Wednesday, 29 Nov 2023

Written by Rabbi Danny Newman

It could be argued that this week’s parashah, Vayishlach, contains the most significant (and enigmatic) story in the Torah. It’s finally time for Jacob to stop running away. Now is the time for him to face his demons, to face the consequences of his previous actions and to step up and become a mature man of power and integrity. It is only once Jacob is able to do this that a new being, Israel, is born. From this point on, our people, our nation, will be known as the children of Israel.

Many years ago Jacob deceived his father and stole his brother’s blessing and birthright. On the advice of his mother he flees the home of his parents in order to save himself from the wrath of Esau. He builds great wealth whilst living with and working for his uncle and father-in-law Laban, only to flee in secrecy once again when he feels that Laban is turning against him. This time the prompt to leave his home and return to the land of his fathers comes from YHVH.

Now there is nowhere to hide. If he is to return to his birthplace he knows he must encounter his brother Esau. A meeting with destiny. He sends messengers to Esau informing him of his imminent return. The messengers return with an ominous message: “We came to your brother Esau and he himself is coming to meet you and he has 400 warriors with him.”[1] Jacob may have 2 wives, 11 children, maidservants, manservants, camels and flocks, but he does not have anything like the military capacity of his brother. He does not know Esau’s intentions towards him and Jacob is terrified.

In his attempt to limit his potential losses, Jacob takes sensible precautions. Ever the schemer and plotter, and fearing the worst of his brother, Jacob splits his camp in two, figuring that, “if Esau attacks one camp, at least the other camp may be able to escape.”[2]

In true Jacob style he devises a cunning plan to try to win his brother’s favour by showering him with drove after drove of gifts. Although God has told Jacob that God will be with him on the return to the land of his birth,[3] he’s still taking all the safety measures he can think of. Does he not even trust God?!

Finally, having taken his family across the ford of the Jabbok, it’s night time and Jacob is left alone. Shorn of all his material possessions, without his family and his entourage, Jacob is deeply, wholly and entirely alone and he is terrified. He is ready to face the defining moment of his life, this is his existential crisis.

The biblical narrative tells us that a ‘Man’ (Hebrew: ‘Ish’) wrestled with Jacob until the break of dawn.

Robert Alter comments on this episode as follows:

The image of wrestling has been implicit throughout the Jacob story: in his grabbing Esau’s heel as he emerges from the womb, in his striving with Esau for birthright and blessing, in his rolling away the huge stone from the mouth of the well, and in his multiple contendings with Laban. Now, in this culminating moment of his life story, the characterizing image of wrestling is made explicit and literal.[4]

This ‘Man’ cannot overpower Jacob, even after he wrenches Jacob’s hip from its socket. As dawn approaches the ‘Man’ must leave[5], but Jacob will not let him go until the ‘Man’ blesses Jacob. As the tension rises, the ‘Man’ asks Jacob his name and then tells him: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, rather it shall be ‘Israel’, for you have struggled with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” The ‘Man’ then blesses Jacob and leaves. Jacob survives, but from now on he walks with a limp as a result of the injury to his thigh muscle.

The medieval commentators Rashi,[6] Radak[7] and Rashbam[8] all agree that the ‘Man’ is not a human being, but rather some form of angel. Jacob himself is convinced that the ‘Man’ is no mortal being. He calls the place where he struggled with the ‘Man’ ‘Peniel’, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face and my life was preserved.”[9]

The 16th century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic mystic, St John of the Cross, writes in his poem, “The Dark Night of the Soul” about the painful experiences that people have to face as they seek to develop spiritually and in their relationship with the mystery we call God. Surely, this is Jacob’s Dark Night of the Soul.

Jacob had a choice as he sat there alone in the dark of the night. He could run from his brother, as he has done once before, or he could stay. Surely his struggling and wrestling is psychological? Can he now stay with the fear, the terror and the not knowing what awaits him? His conditioning is telling him to run, to flee and to save himself. He knows that previously he has responded to difficult situations by deception and avoidance. He ran from Esau and deceived his father. Instead of confronting Laban, he fled in secret.

Like so many of us, when faced with life’s challenges and difficulties, Jacob wants to flee and to turn away from the problems that are plaguing him. This time, however, he faces up to the situation. His struggle is with himself as he experiences the pain of spiritual development and maturation. And in his staying and in his courage to face the truth of his life, he is transformed. No longer will he be Jacob the trickster, the expert in avoiding and manipulating people. Rather, he is to be known as Israel, the man who can struggle with beings divine and human. Through staying with his struggle Jacob uncovers his integrity and reaches a level of spiritual development that enables him to become the father of a great nation.

Rabbi Danny Newman


[1] Bereshit 32:7

[2] Bereshit 32:9

[3] Bereshit 31:3

[4] R. Alter, (1997) Genesis, New York: W.W. Norton, p.180

[5] Bereshit 32:29

[6] Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105

[7] Rabbi David Kimche, 1160-1235

[8] Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1080-1160

[9] Bereshit 32:31

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.