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Friday, December 4, 2009

Wrestling with Redemption - a midrash on Parshat Vayishlakh

This week's parashah is Vayishlakh (Bereshit/Genesis 32:4-36:4) in which Jacob prepares to be reunited with his brother Esau. As Jacob waits for the reunion and ponders whether his brother still wishes to kill him, he encounters a stranger in the darkness besides the river Jabok. They wrestle all night long, with neither of them the clear victor. As the sun begins to rise, the stranger realizes that he is unable to prevail over Jacob, he then wrenches Jacob's hip from its socket and tells him that he must leave for the sun is rising. Jacob demands a blessing from the stranger. The stranger asks Jacob his name. After Jacob responds, the stranger tells him that he will no longer be called Jacob, but he will instead be known as Israel, for he has struggled with beings divine and human (Yisrael, meaning "one who has struggled with God"). Then Jacob asks the stranger his name, to which he replies, "why do you ask my name?" The stranger then disappears and Jacob walks away, limping, to meet his brother Esau.

In the midrash that I wrote for last week's Torah portion, I imagined that Esau had also run into a stranger at dusk as he was chasing after his brother Jacob after Jacob had stolen Esau's blessing from their father Isaac. This stranger convinced Esau "not to do as he had done", and act out murderous revenge against his brother. Noticing the mark on his forehead, Esau realized that the stranger was Cain, son of Adam and Eve, who murdered his brother Abel. This midrash continues, as does the Torah, 20 years later as Jacob prepares to meet Esau.

Wrestling with Redemption

Another sleepless night. How many nights had it been? Jacob could not remember. All he knew was that each night he would awaken from the same dream. A dream in which he faced his brother alone for the first time since he had stolen his blessing from their father through deceit, thus guaranteeing his place as the patriarch of a great nation yet-to-be.

In the years since then he had married two sisters, fathered eleven children with them and their two servant-women and amassed a fortune beyond his wildest imagination. So why had this dream begun to haunt him now? The man who had been named Jacob because he grabbed his twin brother's heel (akev) when they were being born, no longer needed to fight or deceive to emerge on top. He was on top already! So why this sudden fear? Why these dreams? What could they mean? He searched and searched for a meaning but could find none. Then yesterday he was informed that a caravan consisting of hundreds of people and animals was traveling towards them; at its head was a man with hair as red as the blazing sun. Then Jacob knew why these dreams had begun to haunt him. Esau had found him. The day that he had feared was finally here.

What was he to do? He knew in his heart that he did not have the strength or the will to run away again. And so he sent messengers with gifts to his brother. Then devised a plan in which his camp would be divided into two separate camps, so if Esau attacked at least some might survive. He then prepared to meet Esau.

As the sun began to set at the end of the day, he prayed to God for strength and protection, while in his heart wondering if he was worthy after all that he had done to harm his brother. In the evening he told his wives and children that he was going to take them somewhere safe – though he was unsure if they would truly be safe if Esau were still in a murderous rage after all these years. As he was guiding them in the dusk he came upon a stream. He thought he had remembered every inch of the path that he had taken when he fled home all those years ago, and yet he did not remember this stream. Nevertheless, he paid little mind to this stream for his goal was to deliver his family to safety.

After crossing the stream and taking them to a place that he hoped would be safe he then returned to where they had camped the previous night. There he sat down alone on a rock and began to remember all that he had done to his brother. Surely his brother must still be angry with him. Who wouldn't be? He had taken everything from him through deceit. On top of that he and his mother had duped his aging and blind father into believing that the blessing was being given to Esau, his favorite son and rightful heir, as the elder of the two twins.

As Jacob played the story repeatedly in his mind, he could feel the fear welling inside of him. But the more he paid attention to the fear, the more he realized that he would have to face his brother in order to go on with his life and become the father of a great nation as promised.

As he sat there with his pain and fear, he heard a noise coming from behind him. He could see nothing as it was the time of the new moon and the night was pitch black. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see a figure of a man in front of him standing on the bank of the stream. The man stood there still and silent. Could it be Esau? No, he was too tall, too thin. Somehow, even without being able to see him, he also knew that this man was far too old to be his brother.

Before Jacob had a chance to ask the man's name he suddenly ran forward and lunged at Jacob's foot. Before he could respond the man grabbed Jacob's heel and pulled his leg out from under him so that he fell to the ground. Thus began a wrestling match that seemed to last the entire night. And though the stranger had appeared at first to be old, perhaps ancient, he had strength at least equal to that of Jacob. All through the night they struggled with each other, neither of them gaining or losing ground for very long. Jacob was amazed that he had the strength to endure this struggle. After all, fighting and other physical activity had always been his brother's forte, not his. He had always been happier studying or reading. Yet somehow he was able to endure this night because he sensed that if he conceded he would lose not only the fight, but also his life and everything that had been promised to him by God. Therefore, he struggled with this strange and silent man until he could see the tiniest bit of light appearing in the distant East. Though the stranger's back was towards the sliver of sunrise he stopped at the same moment Jacob had noticed the faint light.

At that moment the stranger slightly loosened his grip on Jacob. Jacob took advantage of this opportunity to break free of the stranger and begin to rise to his feet. Suddenly he was knocked over by what seemed a superhuman force. He fell to the ground and was once again locked in struggle. Then the stranger grabbed Jacob's thigh and pulled with what all his strength. Jacob could feel an unbearable pain shooting through his body, as his hip was wrenched from its socket. He let out a scream that he felt for sure would be heard by his family in their secret hiding place. He hoped and prayed that they would stay where they were and not come running to his rescue.

