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Parashat Vayishlach

November 20, 2007

By Halina Rubinstein

25 Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
26 When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.
27 Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
28 Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.”
29 Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human,and have prevailed.” [. . .] 32 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.
(Gen. 32:25-29,32. JPS trans.)

This week’s portion is about encounters and confrontations. The magic and mystery of Torah is that it can be understood on many levels at once. A narrative that relates a family story can, through the lens of personal and historical experience, acquire different and varied interpretations. Such is the case with the encounter of Jacob and Esau. Those of us who have emigrated from our homes of origin, leaving behind family and childhood memories, can easily identify with Jacob’s encounter with his brother after years of exile.

In this week’s portion six dots appear over the word ‘vayishakehu – and he kissed him’ referring to Esau’s kiss to Jacob. Such dots were usually used to point to a word whose meaning was unclear, perhaps corrupted in transmission. Not in this case, however. Rashi makes reference to a rabbinic dispute over the sincerity of Esau’s kiss. Some rabbis go as far as to say that, in fact, Esau bit Jacob in the neck (a difference of one letter in the Hebrew can render this meaning). The historical experience of the rabbis may explain the reason why Esau (or Edom – the epitome of Christendom), gets such a bad rap when the actual text may not justify such extreme negativity. But I can venture to say with some degree of certainty that those of us who have siblings have wronged them at one time or another; that no one who has grown up with a sibling is free of feelings of guilt or jealousy. After leaving two siblings behind I have many times felt the bite in the kiss of first encounters.

But this narrative also points to other kinds of confrontational encounters no less dramatic and painful, which occur in the deepest chambers of our soul. Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at the Jabbok is one such example. I am amazed by how much intensity is expressed in this terse paragraph and yet, only a wrestling bout with an angel of God, or God itself, can possibly describe the anguish and agony, the emotion and the passion of such a moment

Hasidic tradition talks about Jacob wrestling with the sitra ahra, the other side. This term is used to refer to the forces of evil which underlie all of reality. According to the writings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, in order to let man choose his own destiny and earn his rewards, there had to be evil in the world; man is therefore endowed with an evil inclination and placed in a world that has an evil side, the sitra ahra. By being confronted with evil and struggling to reject it and to embrace good, man gains a great reward. The Sefat Emet (R. Yehudah Leib Alter, 1847-1905 of Gur, Poland, the third Rebbe of the Gerer Hasidic dynasty) holds that this struggle between the evil side, the material body, and the good side, the pure soul, is one that Jacob embraced to the point of perfection, or shlemut, when his evil and good inclinations merged into a pure wholeness. More significant, though, is that the Sefat Emet says that the struggle of body and soul goes on in every one of Israel. Shabbat is the time of righting the body. That is why Shabbat is called shalom, a foretaste of the world to come. Another way of reading the Sefat Emet would be that, indeed, our struggle as a people is to right evil and gain shlemut: peace.

My journey through rabbinical school has not been unlike Jacob’s; full of inner encounters that confront me and make me wrestle. These are existential, lonely moments, as the text relates of Jacob: he was alone. But these moments are also transformative and, although we may emerge hurting, we grow and expand our possibilities with each experience. The Darchei Noam (Rabbi Shmuel Brozovsky, Slonimer Rebbe of Jerusalem) asks: Why did the angel first hurt Jacob and then see that day was breaking? It was precisely because of the wound that the light came out, the dawn of a new day. Prevailing over the evil inclination merits the holy longing that the tzaddik feels for God. The triumph over evil is the source of light and, through the struggle, a new light will surge forth and spread over Israel.