Sunday, December 2, 2012


In last week's Torah portion, we encountered Jacob running away from his brother Esau's wrath to his mother's people in Haran and having a middle-of-the night encounter with the divine..  This week's portion, Vayishlach (Gen. 32:4-36:43) finds him some twenty years later, with two wives, two concubines, eleven sons and a daughter, and much material wealth, heading back from Haran to the land of Canaan, and frightened at the thought of facing his brother once again. Hearing that Esau is approaching with 400 men, and fearing that he means Jacob harm, he sends everyone in his party and everything he owned across the river, and spent the night alone.  Alone, that is, until once again he encounters the divine, this time in the form of a man who wrestles with him until daybreak.  This mysterious man could not win the wrestling contest, but was able to wrench Jacob's hip-socket, and then pleads, "Let me go before daybreak" but Jacob will not let the man go without first blessing him.  The man tells him that his name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, the one who has wrestled with God and with human beings, and has prevailed.
Who was it, really, with whom Jacob wrestled?  With God?  With an angel?  Modern Torah scholar Nehama Leibowitz echoes some of the classic commentators by suggesting that it is Esau's guardian angel, sent to weaken him before he meets his brother.  Or is he encountering the divine in himself, facing all of the deception and lies that he has perpetrated throughout his life and shedding them as he becomes a better person, literally, overnight? This view is supported by commentator B. Jacob (as quoted in the Etz Chaim Torah Commentary), who writes, "God answers a person's prayers if the person prays by searching himself, becoming his own opponent."

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