This is one of the most famous transformational and transitional portions in Torah. Jacob wrestles with something or someone or himself on the eve of his reunion with Esau. As you remember, this results in his transformation; his name becomes Israel. There are a multitude of commentaries on this one event alone. This passage has become a key text in our teaching as we often raise the issue of how many identities or names we have been known as in our life, and how open we are to embracing more. Change is part of who we are as Jews and human beings.
The portion has challenges as well as we see in chapter 34 and the texts that portray the “rape of Dinah”, a story that, I am sure, will be discussed at many Torah study sessions as it sheds light on sexual abuse, family reactions and the like. The portion contains as well the death of Isaac and the fact that the brothers Esau and Jacob reunite to attend their father’s funeral. (35:29)
The Jacob and Esau story, filled as it is with drama and pathos, also touches on something that millions of families now deal with; the reality of estrangement. The reunion at the River Jabbok (32) is powerful. Jacob and Esau, a generation after the deceptions of the birthright and blessing, now face themselves. Both, according to the text, have prospered. They reunite. They never become close, but they agree that to live in the past, to carry with them past hurts and wrongs, is counter-productive, harmful and serves no purpose.
Some of those who will read this are living this now. To carry these past hurts and to continue these estrangements produce anxiety and illness; both physical and mental. This passage sends a very real message in that life is short and that, while you may never be close, the reality of life is that it is healthy, on every level, to meet and let go of these past hurts. Jacob and Esau leave that chapter only to see each other again at Isaac’s funeral. They have, in a sense, agreed to live their own lives knowing that they cannot change what was but can navigate their futures knowing that their pasts will not conflict. Life is too precious to hold on to grudges of the past.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.