With this portion (Genesis 32ff) we reach several key moments in the Genesis narrative. Indeed, this portion, one of my favorites, seems even more relevant today. The concluding chapters detail genealogies. Genesis 34 contains a frightening story of Jacob’s daughter Dinah, who is “taken by force” by Shechem (34:2). How strange that we arrive at a story in Torah that speaks to sexual acting out. Again, the past is prologue! The most famous aspect of this portion, however, takes us to chapters 32f, for it is there that we meet the powerful and dramatic reuniting of Jacob and Esau. This is the passage wherein Jacob “wrestles” with an angel, or demon, or self (pick your favorite interpretation) and has his name changed to Israel; thus telling us of the potential in each of us to change, ven our identity.
For now, let me also look at one of the passages that is contained in this drama. It is the aftermath of the wrestling. Jacob/Israel understands that he has had a transformative encounter. He names the place Peniel because, “I have seen a divine being face to face, and my life has been preserved.” ([32:31]). Jacob/Israel faces this “l’vado”, alone. He is afraid of what may take place as he knows Esau is coming. He wrestles and confronts his own fear, and as a result, is changed.
I think that this passage speaks to many of us. As we get older, many come to understand that we carry with us fears. Some rational, some not. Often we allow those fears to get in the way of our own living and growth. At times those fears dictate some of own behaviors. Yet, as any therapist will tell you, the only way to move forward at times, is to face those fears, wrestle with them, and hopefully emerge changed. We see this with addiction issues. We may be seeing it now with issues of sexual abuse and the addiction to power and control which may mask a fear of insecurity.
Facing one’s fears, regardless of our age, is not easy. In fact, as we get older, it may be more difficult, since we are more “comfortable” with the status quo. However, let me suggest that one of the messages of this portion is the call from Torah to have the courage to face those fears, for like the symbolism of Jacob, we may emerge on the other side changed. None of this is easy. Again, Torah sends us a message from an ancient past that speaks to us today.
Rabbi Richard F Address