Parashat Vayishlach: The struggle

Brigitte Rosenberg is Senior Rabbi at United Hebrew  Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg

Our portion for this week, Vayishlach, is the story of a wrestling match, a struggle between Jacob and another figure—we don’t know if this figure is another man, or an angel or if the figure is God or even Jacob struggling with himself.

Jacob enters this struggle as Jacob but the struggle is life changing.  This struggle takes place the night before his reconciliation with his brother Esau. 

 The story opens reminding us that Jacob has not seen his brother in 20 years.  The last time they were together Jacob had convinced his brother to sell him his birthright and deceived his father into giving him the blessing and then took off for Haran to live with his uncle Laban.  So, it is likely that Jacob is a little worried about how Esau might react to seeing him again.  The day before, Jacob sends his wives and children ahead of him and that night finds himself alone.  He wrestles with a “man” whom the commentaries have commonly viewed to be an angel.  The wrestling match is typically understood as an attack on Jacob by the angel, but Aviva Zornberg, a modern day Torah scholar, suggests that Jacob may have sought out the confrontation. Zornberg’s interpretation of Jacob as the instigator, presents a radically different understanding of this mysterious scene:  Jacob who is out of the comfort zone of his family is actively grappling with the unknown.

The commentaries offer many interpretations for what this encounter means, but all agree that Jacob is fundamentally changed by it.  During their wrestling, the angel injures Jacob’s thigh. Some commentators say that he will always limp, and the pain stays with him the rest of his life.  But, Jacob learns that it is not enough to have had this strange and intense experience.

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He says to the angel, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” The blessing he receives is a new name, one fitting to the experience: he is now called Israel “because [he] has striven with beings divine and human.”  Because of Jacob’s name change, his identity is now intertwined with this encounter and he becomes defined by it: as someone who “strives” — or struggles — with both the moral and the human.

Each of us struggles daily to make simple choices in our lives, just as Jacob did, but this struggle was different.  It was a struggle that everyone agrees was life changing — and whether by chance or by choice, it is this type of struggle that we don’t want to have to face very often.  Aviva Zornberg says that “[Jacob] wants to become Israel, by mastering the angel. The wrestling match is an occasion for clarification, for discovery of the parameters of personal power.”

Just like Jacob, our own wrestling with what it means to be ourselves, should help each of us gain clarity and discovery; to find our full “personal power” as change-makers, so that we do not just talk about or struggle with issues concerning ourselves but instead we actively work toward the future of making ourselves the strongest and the most vibrant people we can be.

Just as Jacob was forever changed for the good by his struggle, may we too be changed for the good by our struggle — Hazak, Hazak v’nithazek, from strength to strength.