When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text.
For I recognize my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
– Psalms (51:5)
This week’s Torah portion brings Jacob back into the world he fled over twenty years ago.
Jacob returns to Canaan at God’s instruction, but then learns that his brother Esau is coming to meet him (Gen. 32:7) “and four hundred men are with him.” Despite God’s promise of protection and God’s explicit direction to return, Jacob is filled with dread. Immediately, Jacob takes tactical measures, hoping that Esau will not wipe out his entire family.
Jacob first divides everything and everyone into two camps – and note that last week’s portion ended with Jacob giving the name Two Camps to the place where he crosses out of Laban’s territory in Haran. This name, Two Camps, describes Jacob’s two encounters with angels: the dream of the ladder as he fled Canaan, and the second encounter as he returns home. Jacob acknowledges God’s graciousness and abundance: “I am humbled by the kindness and the truth You have done for Your servant; for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps!” (32:11)
What is the significance of this division of Jacob’s assets – and of his family? The last thing Jacob heard as he fled his home was that his brother Esau was bent on murdering him for the theft of the birthright and of the blessing. Twenty-one years have passed, but Jacob remembers Esau as he was on the eve of Jacob’s flight. When they reunite, it seems that Esau has put the incident out of mind. He is genuinely pleased to see Jacob and addresses him in brotherly fashion: (33:4) “Esau ran toward him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Esau may have forgotten his anger, but Jacob clearly still feels his own guilt as intensely as if it were yesterday.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, because the key incident in this portion occurs before the brothers meet. In the opening passage (32:4-24) Jacob is frightened. He sets up an elaborate sequence of expensive gifts, instructing his servants to go ahead and offer presents to Esau in an attempt to appease him. Then, in the middle of the night and under cover of darkness, Jacob ferries his entire family and all his possessions across the river into Canaan.
“Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the coming of the dawn. And he saw that he could not overcome him, and he thrust against his hip socket, so Jacob’s hip was dislocated as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, because the dawn has broken.’ And he said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ And he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but rather Israel, because you have struggled with God and with man and you were equal to the task.’ And Jacob asked and said, ‘Please tell me your name,’ and he said, ‘Why this? Why do you ask my name?’ and he blessed him there.” (32:25-30)
(The “he” and “him” repetition are as ambiguous in the original as in this translation, but it all works out; the speakers are in their right places.)
Who is this mysterious “man”? The rabbis say it was Esau’s guardian angel, suggesting that Jacob’s true struggle is twofold: First, he has never confronted his own guilt over the twin crimes he committed in lying to his father and deceiving his brother. Second, and more insidious, it suggests that there is an Esau dwelling within Jacob. This Jacob has spent his life getting stuff – accumulating physical wealth and living the life of a hardworking and successful businessman. A family man, a pillar of the community. And isn’t that in fact just what Esau is? The hail-fellow-well-met who is a success in the hunt and on the playing fields, beloved of his family and attentive to his parents. Indeed, the rabbis hold out Esau as the ultimate paradigm of the Biblical commandment to honor one’s parents. Can’t you just picture him as a favorite at the Rotary Club, perhaps – like so many retired professional athletes – the owner of a string of car dealerships?
What is it about Esau that so terrifies Jacob, if not the awareness that, in stealing Esau’s blessing, Jacob has perhaps become Esau? After all these years of exile, of privation and endless hard work, is this to be Jacob’s fate? To be no more than, no better than – indeed, no other than a poor copy of his own brother? Has Jacob become, in a poetic echo, a faint Cain to Esau’s powerful and self-assured Abel? Surely Jacob’s fear of having failed spectacularly in his spiritual quest is part of what the rabbis perceive in this desperate struggle.
Jacob has spent his life getting stuff, yet we have not seen him doing anything to acquire wisdom. He talks his brother out of the birthright, bartering it for the famous mess of pottage. He steals the blessing from his father. He acquires wives and concubines who accommodate him by producing a steady stream of sons (family standing was based on male progeny in that society) and a memorable daughter. He has a grand entourage of servants and retainers and amasses afortune in livestock, with endless flocks of sheep and goats as sell as great herds of cattle, donkeys, and camels. Judging by the gifts he sends to his brother, he’s as wealthy as a successful hedge fund manager – and every bit as ostentatious.
