This week’s portion is the climax of Jacob’s struggle/life/life-struggle: after 20 years with treacherous Laban, he returns home. It was 20 years ago that Jacob fled for his life from Esau, who wanted to kill him for stealing his blessing. And now, coming to meet Jacob as he crosses into the Promised Land, is Esau – with 400 men. In the Middle East, memory – and vengeance – doesn’t pass with time.
“And Jacob feared greatly… and he said: ‘God of my father Abraham and of my father Isaac who said to me, “Return to your land and your birthplace”… Save me please from the hand of my brother…'”
So here it is: Jacob’s life is coming full circle.
Late at night, having divided his camp in half – hoping that if one half is decimated the next morning, the other half will survive – at the height of anxiety (and likely desperate for a few hours’ rest), Jacob meets an angel who wrestles with him until dawn. When Jacob demands a blessing to free the angel, the angel changes Jacob’s name to Israel “because you have striven (Israel) with God and with men and prevailed.” (Full disclosure, this was the quote on my bar mitzvah invitation.)
It is fair to say Jacob has striven with men. But the curious part is that it says “you have striven with God.” Jacob’s encounters with God seem straightforward and there is little that smacks of strife. But let’s hold this question and continue with the story.
Jacob, intelligently, sends messenger after messenger to approach Esau, bearing a huge amount of gifts (in the form of livestock), thinking “I will appease (literally ‘atone’) him with the offering that I have sent before me and then when I will see him perhaps he will have forbearance for me.”
Gifts received, Jacob leads his family and bows down seven times until he reached Esau. “And Esau ran to him, and hugged him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they cried.” If we just take the text at face value (and ignore the near-obsessive endeavor of the sages to portray Esau as a villain), this is a touching encounter. Jacob then introduces Esau to each of his wives (and handmaids) and his children, each bowing seven times before approaching Esau. Then Esau asks to whom belongs all the livestock the messengers presented him. Jacob: “To find favor in your eyes, sir.” Esau: “I have plenty, my brother, let yours be yours.” Jacob: “Please, no, if I find favor in your eyes, take the offering from my hand, for seeing your face is like seeing the face of God…”
What humility. What respect. Jacob has come a long way. Can you imagine a conversation like this between the brothers twenty years earlier?
Esau is placated and, if he had ill intent toward Jacob it has totally dissipated, and he goes on is way, the brothers parting ways peacefully forever.
This is the conclusion of the struggle that began in the womb. And this is essentially where the story of Jacob ends.
From this point on – the next story is the story of Dina and the revenge of her brothers Shimon and Levy on the prince who raped, repented and then married her – Jacob’s life is eclipsed by the actions of his sons. He plays a secondary, reactive role in the narrative.
Jacob is a tragic figure. His story is one story of conflict and resolution – with not much to show for it, save years of hardship in between. On the face of it, Jacob is in conflict with Esau and then (not of his doing) with Laban.
But mostly Jacob is in conflict with himself: of the grand aspirations in his youth – getting from where he is (second (born)) to where he feels he is supposed to be (first (born)) – and, after high drama and slow grind, of Jacob coming to terms with himself and his brother.
It is fair to say that Jacob is overly-reverential to Esau out of fear. But in the end, a little respect is all Esau seems to need to reject any impulse of revenge. And so the two come to terms; and it is touching and comforting. The competition is over. And, viewed in retrospect, the whole competition thing seems very petty and unfortunate.
So now back to the question: why does the angel say Jacob has striven with God? With man – for sure, plenty. But with God?
The only other entity with which Jacob has struggled – and struggled bitterly – is with himself. Perhaps that is what the angel is referring to. Jacob’s struggle with himself is in fact Jacob’s struggle with God.
This suggests a different perception of what God is and where God is: it suggests that God is within us. When we struggle internally we are struggling with God. Our internal struggle is our encounter with God. When we are happy or sad or in pain, that is how God is manifesting Himself to us – in the happiness, in the sorrow, in the pain.
Our “personal journey” is none other than our journey with God. When we strive with ourselves, we are striving with God.
Let us hope that, like Jacob, we prevail.