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Rabbi Jon’s Reflection on This Week’s Torah Portion

12.1.2023

Vayishlach 2023: Wrestling Instead of Fighting or Fleeing

A short reflection on Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4 - 36:43)  

Fight or flight is a basic instinct. Our bodies instinctively turn to one impulse or the other in order to protect ourselves and those we love. We often lack  the time to contemplate the best way out of a bad situation so our instincts take over. But, as I often counsel couples in pre-marriage counseling, the best thing one can do is take a couple of breaths and call a timeout when you’re about to say things you’ll later regret. Taking time to calm down allows two people to return to rationally discuss their conflict or to at least work as a couple to come to a mutual agreement. But, what happens when you’re alone in a flight or fight situation? 

Our ancestor Jacob found  himself in this dilemma several times. Some 20 years earlier, he had stolen the blessing of the first born meant for his brother Esau, and Esau had threatened to kill him. Jacob’s fight or flight instinct took over and he fled. His journey brought him to Haran, his uncle Laban, his two brides Leah and Rachel, and his two consorts Bilhah and Zilpah. Along the way, he had eleven sons and one daughter, Dinah.  He amassed a great fortune. But, just as he left Canaan, he left Haran – running from a relative, his uncle Laban. Laban chased Jacob down but decided to let him be when  Adonai warned Laban  against harming Jacob. Laban was only the first of Jacob’s problems. He now had to interact with his brother Esau as he reached the border of the land of his birth.

As night descended, Jacob came to a fjord and divided his company into three sections. His servants and possessions were placed on one bank, his family on another and he on the third. He found himself alone, deciding whether to flee or to fight, and the instinct to flee took over. But, our Torah teaches that a mystical moment occurred. Instead of running, he wrestled. 

As written in Genesis, “Jacob was left alone. And a figure 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, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘let me go, for dawn is breaking.’ But he answered, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’” 

Commentators have argued over this mysterious figure. Was it a man, an angel or even God? My personal commentary is that Jacob was wrestling with himself, struggling with an instinct to run. Unlike so many rash decisions he made in the past, this time he stopped and thought about the consequences of running – of leaving behind his family, his servants, and his wealth. He had a reputation for being a trickster and a man who snuck off in the middle of the night. This time, instead of running or fighting, he wrestled with his own heart and after a night of wrestling, he changed. He found holiness inside of his soul and was rewarded with a new name – Israel – “one who has wrestled with beings divine and human and survived.” Notice how the Torah doesn’t say that Jacob wrestled with a divine being but with beings divine and HUMAN. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, believed that every person’s goal is to become more human which to him meant becoming more holy and righteous in one’s actions. 

How often have we avoided wrestling with ourselves before reacting?  How often have we forgotten to take a deep breath or called a timeout in discussions with those we love or even those we barely know? How often have we just reacted by fleeing or fighting? Wrestling with ourselves before speaking out or running away can lead us to outcomes of peace instead of conflict. Ultimately, Jacob made peace with Esau. We should be able to do the same if we wrestle with ourselves before taking action, lifting our human souls toward the divine. 

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VAYISHLACH SUMMARY FROM URJ.ORG

  • Jacob prepares to meet Esau. He wrestles with a "man," who changes Jacob's name to Israel. (32:4-33)

  • Jacob and Esau meet and part peacefully, each going his separate way. (33:1-17)

  • Dinah is raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, who was chief of the country. Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi take revenge by murdering all the males of Shechem, and Jacob's other sons join them in plundering the city. (34:1-31)

  • Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin and is buried in Ephrah, which is present-day Bethlehem. (35:16-21)

  • Isaac dies and is buried in Hebron. Jacob's and Esau's progeny are listed. (35:22-36:43)

For more on this Torah portion from the URJ go to: 

https://reformjudaism.org/torah/portion/vayishlach    

 

 

Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784