Yaakov: A Journey Back to the Past

This opening of this week’s parsha is the opposite of last week’s:

Last week we see Yaakov on the road way from his parent’s house, fleeing from Esav. He is bereft and alone, with no property and no family or life of his own, apart from the parents and brother he is leaving behind.

This week, we see Yaakov on the road towards his parent’s house, journeying towards Esav. He is surrounded by his family -wives and children, who he met and built a life with far away from his parents’ house. He also has lots of property, which he uses to send gifts to his brother.

And yet, the two parshiot are similar as well: Both start with Yaakov on the road, and with a prayer. The road is not just a literal road, but a metaphoric road as well.

Last week, Yaakov had to journey away from his childhood home in order to learn how to forge his own identity and independent existence. Now, he realizes that he cannot be completely whole while being cut off from his childhood. He must journey back to the past, and find a way to grapple with it, so he can incorporate the Yaakov of the past into the Yaakov of the present. It is only when he is able to truly face his childhood and his relationships with his parents and brother that he will be able to complete the process of forming an adult identity and a grownup life. The journey back home is not a journey back towards dependence, but rather, a journey towards home that is a necessary and final part of the process of building independence. If you do not face your past, it has the power to haunt you. It is only by facing it that we set ourselves free -which is a lot of the work that people today do in therapy.

This process is not easy. On his journey, Yaakov struggles with the angel -perhaps, a representation of his own hesitations about the trip. Yaakov may be afraid that going back to his parents’ house will be triggering, and will unleash traumas he has been working hard to repress. But he overcomes the urge to turn back, and in doing so, receives a new name: He will no longer be called “Yaakov” – a name that signifies trickery, but rather, “Yisrael”,  “because you have struggled with God and with people and prevailed”. (Breisheet 32:29)

Yaakov has struggled with his relationship with himself, and his ambivalence towards addressing the relationship dynamics of his childhood, and prevailed. Beforehand, his identity was a trick -it could not be completely honest, because it was based on hiding and repressing an essential component of himself. Now, he can build a whole identity, an honest identity, that acknowledges the struggles in his life -with his parents, with his brothers, with himself -and with God.

Both this week’s and last week’s parshah start with Yaakov praying to God during his travels; God is a major protagonist in Yaakov’s life, a guiding presence that Yaakov feels precisely when he is in moments of transition or difficulty. But that relationship also has moments of struggle -of doubt and of pain -and that’s ok. Because part of having a relationsip with God -or with a person -can sometimes mean struggling with God -or with that person. This whole relationship, a real relationship, that includes both positive and negative moments, is also captured by Yisrael, the one who “struggled with God”.

Each of us is on our own journey; each of us has aspects of our past that we struggle with, and relationships with positive and negative moments. Like Yaakov, may we prevail in the struggle with our own inner angels and challenges.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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