Parashat Vayishlah 5781

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What Goes Around
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayishlah
By Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (’06)

The aphorism “what goes around comes around” is so ingrained in the English language as to seem timeless. I’d always assumed it was from a Shakespearean sonnet, or maybe one of Aesop’s fables.

But a little Googling reveals it to be of a much more recent vintage. The earliest citation I found was from an African American newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, in 1952. Today it refers to getting one’s comeuppance — and not in a good way. But in what appears to be the first time the phrase appeared in print, columnist Nat D. Williams uses it to express a positive sentiment. Williams writes with pride of African American athletes finally getting their chance to prove their ability in the Olympics and in Major League Baseball, offering Black spectators “a surge of pride in seeing the keen minds and well-balanced temperaments of dark-skinned Olympic competitors placed upon the world scales of sport.” This surge of pride was matched by a sense of justice, “that the scales do balance” — in Williams’ words, “that what goes around comes around… that life has its compensations.”

Nobody in Torah experiences more “what comes around goes around” moments than our patriarch, Jacob. The most famous instance is a negative one. Jacob is “repaid” for misrepresenting himself as his older brother Esau by subsequently being tricked into marrying his intended bride’s older sister.

In this week’s parasha, Vayishlah, twenty years have passed since Jacob lied to his father and cheated his brother out of his paternal blessing. Word arrives that Esau himself will be “coming around.” Backed with 400 of his closest buddies, he’s on his way to meet Jacob by the river Yabok.

In abject terror, Jacob sends his wives and children ahead of him. He is left on the other side of the river, alone. If he is to be attacked, the family will be safe. The man who tore his family of origin apart as a youth is now obsessed with keeping his new family secure.

Alone, in the dark of nightfall, Jacob suddenly he finds himself in a struggle, wrestling with a mysterious, unnamed being. An angel? A man? The text tells us that “he saw he could not prevail against him,” and “he struck the socket of his hip” (Genesis 32:26). The pronouns are confusing, ambiguous. He, him, he… which he is which?

Perhaps Jacob’s sparring partner is not another being, but a part of Jacob himself. The kabbalists call the shadow part of ourselves the sitra ahra – in Aramaic, the “other side” (See, for example, Zohar I:14b). Jacob knows what he has done in the past – but he’s never had to face it. And now, for the first time, he is forced to do just that.

In the narrative, there are a preponderance of words with similar letters. Ya’akov wrestles – va’yei’aveik – the letters are similar, but jumbled. During the night, Jacob’s hip is dislocated b’hei’avko, “as he wrestled.” Even the name of the river he crosses, Yabok, too, has the similar letters. The difference is the order. As Jacob struggles, he seemingly rearranges the very elements of his being.

What’s gone around has come around. In the past, he might have run from this painful reality. But now, hip dislocated, that’s no longer an option.

Jacob’s internal struggle is clear in his reactions to the external one.

“Let me go!” one part of Jacob yells, as dawn breaks over the river Yabok. But the other side of Jacob is not ready for the encounter to end. He demands, “give me a blessing!” Why would Jacob need a blessing? Perhaps he is facing, for the first time, that the blessing he received from his father Isaac isn’t really his. Like all of us, Jacob wants his own blessing.

Is Jacob ready? The mystery being tests him. “What is your name?” Jacob replies, “Jacob.” The last time he was asked this question — covered in animal skins he did not procure, carrying food he did not prepare — Jacob lied to his father, “I am Esau, your first-born.”

In our parashah, he finally tells the truth – to this man, to himself. And this Jacob is blessed with a new name. No more Ya’akov, no more pretending. Now you are Yisrael, he is told, because sarita imElohim – you have wrestled with Godliness and humanity and you have been found worthy of that struggle (Genesis 32:29).

Israel becomes the name of our people. To be a Jew is to wrestle – to confront the difficulties of being human, to confront the struggle of living with God.

Twenty years ago, Jacob the coddled adolescent ran away from himself. The sun set on him, and he slept in darkness. Now, Israel leaves his place of struggle limping, marked by the journey, but now a witness to God’s power. Esau sees as much, when he and Jacob reconcile after their painful exile from one another. As readers, we realize that the resolution of this fraternal conflict would not have been possible without Jacob’s elemental, internal struggle.

In Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that the dust from Jacob’s wrestling match “ascended to [God’s] Throne of Glory” (Babylonia Talmud, Hullin 91a).  Jacob must indeed face down his shadow side, but such a struggle is deeply Jewish and profoundly holy.

Facing our brokenness is humbling, and not without pain. But the ability to do so is also a divine gift. Like Jacob, we may be gripped by fear of the consequences. But Jacob stands as a timeless example of what might be. Rather than witnessing the violence of a vengeful brother — or a vengeful God — we as readers are witnesses to a spiritual transformation.

Jacob balances his own scales. He, himself, has come around. His example beckons to us as individuals, and perhaps as a nation, to do the same.

May we be as brave as Jacob, facing our own shadow side, balancing our own scales, building lives and communities of honest struggle and fierce love.
Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (’06) is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Mass. He serves on the advisory boards of the Jewish Alliance of Law and Social Action (JALSA) and the New England Jewish Labor Committee, and is a member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He lives in Acton with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell.