My son loves wrestling. He loves it so much that he has corrupted my 11-year-old grandson to the extent that they watch together. How appropriate for this week’s portion. In contrast to our portion’s main character, Jacob; neither of them has been wrestling with an unnamed “ish” nor have they undergone any radical change of personality. This is the famous portion where Jacob, as he contemplates the reunion with his estranged brother Esau, wrestles with the “ish” at the river Jabbok, emerges victorious and as a result, undergoes a change in name and, as commentaries note, personality. This portion is filled with great lessons, moral challenges (the revenge of the brothers for the rape of their sister Dinah in chapter 34) and sensitive moments as Isaac dies (35:28) as does Rachel in childbirth (35:16-20).
However, I want to call you attention to a small passage that takes place immediately after the events of chapter 33 that tells us of the wrestling and the reunion of Jacob and Esau. The two brothers, who agreed to live their lives and be at peace with each other, move on. In 33:18 we read that Jacob, in his journey, “arrived safely in the city of Shechem”. The Hebrew has “Va’yavoh Ya’akov shalaim”, the last word having the root “shin”, lamed”, “mem”. That is the root we usually see translated as “peace” or the sense of “wholeness” (“shlaimut”) In many translations, safely is used. But let’s play with that for a second and see if the root meaning of peace or wholeness can teach us something.
In her commentary of Genesis called “The Beginning of Desire”, Aviva Zornberg looks at this passage to see in it an important message that resonates well with our generation. She sees in this “shalaim” growth and a sense of wholeness, wholeness of personality, growth into a new sense of self for Jacob as he grows up from the manipulated child to integrated adult. The wrestling scene was the transitional moment, his name changes symbolic of this maturation of the self. The message for us? How many times in our life have we had to wrestle with issues, choices, challenges, and change? How have those moments shaped who we are now? How many identities have we had to take on to get to where we are now?
The commentaries remark on this verse as a sense of fulfillment. In Genesis 28:21, as Jacob wakes from his dream of the ladder, he makes the statement that if he returns “safe” to his father’s house he shall follow God. A bargain made in the flush of knowing God was his place? A wish? The “safe” in 28:21 is also the same root for 33:18. Jacob has grown up. He has wrestled and prevailed. He returns to his father’s home “safe”, but really, whole. Have we done the same? This story of Jacob is a metaphor for each of us, for each of us undergo so many changes and we have wrestled with so much. Have we prevailed? Or do we still wrestle with who we are and what we wish to be?
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.