Rabbi's Message - November 16, 2021
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we read about the night before the long-awaited reunion between Jacob with his brother, Essau. He lays down by a stream that’s name itself means “struggle,” implying that, after coming to terms with his uncle, Jacob is now ready to struggle with conflicts that have long haunted him. Once he falls asleep, Jacob wrestles with an ish, an adversary; he prevails and is given the name Israel, “one who struggled with God and man and prevailed.” Jacob awakens transformed and ready to reconcile with his brother.
There are numerous theories about who the ish was that Jacob faced that night. Some commentaries suspect that he wrestled with his brother, others believe it was a struggle with God. I prefer to lean into the modern commentaries who suggest that the ish with whom Jacob wrestled was, in fact, himself. His better impulses were facing off against his darkest fears, sins, and guilt. It becomes a story that teaches that strength emanates from within and often begins with personal struggle - perhaps many, followed by years of confrontation.
At Torah study this past week, I mentioned one of my favorite interpretations of Jacob’s journey. In Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, points out that the first time Yaakov encounters an angel (in his first dream with the ladder), he stopped ki vah hashemesh, or “because the sun had set.” When he awoke from his wrestling match, found in this week’s portion, he left with ahlot hashachar, “the rising of the sun.” Anchored in midrash, Zornberg suggests that these markers of time are functions of Jacob’s personal sense of time. It appears from this connection between the setting and the rising of the sun as if Jacob remained twenty years in one long period of darkness - a spiritual darkness.
But God was always there, even in the darkness. It seems, rather, that Jacob wasn’t ready to face God. It was only after his process of self-discovery, wrestling that night with his evil inclinations, that Jacob finally overcame that which was keeping him from coming closer to God. It was through his process of self-reconciliation that Jacob, of his own volition, finally could pull himself out of his darkness so that the sun could rise again.
How Jacob wrestled with himself and with his life experiences feels especially pertinent this week. I spent much of today participating in the “Love Epidemic II,” a virtual program put together locally to help community leaders to better respond to communal and individual trauma. One of the presenters shared: “Self-awareness is the gateway to healing.” How true it is and, if we accept Zornberg’s interpretation, it is what our Torah portion teaches as well. The struggle, the wrestling match of confronting our own pain and trauma, may sometimes translate to 20 years of pain and suffering, or perhaps longer. But, by looking to Jacob’s story for guidance, we learn that something holy and transformational may come from our efforts and there are sources, and resources, to help us.
Even though it may be painful, we would all benefit from self-reflection and self-awareness. Becoming more mindful will help with our healing and, hopefully, lead us closer to God. As God remained with Jacob throughout his complicated life, especially through his personal and spiritual struggles, we pray that God will be with us as well. We also have one other. If you ever find that you need support, know that your Temple rabbis and community are here for you. May we continue to move from strength to strength and support one another on the journey between.