Parashat Vayishlach – Erev Shabbat 9 December 2022 (5783)
Week of 4 – 10 December 2022.
Torah portion: Genesis 32:4-36 :43 Haftarah: Obad. 1:1-21
Theme: Jacob becomes Israel
This parashah begins as Jacob prepares to return to his home and birthplace. This is a momentous event as twenty or more years have passed between the time the young Jacob displaced his twin brother, Esau, and the time that the parashah opens. Jacob is both frightened and anxious as he begins the journey. Distress or anxiety is a stronger emotion than fear. The prospect that he might be forced to kill, was more disturbing to Jacob than the possibility that he might be killed (Chumash 171) Thus the time has come to face the past before being able to move forward.
In the midst of all this turmoil within himself Jacob has a confrontation with a ‘man’. The stage has been set for something mysterious to happen with a nighttime backdrop and accentuated references to ‘crossings’ (32:23-24), which clearly refer to more than just the river. Struggle, the motif already introduced in the mother’s womb (Gen. 25) returns here, but that is not the only consideration. At issue is Jacob’s whole life and personality, which despite his recent material successes are still under the pall of Esau’s curse (27:36). This story with a ‘man’ provides the background to the tale of reconciliation and raises important questions about the nature and meaning of the name ‘Israel’.
Rashi (Chumash 175) sees this story between Jacob and the ‘man’ as the eternal struggle between good and evil, between the human being’s capacity to perfect the self and Satan’s determination to destroy the human being spiritually. Many commentators have tried to explain the phrase used ‘a man wrestled with him’. In Hosea (12:5-6) the prophet states specifically that Jacob ’strove’ with a divine being (elohim); he strove with an angel (malach) and prevailed. However here the mysterious being that appears suddenly as Jacob’s adversary is described only as an ish, translated here as ‘a man’. However it can mean a challenging figure that need not be human but could be divine.
Esther Spitzer (Plaut, 237) offers an explanation of the struggle by connecting it to suffering. “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (32:27). What did Jacob mean by this? She says he meant that ‘I will not part from this experience unless I find a meaning to my suffering’. Suffering of itself does not heal; only suffering that has a meaning, and is accepted willingly, has the power to heal, to transform an individual into a whole person. Transformation, or real change of character, can take place in a person only when, through suffering, the person engages in an active struggle with the Shadow, the dark side of the self. Jacob cannot fully face his own past unless he seeks reconciliation with Esau, and this he can do only if he becomes a different person. When Jacob becomes Israel he can achieve reconciliation with his brother. The text tells of God’s role in Jacob’s renewal; Jacob becomes Israel only with God’s help, hence God’s name is embedded in the cognomen, Isra-el that the forefather now bears.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. What does this parashah teach us about relationships and enmity within families? 2. Do acceptance and giving meaning to suffering bring inner wholeness and transformation? 3. Reconciliation came about by an individual’s change of attitude; can this happen today?
Bibliography: Plaut. The Torah, A Modern Commentary (NY Rev.2006); Fox. The Five Books of Moses (NY 2000); Ezkenazi ed. The Torah, A Woman’s Commentary (NY 2008); The Chumash Stone Edition.
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Teresa Marie Healey, OP, South Africa, Bat Kol Alumna: 2010.