The turning point in the inner life of our complicated and ever-evolving patriarch, Jacob.
Table for Five: Vayishlach
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And he (the angel) said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” but he (Jacob) said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
– Gen 33:27
Bracha Goetz, Author of 40 spiritual children’s books
In the dark of night, Jacob wrestles long and hard with the angel of Esau, causing dust from their intense struggle to rise up to the highest level possible. Esau’s supernatural being pleads with Jacob to release him as the sun rises, but Jacob wants to extract a blessing for the future from him first.
The night through which the combative twins wrestled is our long and dark exile, marked by repeated attempts to exterminate us, and we have been left limping. But eventually before dawn, it will become clear that we have endured and prevailed over all the cycles of persecution, as the blessing unfolds.
Every day of our lives we are engaged in this same battle, fighting the destructive forces, both inside and out, that try to pull us down in darkness. Each time the strength of our spiritual being triumphs over the materialistic cravings with which we wrestle, the dust that flies up from each struggle becomes holy stuff.
Through the daily challenges of interacting with our physical world, we get to raise the divine sparks present in everything, bringing forth blessing. Now as we approach the darkest time of the year, Jacob’s struggle comes to remind us that we have the inner spiritual strength to ultimately triumph.
And the dust of history arising from all the personal and collective struggles from which we’ve emerged victorious, even if limping, becomes elevated into countless sparks of the greatest glory imaginable.
Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Rav Beit Sefer at JPA and director of STARS Addiction Recovery
In the moment, we don’t always realize the depth and magnitude of a single encounter. At times we are faced with a challenge that seems insurmountable only to overcome the obstacle. It is difficult to evaluate a situation while we are in it. Sometimes we experience some of the most difficult moments in our lives only to look back at them and see that they were for the best. What seemed bad was actually a blessing.
Jacob’s struggle is seen through so many lenses according to rabbinic tradition. The understanding ranges from the straightforward to the mystical. The Zohar describes Jacob’s battle with the angel as symbolic of man’s struggle with his darker side. Based on this notion, Jacob’s struggle doesn’t seem to elicit a clear-cut winner or loser. We do know that Jacob struggled physically and we know we don’t eat the gid ha-nasheh (sciatic nerve) due to this struggle. So what does it all mean to us?
The Talmud in Berachot 60b notes, “One must always accustom oneself to say: Everything that God does, He does for the best.” Jacob has a new path that is forged after this incident. Albeit a challenging and difficult one, he refuses to move forward without receiving a blessing. We can learn from this that we too should not leave a challenging or difficult situation without receiving our blessing.
Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D., Rabbi of Fountainview at Gonda Westside
Every journey, wrote Martin Buber, has secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.
Directed by the Divine Presence, Jacob thinks that his destination is his birthplace. But the heel-and-blessing-grabber who impersonated his brother and deceived his father needs further refinement. So, he is also guided into the profound and necessary destination of self-transformation.
This nocturnal wrestling-match is Jacob’s third angelic encounter: his dream of a heavenly ladder anchored on the earth on which angels climb up and down is followed by an encounter with angels after he parts with Laban. But this embodied encounter is different: it is singular and personal.
Outwardly prepared to meet his twin, Jacob’s wrestling takes place, literally, in the dark. The number three encodes testing, revealing, victory and holiness, and so it is no surprise that alone, beside the stream that symbolizes the beginning of life, Jacob’s struggle is a birth-metaphor: he emerges from darkness into light.
Daybreak is a liminal time, full of revelations of sight and sound as darkness fades into pale light. It is the time of alchemy, as Jacob, no stranger to the power of blessing, demands a blessing from his adversary. Perhaps even more than what he is given (and for which he does not ask), the renaming into Yisrael expresses his essence and foreshadows his future. Jacob’s new understanding of the profound, transformative power of blessing is the true turning point in the inner life of our complicated and ever-evolving patriarch.
Ilana Wilner, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Yeshiva University
The midrash says that for every blade of grass there is an angel that strikes it and says “sprout and grow.” After battling with an angel throughout the night, the angel admits defeat as dawn breaks. However, before leaving Yakov begs the angel for a blessing. The desire for a blessing, and the blessing itself, is what changes the perspective of Yakov from “struggling to survive” to “struggling to thrive.” The angel blesses Yakov with a new name, Yisrael, and explains: you will no longer be called Yakov, because you struggled with people and the divine and have prevailed.
Yakov spent most of his life struggling and suffering — running away from his brother, working for many years for Lavan, the death of his beloved wife Rachel, losing his favorite son, Yosef; and the list goes on. We can shift the perspective on Yakov’s life and future struggles through this very verse and blessing.
The new name of Yisrael did not incorporate the theme of victory, but rather the theme of struggle. It solidified Yakov’s identity as the underdog and emphasized the important lesson that from struggle comes growth. Yakov’s development helps him to persevere throughout his future battles.
When we turn our suffering into a blessing, into growth, only then are we able to transcend ourselves. For this reason the Jewish people are referred to as Bnei Yisrael, as opposed toBnei Yakov. As a people who believe in personal transformation, we should internalize the message of Yakov’s new name, Yisrael, and understand that through our struggles comes growth.
Kylie Ora Lobell, Community and Arts Editor at The Jewish Journal
Jacob wrestles with the angel – said to be the spirit of Esau or Esau’s guardian angel – right before he is to face his brother once again. Jacob has no idea what’s in store for him. Is Esau going to try to kill him? Is Esau going to take his wives and his children and everything he has? Is he still upset about the birthright?
Jacob is in the darkness, literally and figuratively, and worried about how he’ll prevail over his physically superior brother, a trained warrior. But as the day breaks and he wins his struggle with the angel, he sees that he needn’t worry: with God’s help, he will prevail. Goodness will win over evil.
Jacob finally learns to stop stressing and to call out to and rely on God for help in his upcoming confrontation. It is a lesson all of us can learn from, especially now, when it seems we are still in a period of darkness in an uncertain world. We must partake in our own personal battles with ourselves and fight to overcome our worries and stress, and above all, put our faith and trust in the Almighty. That is where our ultimate salvation will come from. Once we learn that God is always on our side, we will have the confidence to live our lives and know we will be victorious in whatever we do.
With thanks to Bracha Goetz, Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Rabbi Janet Madden, Ilana Wilner and Kylie Lobell
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Image: Jacob’s Ladder by GDJ via Pixabay