In this week’s parsha, we meet Jacob on the edge of his return home, preparing to face his brother Esau, after two decades of separation. This separation began when Jacob’s actions – his seizing of the Birthright – enraged Esau so much that Jacob fled, afraid for his life. Although the violent circumstances of Jacob’s exile are extreme, the fear Jacob feels on the precipice of his return is far more common. Going home to your family, after a separation, can be terrifying – especially if you are coming home different. Even more so if the separation was partly because you are different.
Going home to your family, after a separation, can be terrifying – especially if you are coming home different. Even more so if the separation was partly because you are different.
Every child whose identity shifts in some meaningful way, especially in a religious way, may feel a bit like Jacob. And our families may feel a bit like Esau: like a Birthright has been stolen from them, like something or someone they had been promised has been snatched away. This can happen even when the change that happens is holy, even when it is divinely sanctioned. While Esau’s feelings of anger towards Jacob may or may not be justified, the upheaval that the shifting possession of the Birthright creates in this family is real enough to send Jacob running into exile for twenty years. Jacob’s pursuit of God’s blessing has created a void in his home. No one in this family is the same for it.
Much has been written about the nature of Jacob’s wrestling with the mysterious man (איש) who finds him alone on that fateful night. Who is this man? Why do they fight?
The night before he meets Esau, Jacob is afraid. He prepares himself and his family for what he fears may be a painful – and deadly – reunion.
Jacob prays, “ הַצִּילֵ֥נִי נָ֛א מִיַּ֥ד אָחִ֖י מִיַּ֣ד עֵשָׂ֑ו,” “Save me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau” (Bereishit 32:12). And then, he has an unusual encounter.
Much has been written about the nature of Jacob’s wrestling with the mysterious man (איש) who finds him alone on that fateful night. Who is this man? Why do they fight? And how does this fight affect Jacob’s future? I want to focus on one particular aspect of this encounter – Jacob’s injury – and its implications for his relationship with his brother, Esau.
Jacob wrestles, and the stranger:
וַיִּגַּ֖ע בְּכַף־יְרֵכ֑וֹ וַתֵּ֙קַע֙ כַּף־יֶ֣רֶךְ יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּהֵאָֽבְק֖וֹ עִמּֽוֹ׃
…wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. (32:26)
After he is wounded, Jacob hangs on, demanding a blessing, and receiving a name change. But perhaps the wound Jacob receives, not the name change, is the answer to his prayer. Maybe the wound is the blessing. Or at least, the first blessing Jacob receives that night.
Jacob’s years away have not been easy: he has been tricked, lied to, held captive, threatened, and embroiled in painful family struggles. In his exile, he has encountered God – and created a family – but it has come at a cost. What began with ambition and deception has been maintained only through toil and heartache. It is not easy to become who you are. But Esau does not know about these struggles. After receiving the gifts Jacob has sent ahead, all Esau can know is that, since he left home, Jacob has grown wealthy, and become a multitude. All that Jacob has suffered is invisible to Esau – or it would have been, were it not for this night.
This wound that changed Jacob’s walk made it possible for Esau to see Jacob’s vulnerability, or impossible for Esau to ignore it. Jacob’s deception depended on his father Isaac’s lack of seeing, but Jacob’s homecoming depends on how he appears to Esau, on Esau’s ability to see Jacob’s weakness.
When Esau meets Jacob, what does Esau see? A man surrounded by wealth, wives, and children, who has only thrived since robbing Esau of what he so dearly believed was his? Or a man whose twists and turns have brought him (almost) as much pain as they have joy? Does Esau see a successful thief, or a brother crawling home? The wounding makes Jacob’s pain visible to Esau – even from afar. As he approaches Esau, Jacob “bows to the ground seven times,” (33:3). What does it look like for a man who has just received a potentially life-altering injury to lower himself to the ground and stand up again, seven times? How slowly would Jacob have to move, to bow like that? Did it hurt when he bent down? Did Jacob stumble, as he stood back up? Did he cry out?
Whatever Esau saw that day must have been harrowing. Perhaps it inspired empathy, perhaps it made it possible for Esau to fall upon Jacob’s neck with kisses, rather than with rage (33:4). This wound that changed Jacob’s walk made it possible for Esau to see Jacob’s vulnerability, or impossible for Esau to ignore it. Jacob’s deception depended on his father Isaac’s lack of seeing, but Jacob’s homecoming depends on how he appears to Esau, on Esau’s ability to see Jacob’s weakness.
And for those of you at home, waiting to receive: may you have keen vision, to spy out the places where we have been wounded and blessed – where angels’ hands have only just been.
Before they speak, Esau embraces his brother, and then only afterwards does Esau “lift up his eyes,” inquire about Jacob’s blessings, and accept his gifts (33:9). This moment of acceptance does not result in a total repair of the brotherly bond. After this moment, these two will mostly go their separate ways. Perhaps a deeper reconciliation would have to be based on speech rather than sight. But total repair is not what Jacob prayed for: Jacob asked to be saved. And perhaps, because of his wounding, he was.
For those of you making your way home, may your walk not be painful. May the people who are coming to meet you see all of you (or at least, as much of you as they need to see) in order to receive you with love. And for those of you at home, waiting to receive: may you have keen vision, to spy out the places where we have been wounded and blessed – where angels’ hands have only just been.