In last week’s Torah portion, we saw Jacob confront the twisted future image of himself in the shape of his father-in-law Lavan, coming out of his dealings with the crook as the better man. This week, in Parshat Vayishlach, Jacob confronts his past when he returns to the land of Canaan to find himself immediately beset by his murderous brother Esau. Considering Jacob had left his home because he had heard Esau intended to kill him, one can imagine that finding Esau waiting with an army beside him would be a terrifying experience. Despite this, Jacob doesn’t just turn around and find another place to settle his family, but instead continues to cross the river to enter his homeland.
Jacob’s facing Esau doesn’t in any way mean the man didn’t know fear. One of his first actions upon finding out his brother is waiting for him is to split his family into two camps. The text even states that his reasoning is so that if one camp were to fall the other could escape, which is not exactly the strategy of a confident man. It is clear that Jacob doesn’t want a fight, as he sends large amounts of his property ahead to Esau as gifts, along with messages that seem quite humble. Throughout Vayishlach, Jacob’s actions toward Esau are supplicatory. All the signs seem to point to Jacob doing this out of a desire for self-preservation.
While I don’t want to deny that Jacob is scared, I believe his motivation could have been otherwise. Jacob has, at least since his original departure, been on a journey of self-discovery and spiritual development. He was only now returning from having to work for twenty years under the deceitful Lavan, and now the brother whom he had used his own cunning to trick was standing before him. Just imagine how Jacob must feel at this moment. Even if the result of his tricking his brother was positive, even if he had been aware when doing so that it was for the best, he has still deceived and harmed his own brother. The guilt must have consumed him. While the gifts are definitely being sent to his brother in order to appease him, they are also sent in the hopes of making amends.
It is here that we find the widely known story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. A tradition that isn’t as well known, taught by Rashi, the preeminent Medieval commentator, is that this angel was actually the guardian angel of Esau. The next morning, the brothers are reunited rather amicably with hugs and kisses. Jacob assures Esau he can keep the gifts, and Esau offers to escort Jacob home. Jacob is dismissive, and tells Esau to go ahead of him, yet instead he sends Esau far ahead of his end destination. Why would he do this? They had seemingly just made up, and Jacob was being given the chance to make right what he had done in the past, but now he is tricking Esau and pushing him away. The key is in the angel from the night before.
The angel represented Jacob’s own feelings towards Esau, his guilt and his fear. These emotions act as barriers, preventing Jacob from being able to come to terms with the relationship he has with his brother and seeing just who his brother actually is. Hence, those emotions are defending Esau from Jacob’s judgement, and Rashi’s description of the angel as Esau’s guardian angel is accurate.
Like many who have experienced abuse, Jacob has not been able to let go of these emotions that torment him. Now on the eve of being reunited with the one who made him feel this way, he is forced to deal with them. Having won the battle with the angel, Jacob is free; the birthright that he gained from Esau can now be fully his without guilt. While guiltless, we see that he cannot move on without some luggage, as his dislocated hip represents the little fear he still has. And so, while just the day before his intentions may have been to appease and to supplicate, on the day of meeting there is no reason for them to build a connection—if anything Jacob is now aware that such a connection could not be possible, so his goal instead becomes to prevent conflict.
Just as Jacob had to confront his past and learn to move on from it in order to cross the river into the Holy Land, we too have to learn to wrestle with our pasts. Dealing with what has happened or with what we have done is a difficult balance. If Jacob were to ignore his past he would not have been able to see how similar he was to Lavan and he would have walked into Esau’s army and been slaughtered. If we ignore our pasts, we won’t be able to learn from our mistakes, and we won’t be prepared for the consequences of those mistakes. However, just as Jacob had to release himself from his past with Esau in order to move forward with his life, we also can’t allow ourselves to be trapped in the past, allowing it to control our emotions and our lives
If we want to live better and more fulfilling lives, than we need to handle our hang-ups just like Jacob does, through wrestling with them. When Jacob and the angel wrestled, their arms were entangled, their bodies close together. Get in there, entangle your “am” and “do” with your “was” and “did.” Remember, Jacob does not overpower his opponent and win the battle, rather he endured until morning when the angel left him. You might not be able to fix the problems of yesterday, but you can refuse to let them hold you down until they no longer try to. Just like Jacob, you might not come out completely unscathed, but you will be free.
David Gutbezahl is a recent graduate of Ramapo College.
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