Frederick L. Klein
Frederick L. Klein

VaYishlach: Important Battles are Within

Ben Zoma said: Who is the warrior, one who conquers his inner self (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).  Perhaps ben Zoma was thinking of Jacob when he penned this aphorism.

After over twenty years apart in this week’s parashah we finally encounter the long-awaited reunification between Jacob and Esau.  Perhaps Jacob thought that after all these years Esau would have forgotten the wrong done unto him, but as he approaches the border and announces his presence, messengers report that he is coming with four hundred men.  While the commentaries struggle to sense the true motivations of Esau (is the motivation to attack Jacob or to honor him?), it is clear that at least for Jacob, he is reminded of his last encounter with his brother, and clearly sees Esau’s approach as an existential threat.[1]  The Torah tells us he is deeply afraid and distressed and feels he must react.  Suddenly, all the repressed trauma of his early youth reemerges.

Rashi notes that Jacob engages in three defensive strategies: he provides significant tribute, he prays to God, and as a last resort, he girds himself for war.  In doing,  he displays to others and himself that he is a financially powerful man,  a man of strong faith, and has military prowess.  (Again, whether this three-pronged strategy needed to be employed depends on how one reads the motivations of Esau.)  It is hard not to be moved by the final reunification of Esau and Jacob, as both run towards one another, embrace one another, and shed tears, releasing all the previous hate and resentment.  For at least a moment, Jacob and Esau truly seem to be brothers.  Unlike the years before, where every interaction seemed to be competitive and transactional in nature, in this moment we really experience love between the two.  The reunification does not seem to be orchestrated, but at least for a moment, genuine. What changed?  In a word, Jacob changed.

The encounter between Jacob and Esau has been read historically as a political or metaphysical narrative describing the Jewish people’s encounter with her enemies.     However, at the core the entire narrative is the story of two struggling brothers, conceived in the same womb, yet very different in character.  While Esau comes out first, hairy and fully formed, Jacob is holding on to Esau’s ankle (ekev). Jacob from the womb in some way feels incomplete and insecure and must hold on to that which is outside himself.   The name given by his parents, Ya’akov (‘ankle’) imprints the feelings of inadequacy in his very being.  It is this insecurity, his need to succeed, that drives Jacob to trick his brother into selling his birthright for a bowl of lentils, and then later to deceive him through usurping the blessings of his father.  Esau’s cry upon realizing Jacob’s deception is telling.  “Is it any wonder he is named Jacob, in the fact that he supplanted me twice! First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!” (Gen 27:34).  While Esau’s previous deeds and choices make clear he may not be worthy of the birthright and the blessings, Jacob cannot fill Esau’s shoes simply by default, through acts of subterfuge.  In essence, Esau’s statement is not simply a cry of pain, but is a perceptive statement about the character of Jacob himself.  Esau proclaims that ultimately Jacob is an imposter and has earned neither the blessings nor the birthright.  In these words, Esau makes clear that the struggle Jacob has with him is not about him; he is simply the externalized projection of a conflict within Jacob himself.

In a very real way, Jacob’s struggle is a struggle with an imagined idealized self.  Jacob’s journey to the house of Laban was not only a journey away from his home and the known, but a journey inside himself, a journey of self-discovery.   Jacob began that journey with a dream about a ladder ascending to the heavens with angels ascending and descending.  The literal reading is that angels are going up and down the ladder, but one rabbinic reading is striking. The angels are going up and down Jacob himself.  Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman (Germany, 1843-1921) notes that the metaphor of the ladder is that each human being has a real and idealized self; the angels ascend to the heaven to consider what this person could be, and then descend to find a person asleep, asleep to his own potential.   To rise and ascend to the heavens, to becomes one’s idealized self is terrifying, as one can fail and fall.  For this reason, in the vision God blesses Jacob and assures him that he will be protected, giving him the internal confidence, he needs.  If this reading is correct, Jacob’s internal dream at night reflects the fact that has a vision for himself, and subconsciously realizes that he must ascend the ladder on his own. He must earn the blessing and the birthright.    For this reason, Jacob begins his journey to Laban on his own, with only a staff in his hand.

