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Parashat Vayishlah

December 2, 2009

By Jill Minkoff

The day after Thanksgiving, my daughter and I were deciding what to do with leftovers. While in her kitchen, I shared with her my assignment to write a D’var Torah about Parashat Vayishlah.

“Wow!” she said, “I was just studying that with a student I am tutoring. The student really connected with the part about Jacob wrestling the angel and then realizing it was God [or, as NJPS translates Elohim, ‘beings divine’]. Afterward, we read the story of Abraham arguing with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah. She said that exploring both of these stories helped her to understand what her father has been trying to teach her about choosing one’s battles – One needs to be selective.”

“Hmmm…” I found myself thinking, “What does being selective in picking battles have to do with Jacob’s wrestling match? Did he have a choice? This is not where I would have gone with the story.”

The following afternoon, I was hiking Snake Mountain in Vermont with my daughter and her friend who is completing his Master’s Degree in film. Our conversation ran from the beauty of nature and our view of the Adirondacks to the challenge of wading through muddy waters and slick paths of leaves to current movies like A Serious Man and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Still pondering the story of Jacob wrestling the angel, my perspective became one of storyteller and film director. In my mind the beginning of Parashat Vayishlah now unfolded as a movie.

Story: Jacob sends malakhim (messengers) to let his twin brother Esau know that he is returning after being absent for decades. Because Jacob had left home at a time when it appeared that Esau wanted to kill him, he instructs the messengers to let Esau know he is seeking favor. The scene skips to the messengers returning. We don’t know anything about their encounter with Esau or if in fact they did speak with him. They only report to Jacob that Esau is coming to acknowledge him along with four hundred men. Jacob is frightened and anxious. Is he presuming the escort of four hundred does not bode well? Jacob splits up his family, servants, herds, and other possessions into two camps. He gives instruction that will hopefully appease his brother and save half, if not all of his people and possessions. He calls out to the God of his father Abraham and God of his father Isaac to be saved.

Story inside the story: Night falls. Jacob wrestles with an unnamed person (that is considered a messenger or angel that was sent by “God only knows”). The fighting continues through the night. As dawn breaks, the man wrenches Jacob’s thigh. Jacob continues despite the injury. The man calls out to Jacob to be over with the battle. Jacob stops only after requesting a blessing from him. With that, the “messenger” asks Jacob for his name. Jacob answers. The “messenger” now blesses Jacob with a new name, Israel, because he has fought with divine and human beings.

Continuing to imagine this from the perspective of a storyteller and film director, the audience is positioned with parallels of story line. However, when closely examined, one has holes where the other has details. What we know in one story is an ellipsis in the other. Both stories have people being sent. We are told that Jacob sends the messengers; we are not told who sends the single person. We are not told if the messengers actually meet with Esau; we know that the single “messenger” encounters Jacob in battle and blessing. We know that the messengers return to Jacob, their sender, with a report; we do not know if the “messenger” reports back to its un-named sender. We learn that Jacob (as sender) was frightened and anxious awaiting a fate portended; we do not know what, if anything, the single “messenger’s” sender feels while awaiting a report.

Back to the story, the audience now wonders if there will be a battle when Jacob meets up with Esau. They sit on the edge of their seats. Esau is seen running toward Jacob. He wraps his arms around him. He falls upon his neck. Could this be like the wrestling that harmed Jacob? Yet, this is not wrestling. Esau kisses Jacob and together they weep.

Returning to the thought my daughter’s student’s father shared about picking battles, I now can make the connection to this story of Jacob. Although I still view Jacob’s wrestling with the “angel” as a match he did not nor could not select, I see this juxtaposed to the confrontation he did choose with his brother Esau. Each story has a positive resolution. There is forgiveness and blessing. Today, each of us wrestles with messengers in multiple dimensions…with Israel, with ourselves, with our communities. Sometimes we can choose our battles; at other times, they are selected for us. May we each receive the forgiveness and blessings that these struggles offer.


Jill Minkoff is a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion.