Vayishlach presents us with one of the THE most powerful passages in all of Torah. This is the famous story fo Jacob and his wrestling with someone or something. Anticipating his reunion with the brother, Esau, whom he deceived so many years ago, Jacob stands alone (‘l’vado’) at the river Jabok. The river, another symbol of transition, is the scene where he meets a man, (an “ish) with whom he wrestles. “Jacob was left alone. A man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (32:25). You know the story that they struggle and as a result, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (25:29)
It should come as no surprise that so many commentaries have been written on this passage. Countless sermons have been preached. This is a universal story for we have all wrestled with issues and emerged changed, often wounded, as was Jacob. Questions abound here. Who was this “ish”? The Hebrew does not use the word for angel, but “man”. Is this another step in Jacob’s spiritual maturation, a growth that began a portion ago with his dream of the stairway? Was it a wrestling with the fear of what his brother would do after so many years? Was it a wrestling with a fear of failure, despite his having acquired a huge estate in his years with Laban and his marriages to Leah and Rachel? He “had it all”, yet, was he still afraid of his future?
This passage rings so true for us as we get older. We wrestle with so many things. Yet, at the heart of all of it is the on-going wrestling with the reality of our own mortality. As we become more aware of time’s passing, I think we wrestle more with our hopes and dreams for the future as well as the regrets of what was. For some of us, this wrestling actually frees us from becoming bound by that past, defined by what was. We all have been wounded, in a symbolic way.
Yet, Jewish tradition compels us to continue to wrestle with life and our own self: the self we wish to be. In that wrestling then may we all find the courage to change the name we call our own self and embrace a future of passion, caring and, most of all, love.
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.