Living with conflict is unsafe and insecure. For Jacob it was a good reason to take his family and possessions and flee the house of his father-in-law Laban. Yet having left one conflict zone he immediately arranges to meet Esau and so prepares for another. Why does Jacob do this?
For the Ramban the reason is obvious: he must travel home to Canaan and the only way will inevitably take him through the field of Seir, the home of Esau. I’m not convinced. If he had really wanted he could have re-programmed his sat-nav and taken a different desert track. Instead I think that Jacob had to encounter Esau.
At the end of this episode the Torah records that “Jacob arrived safely (shalem)” at his destination (33:18). The contemporary bible commentator, Aviva Zornberg, interpreting shalem to mean ‘whole’, reads this as the primary motivation: Jacob’s journey is in pursuit of wholeness. This narrative can guide us, with Jacob, on stages towards wholeness in our own lives: beginning with the naming of fear and anxiety; through encounter with God, self and others; towards shalem.
At the start of our portion we read that Jacob was ‘afraid’ (vayyira) and ‘distressed’ (vayezer) (32:8). The midrash asks: why are both of these recorded? The answer given in the name of Rabbi Judah bar Rabbi Illai is that Jacob was afraid that he might be killed by Esau and he was distressed that he might kill Esau. Both scenarios are disturbing: harm to the self by the other and fear of harm by the self to the other.
Yet Jacob has no control over Esau, only over himself. To alleviate fear and distress he can only alter his own attitude, expectations and behaviour. This is a painful process. To understand, to come to terms with, and impact on the core of our being is challenging to say the least. This is the challenge that Jacob wrestles with at the centre of one of the most stunning, powerful and enigmatic passages that follows: “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrested with him until the break of dawn (32:25).”
The midrash understands this to be an encounter with the angel Michael aimed at showing Jacob that he should trust in God. Zornberg builds on the traditional readings with a distinctly modern vocabulary. For her, this moment constitutes a ‘therapeutic encounter’ with Israel, Jacob’s own shadow-self. In his journey to wholeness he must wrestle with his inner demons; he must delve inwards to better understand his own psyche. This encounter changes Jacob. He is given a new name, Israel, ‘he who struggles with God’ and by seeing “God face to face” (32:31) comes closer to understanding himself. The pain and power of this experience is mapped symbolically onto Jacob’s injured thigh.
As soon as this incident is over, Jacob looks up and sees Esau approaching accompanied by four hundred men. The tension is running high as Esau appears to flex his muscles while Jacob limps. And then suddenly Esau runs towards Jacob and kisses him in embrace.
Jacob then says to Esau “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God (33:10)”. This is a remarkable line. It resonates evocatively with Jacob’s earlier experience seeing “God face to face”. For Rashi it was on some level a strategic comment by Jacob to inspire fear in Esau. I think this is missing the significance of the change the Jacob had undergone. For me the Torah’s repetition of the metaphor “face of God” suggests that encounter with God, which we can understand, with Zornberg, to mean encounter with the inner self, enables Jacob to overcome fear, anger and hatred and to genuinely see God in Esau.
Only now having seen the Godliness of the other can Jacob, just a few verses later, arrive shalem in Cana’an.
Jacob’s journey invites us to follow him in pursuit of shalem, of wholeness, safety and wellbeing. We can begin, like him, by acknowledging and naming our fears. In lieu of being visited by an angel, we can explore them by looking inwards through prayer, meditation and therapy: spiritual and healing practices that can enable us to encounter ourselves in a deeper way. From there we may be better equipped to encounter others from a place of honesty, openness and love. Always in pursuit of shalem. May God be with you on this journey.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.