of God. Jacob knew it, just as we all know it to be true now. There is just no replacement for seeing someone face to face, in the flesh. Zoom is wonderful and connective and has thrown us all a lifeline, no question. But I’m already letting myself feel all the feelings in anticipation of the end of this pandemic. How I’m going to weep when I can embrace my friends, dance on a dance floor at a friend’s simcha, holding hands with friends so I don’t ever have to let go! I’m ready for this kind of reunion. Thank goodness it won’t have to be 20 years like the brothers in this story. Here’s to reunions- real ones- when we get to see the face of God in our friends and family.
Rabbi Saroken’s Take:
Leaving the story of Jacob and Esav’s reconciliation always feels a bit sad to me. After the most moving scenes filled with kisses and hugs and tears and connection, I dread the moment that follows; when Esav enthusiastically suggests to Jacob that they journey forth together. The moment is fraught with eagerness and hope. Sadly, Jacob seems to brush his brother and his family off claiming that they’re going to be moving at a slower pace with all of the people, the nursing babies, the animals, etc. It’s impossible not to feel for Esav as we listen in on their conversation. All of the hopes and dreams he’s had when they reconcile must have turned into more disappointment. But they both carry on and I imagine there’s something that feels more settled within. Soon after we leave this scene in the very same portion, we see Jacob not as a brother, but as a father. He has 11 sons (his youngest, Benjamin, isn’t yet born) and a daughter Dina and let’s just say that things get very difficult for Jacob. His daughter is raped, his sons seek revenge, and Jacob is left silent and angry.
Tonight (Saturday night), we turn to a new part of Jacob’s story and we watch Jacob as a father who’s struggling (again). This time, he’s lost the love of his life Rachel (who died in childbirth while delivering their 12th son) and he’s struggling with his son Joseph who is having dreams of grandeur that diminish the others in the family. Joseph will star in the next set of Torah portions but Jacob will remain a somewhat important part of the story. Ultimately, he will be separated from Joseph for a very long time but (spoiler alert) they too will reunite and when they do, Jacob will confide in Pharaoh that his 130 years of life have been “few” and “hard”.
When we look at Jacob’s life from the outside, it seems to be a strange claim. Yes, it’s true that Jacob had his share of tzuris (hardships and suffering) but he also had a lot of blessings. He married two great women (one who was the love of his life), he had 12 sons and a daughter who all remained devoted to him throughout his lifetime, he acquired great wealth, and even knew the blessing of many grandchildren. And yet, he described his life as hard.
In any moment, we will all inevitably struggle. Especially nowadays – it’s easy to feel like life is hard. It is. This week though, we’ll light the chanukiah and start to bring some light into our homes, our lives and our world. Yes, like Jacob, there will be moments where we will struggle and sometimes feel consumed by darkness, but then (thankfully) there will also be moments that there will be unexpected bursts of light. Please God, those stretches or light or occasional blessings will help us endure.