As the echo of the scream died and Jacob simply lay there in pain, barely able to maintain his hold of his opponent. Then the stranger spoke for the first time. "The time has come for me to leave you," he said in an other-worldly voice, "you must let me go." Upon hearing these words Jacob regained his composure and his strength. He tightened his arms around the stranger and pulled him back to the ground. He was not going to allow him to leave until he found out what this was all about. "You are going nowhere," Jacob said, "until you tell me who you are, where you came from and why you attacked me." "I am sorry," said the stranger, "I have no answers to those questions – at least not answers that would satisfy you – and I must leave before the sun rises." Upon hearing that Jacob held on even tighter.

"I will not let you go until you give me something," he said. The stranger laughed, "Give you something? Don't you think you have enough? You have four wives, eleven children, and an entourage equal to that of any king. In addition, you have everything else that God has given you. You have all of this, even though your father had told you all those years that it was to be your brother's."

Hearing this response Jacob wondered how the stranger knew all this? It became clear to him that he could not be human. "Are you an angel or a demon," he asked. "I am neither," the man replied. "I simply am. That is all I can tell you. Now please let me go!" "No!" said Jacob, "you must be a demon of some kind." "If I were a demon," he responded, " I would have…," the stranger stopped before completing his sentence. He knew he had said too much. "So, you are an angel then! If that's the case then I won't let you go until you bless me." " Don't you think you have stolen enough blessings for one life time," the stranger laughed, "what have you done to deserve another?"

Jacob had no answer. He knew the stranger was right. All that was his came from the fact that he had stolen what was meant to be his brother's. It had all been too easy. His mother had been so cunning and smart. His brother and father were both too easy to trick. Jacob, himself, had been too pliable, too easily swayed, and too unsure of himself to give any thought to what he was doing.

Then suddenly he thought to himself, "I am not the same person that I was all those years ago. For at this moment I am a man who is prepared to face his brother. I am a man able to sustain an all-night struggle with a divine being and hold his own. I am a man – truly a man – for the first time in my life." Realizing this, he spoke in a voice strong and clear that did not even sound like his, "I ask for a blessing from you now for I have finally earned the right to receive a blessing. I have struggled with you and with me and I have survived. I am ready to meet my brother – no matter what happens. I am ready to ask for forgiveness, but also to accept what might happen if he is unable to forgive. Please bless me, for this may be the last sunrise that I will see."

After a long silence the man asked Jacob, "What is your name?" "You know the answer to that," Jacob replied, "you even called me by my name earlier." "What is your name," he said again, this time more emphatically. "My name is Jacob." "Is that what you told your father the last time you saw him?" "No," said Jacob with pain in his heart, "the last time I saw my father I lied and told him that I was Esau, my brother." "And who are you now?" Jacob was about to repeat his previous answer when he stopped. He could not answer. He could not speak at all. "Quickly," said the stranger, "I need your answer now. The sun will soon be up." Jacob remained silent and then he said in a whisper, "I do not know my name. I do not know who I am. I have always been Jacob, the heal-grabber, the usurper, the cheater, the liar and the one who was blessed. But I see now that my blessing quickly became a curse from which I have tried to run my whole life. Please," he implored the stranger, "I need a new blessing for who I am now. Without it I am no one. Without it I cannot go on. Without it I will never be able to fulfill God's promise."

The stranger then spoke again. "On the night when you fled home your brother followed in a murderous rage. That night he encountered me at this very spot and I helped him to see that rage and hatred would only destroy him. He returned to your parents that night and continued with his life. Now he is returning with an entourage as large as yours this very place and he is ready to embrace you in peace. However, he will not embrace Jacob, for in this moment Jacob does not exist. You have struggled this night not only with me, but also with what it means to be human and what it means to be created in the image of the Divine. You have struggled with all that brought you to this moment. Because of this you are no longer simply Jacob, the heal-grabber. You are now Israel, the one who has struggled with Divinity – and humanity – and prevailed. My blessing for you is that you live your life each moment mindful of this name. That in every moment you face what is and do what is necessary to take the next step on the journey on which God has sent. This way you will become a blessing to yourself, your family, to God and all those whom you encounter each day."

Jacob, now Israel, was silent for a moment. Then he thanked the stranger, kissed him, and let him go. As the stranger began to walk towards the stream Israel cried out a second time, "but who are you?" With his back to Israel he simply replied, "as I said before, do not ask me that question. Simply know that for this moment I am here. That is enough." Israel did not know how to respond. The man then turned around and looked for a moment at Israel. Just then a ray of sunlight struck the man's face. Israel shielded his eyes. Still, he was able to see the man's face for a split-second. In that brief moment he was unable to tell if the features were those of a human being or an angel. For a moment, he even thought he saw the face of his brother as it had looked all those years ago. He also thought he saw a strange mark on the gaunt man's forehead. But when he uncovered his eyes, now adjusted to the light, the stranger was gone.

Then Israel walked over to the stream, still unsure if it had been there all those years ago. He stepped into the cold, clear waters and lay down. As the waters gently washed over him, he knew that when he arose he would indeed be a new person, as if reborn. He was indeed a man who had struggled with himself and with God. He was a man who also knew that night that he had felt the presence of God within him and seen the face of God in the momentary glimpse of the stranger's face. He also knew that soon on that day he would look once again into his brother's eyes. He was certain that in them he would see their father, their mother and himself. More than that, he knew that he would be seeing the face of the Divine in Esau, just as Esau would see the same in him. Secure in that knowledge he emerged from the water and faced the rising sun, prepared to greet the day and its challenges with renewed strength, with the blessing of God and as a new man.

1 comment:

Joan Bauer said...

Wonderful, Steve. "I need a blessing for who I am now." That thought particularly has spoken to me, and the fact that I woke up this morning with a sore hip -- well, only God knows. Thank you for the gift of this meditation.

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