Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) Wrestling With Our Life, Our Self!

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            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?

Shabbat slalom,

Rabbi Richard F Address



  1. When my mother and I would talk on the phone as adults (me in my 40s, my mom in her 70s), she would tell me that she had so much more on her mind that she wanted to talk to me about, not the mundane, but her internal spiritual questions that she was asking herself. She always said, someday, we’ll talk, but not now. We never got to have that talk. But, at that time, I wondered, what questions could she be asking herself that she didn’t already have fully answered at her age? Now I know. Do I wrestle with who I am? Yes, all the time. Do I prevail? Sometimes. Thanks, Mom, I hear you now.

  2. Thanks for this wonderful insight! I was ordained a rabbi over 58 years ago. Through my career, I wrestled with the question: “Am I the rabbi I need to be?” The background of that was the balance between an individual congregant’s quest and the congregation’s needs both against the backdrop of my rabbinical training and how my contemporary colleagues might respond. Frequently, I looked at issues from the perspective of our nuclear family – what might their insights provide? These really fine-tuned wrestling matches were punctuated with the wrestling positions of “On the one hand…” and “On the other hand…” In so many ways, these moments became deeply personal as I endeavored to be more than the mouthpiece for a text, a story, a quote, a generally accepted idea. These experiences became essential to my growth as a rabbi and as a person. And then I retired. For the first time in my life, I was freed from those kind of wrestling challenges. Well, not so fast! I came upon the greatest of my matches as I took on the quest of “Who was the kind of rabbi I needed to be to myself? Not to a congregation; not to the Jewish community; not to the Jewish People; not to colleagues; not to the interfaith or interracial community; not even to my family. This time, the focus was on deepening and battling my personal growth with the spiritual aspiration and hope of trying to become the best side of my being, nurtured by values I had to explore more deeply, more honestly, more critically than ever before. For the first time, I felt more like Jacob, alone by myself, after sundown, confronted by thoughts and experiences of the past, still grappling with dreams of the future, but intimidated by an imperfect world in search of my fellow, sometimes me, sometimes, the other. I’m still wrestling; still working at it; still trying to become a rabbi OF Israel, not in Israel. I have no regrets about my earlier efforts at wrestling but this one has been the most rewarding. I’m holding on for dear life.

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