Eventually, it seems, all the things of our past catch up with us. We find ourselves in uncomfortable and awkward situations because of choices we’ve made throughout our lifetime. Some are only a minor inconvenience while others appear to jeopardize everything that we’ve worked for. Our main character in this week’s Torah portion is no different from you and I. That’s the beauty of Torah study. Despite being written such a long time ago, we find wisdom for today.
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Jacob receives word that his brother is coming to meet him. Not just his brother is en route, however. Esau is bringing 400 of his men with him. One would think that a family reunion would be a joyous occasion, a time to celebrate and recall old memories. But old memories are exactly what Jacob is afraid of. The memories that Esau has of him are not pleasant ones.
You may recall from the previous week’s readings that Jacob has never really been upfront and honest with the members of his family. In fact, when he and his twin brother were in the womb, he was already grabbing as Esau’s heel as if to say, “I’m coming for what’s yours, brother.” Jacob seemed to have a history of deception. He took advantage of Esau, tricked his blind father and even hatched a plan to prosper off of his uncle, Laban.
Didn’t some of these people deserve being tricked? Wasn’t Esau an unruly and wild man, incompatible with the responsibilities to be given to the first born son? Wasn’t Laban a trickster himself, swapping daughters on the altar and duping Jacob? Maybe so, but deceit and revenge should not be part of our character. We have to trust in Elohim to punish injustice. Perhaps it took living with a less than reputable character, such as Laban, and enduring years of manipulation to open Jacob’s eyes. There had to be a better way. I’ve often told people that it’s exhausting to lie and trick others. You have to try to remember what you said to who, who knows the truth, who knows the half truth and make sure that the two parties never meet to talk about it… and… well, do you see what I mean? It’s too complicated to be dishonest.
Jacob now has to come to terms with who he is and who he should be. He was worried, but he busied himself in different ways to prepare for the reunion. His first step was to prepare Esau’s heart by offering gifts from his herds. Jacob sought for peace first and foremost. By giving his brother such great gifts, it was the beginning stages of the formal “I’m sorry” that was long overdue. He then prepared for the worst possible outcome; an outright attack on he and his family. By splitting his people and his possessions into two groups, he hoped that if one were attacked, the other would be able to safely escape. That’s not a very encouraging thought, but Jacob initially fled his homeland because Esau was trying to kill him then. Maybe nothing had changed, but ultimately the outcome was in Elohim’s hands. Jacob prays to Elohim for safety and blessing before sending his people on ahead while he stays behind.
We’ve heard the story about him wrestling with an angel that night. The Hebrew word used for the “angel” is אישׁ – ish or man. I won’t get into the different thoughts behind who this may or may not be, but whomever he wrestled, he walked away with a limp. Jacob walked away a changed man; a man with humility. During this struggle, his strength and resolve were tested. He fought until morning but despite his best efforts, he suffered an injury in the fight.
This is why his name being changed to Israel is so significant. Each day, we do our best to sort out who we are and what the world wants us to be. We wrestle with who we are and who we are expected to be. Oftentimes, the standard is set by our peers and we are left trying to figure out how to meet their expectations while retaining our morals and values. We think we’ve got it under control and then we have an encounter with the Most High. Suddenly, we see who we really are and our facade is over. Perfect light casts out all darkness and deception. It’s suddenly clear who we are called to be. We, too, are called to be an Israel; one who has striven with both man and Elohim and has overcome. Overcoming is not about domination and power, cunning and manipulation, but it is achieved by humbling ourselves so that He who is greater than I can work through me.