By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
D’var Torah for Parshat Vayishlach
Dedicated to the memory of my father, Ze’ev ben Aryeh v’Yona on the 100th anniversary of his birth
One of the Torah’s most valuable lessons that it is vitally important to become a link in the golden chain of tradition, to receive tradition and then, in turn, to pass it on.
In last week’s Torah portion, it was Isaac who learned this lesson. This week, it is Jacob’s turn.
Despite the Torah’s description of Jacob as a mild, simple man, he was anything but. He was a wrestler, struggling from the womb on. First it was his twin brother, Esau; then his father-in-law, Laban. In this week’s portion, Vayishlach (Gen. 32:4-36:43), Jacob confronts his guilty conscience, and he wrestles with a mysterious stranger who might represent his worst fears.
Twenty years earlier, with little life experience and few possessions of his own, Jacob had to flee from his brother’s vengeful wrath, leaving forever the comfortable tents of his mother and father. Now an older, more mature and wealthy man, in charge of a large family and even larger flocks, Jacob is coming home. But first there’s the matter of Esau to settle. And Esau, Jacob learns, is coming at him, armed and accompanied by four hundred horsemen.
Jacob prepares for the confrontation the best way he can: he sends gifts to placate Esau; then he prays; and finally—just in case the first two aren’t effective—he prepares for war and for the tragic losses that are war’s inevitable consequence.
But the night before his fateful meeting with Esau, alone on a mountaintop, Jacob has an unexpected encounter: He meets a mysterious stranger who engages Jacob in a wrestling match that lasts till dawn. Who this stranger might be is not made clear in the story. Some say it was Esau’s protecting angel, while others explain that it was the embodiment of Jacob’s own fears and doubts. Jacob, in any case, believes this being to be an angel.
Jacob emerges victorious from this contest, but he is not unscathed. At one point during the match, his thigh is injured, and the dawn sees him limping as he takes his first steps across the river and into the Promised Land.
It is only at this point that Jacob understands what his role in life must be.
As a young boy, Jacob had learned of God’s promise; he must have first heard about it from his grandfather, Abraham, then in overheard conversations between Isaac and Rebecca. At first, Jacob aspired to it. He saw it as a crown, a pinnacle of fame and glory. Tempted, he allowed himself to reach for it, to grasp it even at the price of deceiving his father and enraging his brother. Now, however, he finally understands the full import of this blessing. He realizes that being God’s chosen brings with it great responsibility, as well some very real dangers and perhaps even sacrifice and tragedy.
Now, humbled by this knowledge, hobbling under its weight and facing an uncertain future, Jacob is ready to take his rightful place in the line of tradition. He may be limping, an army is gathering and marching against him, but Jacob is buoyed by the blessing the angel had given him. Just as the sun was rising, with his powers quickly fading, the angel changed Jacob’s name to Israel, saying, “You have striven with angels and peoples, and you have prevailed.”
Taking his first steps on the sacred soil of the Promised Land, Jacob senses something new: He is no longer alone. The full strength of his father’s blessing fortifies him.
Jacob, now and forever more known as Israel, is finally ready to become a source of blessing himself. He has crossed over the river of eternity and become a link in an unending, golden chain of Tradition, bridging his and his family’s past into the future and into all eternity.
He is now ready to face his brother and whatever the new day will bring.
He is Israel.