(This week’s parashah, Vayishlah, tells the story of the reuniting of Yaakov and Esau, which is preceded by Yaakov’s night-long wrestling encounter on the banks of the Jabbok with a mysterious man/angel. This is my interpretation of this parashah and the “sequel” to an earlier commentary I wrote on an imagined Esau-Cain encounter from parashat Vayetzey.)
Another sleepless night. How many had it been now? Yaakov could not remember. All he knew was that each night he would awaken from the same dream, a dream in which he faced his brother alone for the first time since he had stolen their father’s blessing through deceit, thus guaranteeing his place as the patriarch of a great nation yet-to-be.
But why had this dream begun to haunt him now? He searched and searched for their meaning and could find none. Then one day he was informed that a large caravan consisting of hundreds of people and animals was traveling towards them and at its head was a man with hair as red as the blazing son seeming to cover his entire body. Then Yaakov knew why these dreams had begun to haunt him. Esau had found him. The day that he had feared was finally drawing near.
What was he to do? He couldn’t run any more. With all of these people, animals and possessions it would be impossible. He also knew in his heart that he did not have the strength or the will to run away again. And so he sent messengers with gifts to his brother, devised a plan in which his camp would be divided into two, so if attacked at least some of them might survive, and prepared to meet Esau.
As the sun began to set on the day before Esau’s arrival he prayed to God to protect him, even though he realized that he was not worthy after all that he had done to harm his brother. That evening he told his wives and children that he was going to take them somewhere safe — though he was unsure where they would truly be safe if Esau were still in a murderous rage after all these years. As he was guiding them in the dusk he came upon a stream. He thought he had remembered every inch of the path that he took when he fled home, and yet he did not remember this stream. Strange, but he paid little mind to this, for his goal was to deliver his family to safety. After crossing the stream and taking them to a place that he hoped would be safe, he then returned across the stream and brought all of his possessions over to the other side as well. Then he again crossed the stream and returned to where they had camped the previous night. There he sat down alone on a rock by the stream and began to remember all that he had done to his brother. Surely his brother must still be angry with him. Who wouldn’t be? He had taken everything from him through deceit. On top of that he and his mother had duped his aging and blind father into believing that the blessing was being given to Esau, his favorite son and the rightful heir as the elder of the two twins.
As Yaakov played the story over and over again in his mind, he could feel the fear of his brother welling inside of him. But the more he was afraid, the more he realized that he would have to face his fear in order to go on with his life, hopefully to become the father of a great nation as promised.
As he thought about this, he heard a noise behind him. The night was pitch black, as it was the time of the new moon, and yet he could still see a figure in front of him standing at the bank of the stream. It was the figure of a man. That much he could tell, but not much more. The man stood there still and silent. Could it be Esau? No, he was too tall, too thin. Somehow he also knew that this man was far too old to be his brother, even without being able to see him.
Before Yaakov had a chance to ask the man’s name, the stranger suddenly ran forward and lunged at Yaakov’s foot. Before Yaakov could respond, the man grabbed his heel and pulled his leg out from under him so that he fell to the ground. Thus began a wrestling match that seemed to last the entire night. Yaakov had no time to think or to wonder why this was happening or who the man was. For though he appeared at first to be old, perhaps ancient, he had strength at least equal to that of Yaakov. All through the night they struggled with each other, neither of them gaining or losing ground for very long. Yaakov was amazed that he had the strength to endure this struggle. After all, fighting and other physical activity had always been his brother’s forte. He had always been happier studying or reading. Perhaps he was able to endure because he felt as if in some way his life depended on this struggle. He believed that if he gave up, he would lose not only the fight, but also his life, and everything that had been promised to him by God. And so he struggled with this strange and silent man through the night until he could see the tiniest bit of light in the distance. Though the stranger’s back was towards this nascent sunrise, he suddenly stopped at the same moment Yaakov noticed the faint light. It was as if he knew instinctively that the sun was beginning to rise.
At that moment the stranger slightly loosened his grip on Yaakov. Yaakov took advantage of this opportunity to break free of the stranger and began to rise to his feet. Suddenly he was knocked over by a force that seemed superhuman in its strength. He fell to the ground and was once again locked in struggle. Then the stranger grabbed Yaakov’s thigh and pulled with what seemed the force of ten men. Yaakov could feel the pain shooting through his body, as his hip was wrenched from its socket. He let out a scream that he felt sure would be heard by his family in their secret hiding place. He only hoped and prayed that they would stay where they were and not come running to see why he was screaming.
As the echo of the scream died down the stranger spoke for the first time. “The time has come for me to leave you,” he said in a voice that seemed as if it came from another world. Upon hearing these words Yaakov regained his composure and his strength. He threw his arms around the stranger as he began to stand up and pulled him back to the ground. “You are going nowhere,” Yaakov said, “until you tell me who you are, where you came from and why you attacked me.” “I am sorry,” said the stranger, “I have no answers to those questions, at least not answers that would satisfy you, and I must leave before the sun rises.” Upon hearing that Yaakov held on even tighter.
