There comes a time in one’s life when you have to face up to who you really are. When you have to confront your demons and deal with them. It can come at different times and be provoked by different things – a birth, a death, adversity, a mid-life crisis, divorce or marriage, maybe coming to the end of one’s own life. There’s always a reckoning of some sort – we can choose to ignore it but we ignore it at our cost. We rehearse this personal encounter, this facing up to ourselves, every Yom Kippur, and it is reflected in the Vidui, the confessional prayer before death.
And even if it is not experienced as a specific moment in time, then it becomes part of our life’s journey; the need to discover what we are put on this earth for, what our life-path is and what our inner voice is really saying to us. And as part of this search we all have to face those parts of ourselves we’re not so happy about.
Two of the greatest encounters in the Torah happen in VaYishlach – one human, one mysterious and other-worldly. Many of the key personalities in the Torah have reached midlife and acquired some life-experience before reaching some inner understanding. Abraham didn’t get the call from God until he had established himself, Moses spent years in Midian as a shepherd before encountering God; now Jacob, who had visions of angels as a young man, has to face his twin brother, whom he cheated out of his birthright. He has to face his own darkness – the consequences of his actions, the fall-out from his success. His encounter with God is now darker, more complex. He is afraid.
In the long dark night of the soul that he has on the banks of the Jabbok river, the night before he is due to meet Esau, he wrestles with a man. In the actual encounter it is not clear whether his opponent is human or angelic, or even God. It is a man, ish, in the text; it is only after he has left that Jacob says: “I have seen God face-to-face”.
What might it mean to see the face of God, the thing that was denied Moses? Rashi suggests that the word used for “wrestle”, ye’avek, is related to the word for attachment, davak, the same word used to talk about Adam’s attachment to Eve, and the same term the Hasidim used for attachment to God, devekut. Rashi points out that in wrestling, “one embraces the other and attaches himself to him with strong arms”. Maybe this wasn’t fighting. Maybe this was a kind of making love, of trying to become one with each other. Maybe, when it comes to soul-searching, to wrestling with God, the struggle and the love are the same thing.
It is from this encounter, that we get our name. Jacob is called Yisrael, because the man says, “you have struggled with God and with humans, and you have prevailed.” We are God-wrestlers; we struggle with that which we cannot name, and we wrestle with each other in a dance of life and love all our lives.
And it seems clear to me that the message here is that the only way we can see God’s face, the only time this happens in Torah, is through facing each other and in working out those human relationships that by definition are complicated and difficult, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes terrifying.
In Genesis Rabbah (77.3) Rabbi Hanina says the man Jacob wrestled with was Esau’s guardian angel, which is why when Jacob meets his brother, he says, “When I see your face, it is like seeing the face of God.” The two encounters are intimately related. The only way Jacob can encounter God is by reconciling with Esau. The only way he can relate to Esau is by acknowledging God’s presence in their relationship.
The encounter between Esau and Jacob is also a kind of wrestling match. They each come with their armies of men, wives, children. Look at how much I have achieved! Jacob, ever the subtler of the two, says he only wants to present his estate as a kind of gift to his brother. But it’s also a presentation of how good life has been to him. At least that was the plan before he had the encounter with the man at the river the night before.
But instead of just negotiating with cattle and servants and wealth, Jacob does something much more powerful. He acknowledges that he encounters God through his brother and then he makes recompense. When they last saw each other, Jacob had not only stolen Esau’s birthright, he had also stolen his father’s blessing and, for Esau, that was a far more powerful blow. Now, years later, he offers Esau a blessing. “Take, I pray thee, my blessing”. He gives the stolen blessing back. Esau is not keen to take it from him, but Jacob presses him and he accepts. Now they can co-exist with each other.
Perhaps Jacob should have carried on his journey with Esau. Perhaps he should have overcome his fears and gone on to Seir as planned, and as he promises. But old habits die hard and he heads on to Sukkot instead. If he had gone with his brother, he would not have ended up in Shechem. His daughter, Dinah, would not have met the son of Hamor, from whom Jacob purchases his land. Jacob’s sons would not have ended up slaughtering every man of that city.
The thing about encounter is that it’s not a one-off event. You have to keep working at it. Whether we’re wrestling with God, or wrestling with relationships, it’s a lifetime’s journey. Jacob catches glimpses of himself, but then he gets distracted from his true path, and his life of deception, and hiding from others and himself continues. He encounters God again at Beth El where he is again named Israel. He meets Esau again when they bury their father.
We are none of us perfect. We all make mistakes, and we sometimes try to put them right and sometimes we manage it, and sometimes we make enough peace so that we can still talk to each other, but not enough to be able to live together. Jacob and Esau agree to stop fighting, to acknowledge each other, and to bury their differences with their father.