For the next twenty years Jacob labors and toils, creating a name for himself, a place in this world.  He has built a family and considerable wealth in the most difficult of circumstances and is ready to return.  He did all of this on his own, with only a staff in his hand and God’s promise.   It is now time to return, but he knows that upon his return he must again confront his brother.  However, this time messengers come before him, announcing that Jacob has lived in the most difficult of places, the house of Laban, a scoundrel, and a cheat.  Rashi also notes a rabbinic tradition that the word garti, “I have lived (with Laban)”, has the numerical value of 613, the number of Torah commandments.  Imaginatively, the rabbis are saying that in these most difficult of places, Jacob has been able to stay true to his faith, and therefore the heir apparent to the spiritual traditions of Abraham and Isaac.  He crosses the border with a large family, servants and flocks, again signaling that he is not the same person who absconded in the middle of the night twenty years earlier.  In a real way he is trying to reset the relationship with his brother, employing various strategies to both appease him and to let him know that he is not the same person he once was.

But as we know, in life the biggest battles are often not with those around us, but rather with those personages that seem to reside within us and will not leave.  Whatever Jacob is doing on the outside to reconcile with his brother, there is still work that needs to be done inside. The Esau that called Jacob an imposter still resides within him, and appears to him in his darkest dreams.  Despite everything he has done and created, Jacob at times still feels like the insecure child in his parents’ home.  Jacob wants to excise this voice.  These lingering feelings provide the psychic background of Jacob’s nighttime struggle with an angelic being the night before his encounter with Esau.   The night before he sends his entire family across a mysterious Yabok River, but he stays on the other side, alone through the long night.  For some reason he does not cross himself, a topic raised by the commentaries; perhaps Jacob cannot pass over.  Jacob is suddenly projected back to a time twenty years earlier, fleeing his brother, alone in the dark of the night, full of fear and self-doubt.  The name of the river, Yabok, is not only a play on Jacob’s name, Ya’akov, but is also a play on the word VaYe’Avek/ to struggle, as on that night he struggles with a mysterious man.

Who is this mysterious man and why do they struggle?  One explanation the midrash offers is that the mysterious man is the guardian angel of Esau (Bereishit Rabbah 77:3).   While later history will read this struggle as a metaphysical battle between Israel and her enemies, we may also see this as the struggle between the real and ideal Jacob, the same message of the dream of the ladder many years earlier.  The mysterious man may represent the presence of Esau that still resides in his head.  Jacob realizes this time he cannot flee but must confront the mysterious man- and himself.   He does and prevails, and this mysterious man, the angel of Esau, renames Jacob with the name of Israel, meaning you have prevailed (sarita) with divine beings and men” (32:28).  The names represent this process of growth. While Jacob indicates inauthenticity and subterfuge, Israel indicates victory and glory.  The name also have a secondary meaning, as the name Israel is a play on the word Yashar, upright and virtuous. While Jacob is conniving and crooked, Israel is upright and virtuous.  Jacob is undeserving, but Israel is deserving- of the birthright and the blessings.

The next morning, Jacob finally reunites with his brother, a touching scene.  However, this was preceded by gifts to Esau, multiple prostrations, and appealing to Esau as ‘his master’.  When Esau expresses surprise, Jacob says that God has blessed him and therefore Esau should ‘take his blessing’ for “he has everything he needs’.  The close reader is immediately reminded that twenty years earlier Jacob surreptitiously took Esau’s blessings.  He had wronged him.   In ‘giving Esau his blessing’, he is returning that which was never his in the first place.  Jacob now is confident, and realizes that indeed, he has everything he needs.   In essence, in giving back that which is not his in the first place and through embracing his own destiny, Jacob indeed has everything.  He has ascended the ladder and approached his idealized self.

We are left with one more puzzle to solve.  Jacob did reunite with his brother (and make peace with himself), but he did it limping.  The night before the angelic man displaced his hip.  I believe that the Torah is telling us that the journey towards self-actualization is not unidirectional, but while we move forward, we also will falter, we will fail to be who we hope to be.  Unlike Abraham and Sarah, whose names are both changed permanently, the name of Israel remains aspirational and provisional.   Israel will continue to be called at times Jacob, and his children- the Jewish people- will be called both the ‘children of Israel’ and ‘the children of Jacob’.

Unlike the other Patriarchs, Jacob is Everyman, and his struggles are our struggles.  Like the earthly Jacob and the heavenly Israel, we too will spend our lives ascending and descending the ladder.   In this process, we realize that at times we may limp, and that is OK, if we move forward step by step, rung by rung.  Like Jacob, we do this with an internal voice that tells us that if we walk this path, God will protect us.  We will be blessed, and be a blessing unto others.

[1] See for example, Bechor Shor 32:7, and Ramban’s comments ibid.  The Rashbam sees the four hundred men as an attempt to honor Jacob, but clearly Jacob does not see it that way.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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