Vayishlach: Wresting a blessing

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket…Then he said, “Let me go for the dawn is breaking. “ But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Bereishit 32:25 – 27.)

Slumber eludes him, alone in the darkness,
eyes gazing up at the star-sprinkled sky.

At the edge of his vision, silently stirring,
a specter emerges. Jacob chokes on his breath.

His rival approaches as panic wells up –
he has planned, he has prayed – yet there is no recourse.

Fighting back horror, he steps slowly forward,
voice mute, hands outstretched, to wrestle his foe.

Terror transforms now there’s nowhere to turn
and courage wells up in an eddying flood.

Steadfastly holding, he cries to the shadow,
“Accord me your blessing and then you may go!”

In his book, Covenant and Conversation: Genesis, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses the theme of surviving crisis based on the parasha of Vayishlach. He comments that Jacob fought the stranger after he had prepared himself for every possibility: he had sent conciliatory gifts to Esau; he had adopted the strategy of dividing his camp so some would survive should they be attacked; and he had prayed to God. He appears to have covered every possible outcome – except the one that actually transpired – the need to battle the unknown foe . Rabbi Sacks says, “Crises happen and there is no way we can make ourselves immune to them. That is the human condition and we cannot escape it. We live toward an unknown, unknowable future…Faith is not certainty: it is the courage to live with uncertainty…Even in the 21st century when we know so much about the universe, cosmology, the human genome and the workings of the human brain, there is one thing we do not know and never will: what tomorrow will bring.”

On the phrase, “And a man wrestled with him,” Rabbi Sacks points out that although the identity of Jacob’s sparring partner is unknown, it is clear that this fight reflects Jacob’s inner turmoil and his fear. He cites Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam who he says brings an extraordinary interpretation of Jacob’s wrestling match. “Fearing the confrontation with Esau, Jacob wanted to run away, and God sent an angel to wrestle with him to stop him doing so. On this reading, God was teaching Jacob how to wrestle with his fears and defeat them.” Benno Jacob adds, “God answers a person’s prayers if the person prays by searching himself, becoming his own opponent.”

The Torah tells us that Jacob limped after his bout with the angel. In her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen addresses the wounds we accrue as we encounter life. She says, “Wounded, we may find a wisdom that will enable us to live better than any knowledge and glimpse a view of ourselves and of life that is both true and unexpected.” She adds that her grandfather, who told her the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, suggested that Jacob’s wound was his reminder of this.

Rabbi Sacks comments that the words that Jacob utters to the angel, “I will not let you go until you bless me,” lie at the heart of surviving crisis. He points out that tough experiences are often the most important in our lives, and growth frequently occurs by working through our mistakes. He says, “A protected life is a fragile and superficial life. Strength comes from knowing the worst and refusing to give in. Jacob/Israel has bequeathed us many gifts, but few more valuable than the obstinacy and resilience that can face hard times and say of them, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” I will not give up or move on until I have extracted something positive from this pain and turned it into blessing.”

Dr Remen concludes, “It is a puzzling story, a story about the nature of blessings and the nature of enemies. How tempting to let the enemy go and flee. To put the struggle behind you as quickly as possible and get on with your life. Life might be easier but far less genuine. Perhaps the wisdom lies in engaging the life you have been given as fully and courageously as possible and not letting go until you find the unknown blessing that is in everything.”

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