“I will not let you go until you give me something,” he said. The stranger laughed, “Give you something? Don’t you think you have enough? You have four wives, eleven children, and an entourage equal to that of the king of Egypt. Besides that you have everything else that God has given you. All this you have even though your father had told you all those years that it was to be Esau’s and not yours.” Yaakov was confused. How did the stranger know all this? Then he realized that anyone who knew all of these things, seemed to possess superhuman strength and needed to leave before sunrise, could not be human. “Are you an angel or a demon?” he asked the stranger. “I am neither. I simply am, that is all I can tell you. Now please let me go!” “No!” said Yaakov, “if you are not human then you must be a demon of some kind.” “If I were a demon I could have killed you long …”, the stranger stopped before completing his sentence. He knew he had said too much. “So, you are an angel then! Well, if that’s the case then I won’t let you go until you leave me with a blessing from God.” “Don’t you think you have stolen enough blessings for one lifetime?” the stranger replied. “Why should I give you another? What have you done to deserve it?”
Yaakov had no answer for him. He knew the stranger was right. All that he had came from having stolen what was not meant to be his. It had all been too easy. His brother and father were both too easy to trick. His mother was too cunning and smart. And he was too pliable, too easily swayed, too unsure of himself to give any thought to what he was doing. “But wait,” he said to himself, “that is not who I am now at this moment in time. Right now I am a man who is prepared to face his brother. I am a man who was able to sustain an all-night struggle with a divine being and hold his own. I am a man — truly a man — for the first time in my life.” And so he spoke in a voice strong and clear, a voice that did not sound like his own, to the stranger, “I ask for a blessing from you because I have finally earned the right to receive it. I have struggled with you and with myself and I have prevailed. I am ready to meet my brother — no matter what happens. I am ready to ask for forgiveness, but also to accept what might happen if he is unable to forgive. Please bless me, for this may be the last sunrise that I will see.”
The man was silent for a while and then spoke, “What is your name?” “You know the answer to that,” Yaakov said, “you even called me by my name earlier.” “What is your name,” he said again, this time more emphatically. “My name is Yaakov.” ” Is that what you told your father the last time you saw him?” “No,” said Yaakov with pain in his heart, “the last time I saw my father I lied and told him that I was Esau, my brother.”
“And who are you now?” Yaakov was about to give the obvious answer when he stopped. He could not answer. He could not speak at all. “Quickly,” said the stranger, “I need your answer now. The sun will soon be up.” Yaakov remained silent and then he said in a whisper, “I do not know my name. I do not know who I am. I have always been Yaakov, the heel-grabber, the usurper, the cheater, the liar, the one who was blessed. Or so I thought. But my blessing became a curse that I have tried to run from my whole life. That is why I need your blessing. Without it I am no one. Without it I cannot go on. Without it I don’t have the strength to fulfill God’s promise.”
The stranger then spoke again. “On the night when you fled your home, your brother ran after you in a murderous rage. That night he encountered me at this very spot, and I helped him to see that rage and hatred would only destroy him and all around him. So he returned to your parents that night and continued to live his life. Now he is returning with a camp at least as large as yours, and he is returning to this very place, where he is ready to embrace you in peace. But he cannot embrace Yaakov, for Yaakov no longer exists. You have struggled this night not only with me, but also with what it means to be human and what it means to be created in the image of the Divine. You have struggled with everything that brought you to this place, and everything that has prevented you from being able to truly make the journey that God requires of you. Because of this, Yaakov, the heel-grabber is no more. You are now Yisrael, the one who has struggled with Divinity — and humanity — and prevailed. My blessing for you is that you live your life each moment in a way that will enable you to live up to that name for the rest of your life. That way you will become a blessing to all those whom you encounter each day.”
With that Yisrael said “thank you” and let the stranger go. As the stranger began to walk towards the stream Yisrael called out, “but who are you”? With his back to Yisrael he simply said, “Please do not ask me that question. Simply know that I am. That is enough.” Yisrael did not know how to respond. Then the man turned around and looked for a moment at Yisrael. Just then a ray of sunlight struck the man’s face. This so startled Yisrael that he shielded his eyes. And yet he was able to see the man’s face for a second before he shielded his eyes. In that moment he was unable to tell if the features were those of a human being or an angel. For a split second he even thought he saw the face of his brother as it had looked all those years ago. He also thought he saw a strange mark on the man’s forehead. But in the moment when he covered his eyes the man disappeared.
After looking around to be sure that the stranger had left, Yisrael walked over to the stream, still unsure if it had been there all those years ago. He stepped into the water and lay down in the stream. As the gentle, rushing waters washed over him he knew that when he arose he would indeed be a new human being. He was a man who had struggled with himself and with God. He was a man who also knew that night that he had felt the presence of God within him and seen the face of God in the momentary glimpse of the stranger’s face. And he knew that soon on that day he would look into his brother’s eyes. He also knew that in them he would see their father, their mother and himself. But more than that, he knew in his heart that when he saw his brother’s face once again, he would be seeing the face of the Divine in Esau, just as Esau would see the same in him. Secure in that knowledge, Yisrael emerged from the water and faced the rising sun, prepared to greet the day and its challenges with renewed strength, with the blessing of God and as a new man.