Parshat Vayishlach

Jacob wrestles with the angel

The narrative peak of Jacob’s story is reached in this parsha. Anticipating confrontation with his brother Esau, Jacob feels fear. However, his conflict is not with his brother, but a mysterious figure near the river Jabbok. Wrestling through the night, Jacob emerges wounded but victorious. He asks his opponent to bless him — which happens through a renaming from Jacob to Israel. His new name symbolizes his successful struggles.

Jacob represents the reconciliation of outwardness and inwardness, of openness and structure, of boundless love and bounded commitment, and of running away and going home. It is a reconciliation requiring struggle, courage, determination, and maturity.

Bereishit 32:8-22
And Jacob was greatly afraid and he was distressed, and he divided the people that were with him, and the sheep and the cattle and the camels, into two camps. [Jacob then prays] … and he took from what he had in hand a tribute to Esau his brother …

Bereishit 32: 25-30
And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. And he saw that he had not won out against him and he touched his hip-socket and Jacob’s hip-socket was wrenched as he wrestled with him. And he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” And he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” And he said, “Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out.”

Robert Alter
Appearing to Jacob in the dark of the night, before the morning when Esau will be reconciled with Jacob, he is the embodiment of the portentous antagonism in Jacob’s dark night of the soul. … he may [be seen as] an externalization of all that Jacob has to wrestle with within himself. A powerful physical metaphor is intimated by the story of wrestling: Jacob, whose name can be construed as “he who acts crookedly,” is bent, permanently lamed, by his nameless adversary in order to be made straight before his reunion with Esau.

It will no longer be said that the blessings came to you through deviousness but instead through lordliness and openness.

In the Jewish tradition, Jacob achieves his reconciliation through truth, it is only through truth that the traits of strength and love can be joined. In order to find this deeper truth and overcome his own pull to deception, the Mussar teachers tell us that he had to trust in God, exercising the trait of bitachon, a trait (middah) that is the opposite of fear and anxiety. At Jabbok, Jacob must face his fears.

Why is Jacob afraid? Didn’t God explicitly promise that He would be with him? What might be the source of Jacob’s fears? (Schumessen)

What is the significance of a name and changing a name? Why do you think the mysterious man has no name?

What does trust in God mean to you? Sometimes people have very strong negative perspectives on “trusting in God,” based on bad personal or historical experiences like the Holocaust. Can you trust a God who allows bad things to happen to good people? Does such a God even exist? “Trust in God,” may also have the negative connotation of passivity or childishness, of waiting for God to fix what is broken. Or, because our ideas about God are abstract, is trusting in God a meaningful attitude or action to you?

Rabbi Leibowitz and Rabbi Wolbe note that Jacob responds to his anticipated meeting with Esau with three strategies: preparing for battle, praying, and providing a tribute (compensation? teshuvah?) to Esau. They both see this as an exemplary approach to trusting in God.

Does this surprise you? Why might this be an example of bitachon?

For Rabbi Leibowitz, Jacob is exemplifying trust in God, because his fear, rather than paralyzing him, energizes him to take action. Jacob uses all of his resources, physical, mental, and spiritual to save himself and his household. Trust in God is not passivity, but a framework to engage oneself fully. Rabbi Wolbe cautions us that bitachon is not a belief in miracles. God created the Universe to act in a lawful manner, and we should we expect that our problems need to be solved within the laws of nature. Nevertheless, we should never lose “sight of Who is really in charge”. The problem we face, according to Rabbi Wolbe, is that we may think that it is only our resources which saved us, or that we lose sight of the source of our resources.

Why is a belief in miracles inappropriate? After all, the Torah is full of miracles.

We are expected to use our own resources … and, what else?

Why is it important to never lose “sight of Who is really in charge”? What practically does this mean? What happens if you think you are in charge?

Rabbi Leibowitz tells us that fear can be a strength rather than a weakness. Do you have experiences that fit with this idea?

Eliyahu Dessler
Ya’akov had to find the spiritual strength to transcend the external situation and attach himself to the spiritual truth beyond it and within it. Only when he emerged successfully from all these tests was his name changed from Ya’akov to Yisrael, which comes from the root sara, meaning “overcoming”.

Why does this encounter symbolize all that Jacob has to overcome around truth? In what different ways does Jacob turn around all of his previous failings around his brother?