True to this material success, Jacob dispatches his family, his staff, and his worldly possessions to a place where he hopes they will be safeguarded – for what is the point of acquiring mere things, only to lose them? He leads them across the river under cover of darkness. Then he crosses back by himself. Now, without his family and his entourage, and stripped of his physical possessions, Jacob is at last truly alone.
And being alone, he is forced to confront himself. What’s going on within? When Jacob comes face to face with his unexamined self, he is at a loss Who are you and what, if anything, have you actually gained? What shall I even call you? And how shall I engage with you? In the struggle, Jacob is injured, resulting in a limp. Yet he is blessed, and his blessing – his new name Israel – is given not because he won, but because he was able. He hung in. Jacob’s lesson is that it is not about winning; rather, it is about being able to hobble off the field on his own, and about being able to return to the field again.
What do we learn when, as King David says, our sin is ever before us? One reading is, no matter what I have done to make up for bad things I have done or said, I still bear the guilt. Never mind that I have repaid many times over the problems I have created, I still bear the emotional wounds as though it were yesterday. At night when I lie in the dark, my gut wrenches, my neck twitches and my shoulders quiver in shame and grief over my past actions.
Or: I have faced my shortcomings and my worst actions, difficult as it was. Things I have done in the past – or failed to do – I have confronted. I have explored the feelings that drove me to this behavior, my own inability to see those feelings for what they were. I have examined the impact I have had on others. And even though I can’t wipe out my painful emotions, I have confronted my inability to deal with my feelings, the lack of self-awareness that drove me to those behaviors in the past, my knee-jerk reaction to act out my worst impulses. And just as I have faced and overcome my troubles in the past – and yes, I still have feelings of guilt, of inadequacy, of inexplicable anger, of depression, even of despair – I can revisit my past emotional successes to draw strength and wisdom with which to face today’s challenges.
My emotions are part of who I am. They will never go away. My past will never go away. Which means it’s all right there, right in front of me, just waiting for me to dive in and learn what it’s all about. If I fail to learn from my own past, I shall surely never build a better future.
In Hebrew the name Israel is from the verb meaning to struggle. It looks like a future tense form of the verb, suggesting that Jacob is renamed, not The One Who Struggled, but The One Who Will Struggle. Here’s the bad news: it never gets easier. Life is an ongoing continuum of challenges, and when we win, up pops another battle. Here’s the other bad news: you will lose very often and almost never win. And when you do win, it will be temporary.
Here’s the good news: success in life is not about winning. God needs each one of us to stay in the game. Those for whom life is all about winning – about making more and more money – will fail because there will never be enough money for them to sit back and declare victory. (Ecclesiastes 5:10, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money.”) How many men do we know whose lives center around acquiring wealth? Working for years on Wall Street, I have often heard men say, “It’s not about making money – money’s just a way of keeping score.” They lie. They lie to us, and they surely lie to themselves. Money is the repository of all that is sacred in our culture. By acquiring more and more of it, the wealthy seem to accrue virtue to themselves. Behold the world we have built.
Jacob learns the hardest lesson of all: that the world does not need winners. It needs people who keep coming back to the playing field and putting out a full measure of effort. People who don’t make material success their sole value. People who learn from their own pain and use it to make themselves stronger. We have all created suffering through unthinking acts. Suffering for others and for ourselves. The task now, armed with self-knowledge, is to relieve suffering wherever we encounter it in the world. For ourselves, and for others.
And so it is good that my sin remains by my side, because it is the best teacher. When my most painful emotions rise up, I confront them. “I will not let you go until you bless me,” I say. “Until you teach me.” When we learn to see the blessing within the most difficult parts of our lives, we take our first steps on the path of wisdom.
Yours for a better world.