The lies of Jacob, the visions of Israel

This is my d’var Torah from this past weekend. The parasha was Vayetze, but I strayed back to Toldot and forward to Vayishlach quite liberally…

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The Jacob saga is spread out over three parshiot, and this is the only one of them that I have the opportunity to speak about, so instead of focusing just on this week’s portion, Vayetze, I want to take you on a little character-study journey in general, really focusing on the culmination of the story—the wrestling and the reuinion with Esau, which occur in next week’s portion—more than on the middle of the story, which we read about today.

When we think about Jacob, the third patriarch, we think about wrestling. This is mostly because of the famous wrestling incident, which I’ll get to soon enough, but I think it’s also because he lives a life, in general, that is characterized by struggle, and, even, more than that, he is a character that we ourselves are forced to wrestle with, everytime his story comes around in the cycle of Torah reading.

On the one hand, we honor him as the father of our people. He is the first person to bear the name Yisrael-Israel-the wrestler with God, and even more than we consider ourselves the children of Abraham and Isaac, Sarra, Rivka, Leah, and Rachel, we are b’nai Yisrael—the children of Israel. But, at the same time, this great father of ours is someone who lives his life in ways we do not necessarily find so admirable. The name Jacob itself means the heel of the foot, and it refers to the way that this Jacob emerged into the world—grabbing the heel of his brother Esau, the big, hairy, first born twin. Even at the first moment of his life, with the gasping of his first breath, our father was attempting to better his position in the world at the expense of someone close to him. And, we see, he does this again and again—suceeding through deceit and trickery, whether this means gaining the blessing and birthright that were his brother’s due, amassing his fortune of livestock out of the holdings of his father-in-law, or even, occasionally, seeming to pretend that God has spoken to him, when no such speech has taken place. In wrestling with the legacy of this man, we may find ourselves asking, to paraphrase Ted Slovin: mi ata, avi? Who are you? Are you Jacob, the deplorable liar? Are you Israel, the sublime Godwrestler? Can you be both at the same time?

These questions really come to a head in next week’s Torah portion, parashat vayishlakh. In this passage of the Torah, we see that Jacob himself is finally forced to wrestle with the same questions. After years of living in the land of Haran, his mother’s country, where he fled to avoid the wrath of the brother he dispossessed, Jacob has heard God’s voice clearly and unambiguously telling him: shuv el erets avotekha ulimoladetekha vi’ehyeh imakh-Return to the land of your fathers and to the land of your birth,
and I will be with you. But we soon see that there is a grave danger implied in this command. As Jacob nears his home, he learns that Esau is aware of his return, and is approaching with 400 men, his intentions unclear but presumed to be hotile. On the evening before they are to be reunited, Jacob offers a prayer to God—a plea for a protection that he modestly delcares himself unworthy to receive. Then there occurs on of the most intense spiritual experiences in the entire Torah, introduced in the most understated of language: vayivater ya’akov livado, va’ye’avek ish imo ad olot ha’shachar-and Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn. Then, in the morning, having demanded and received the blessing of his new name-Yisrael-he goes forward, not as a trickster or a sneak, but with the limp of a wounded man, to look into the eyes of his brother.

This wresting is a strange, evocative, and mysterious event. It’s so mysterious, actually, that generations of commentators have had different opinions about what it means. One of my favorites midrashim on the subject comes from the Babylonian Talmud, where Rabbi Yosi ben Hanina teaches that each of the services of the Jewish day are connected to one of the three patriarchs. Abraham, who rose up early in the morning to do God’s will on the mountain in Moriah, is the father of shacharit, davenning in the morning. Isaac, who was meditating in the fields in the afternoon when he first beheld his bride, is the one who came up with the idea for Mincha. And Jacob, who experiences God in dream visions of angels and ladders, in pleas for protection against the dark unknown, in nocturnal descents into the darkness of his own soul, is the master of ma’ariv, the patron saint, as it were, of the evening prayer.

The rabbi love clever games of connect the dots, like this, but, beyond that, I think this teaching offers a really profound statement about Jacob’s spiritual character, on the darkness and confusion that characterize his communication with God. God likes to promise the patriarchs that they are blessed, before he gives them a hard time: I will bless you and make you a great nation, is usually how it goes. This is a promise that both Abraham and Isaac receive in waking consciousness, in daylight, even if in Isaac’s case it may be daylight tending toward evening. But Jacob, we discover, if we read the text carefully, only hears them in a dream—they come at the end of the dream of the ladders and the angels that we read about in today’s parsha, during his fitful sleep in the wild, on the night he’s fled from home. The God of Jacob’s dream speaks them-not the God of waking life, not the clear voice that spoke to Abraham and Isaac-but the God that is planted deep within Jacob’s sleeping mind. On some level, we might even wonder if Jacob speaks them to himself. But, whereever they come from, they have a profound effect on them. As we read today, their effect is to startle him awake, in the dead of night, shrouded in a strange new sense of his own potential, confused by a world that is at once larger and more resonant than he took it to be, a brave new world that he attempts to name through recourse to a theology that he makes up himself: “There must be Adonai in this place,” he says. “How strange, how wondrous is this place. It must be the House of God.”

When Jacob encounters God in the wrestling match, if we decide that’s what actually happened, it’s in the same obscure way as he did on his night of dreaming. In the darkness of night, the Torah tells us, he wrestles with a “man”, and in the morning, we are told, he comes away with the same need to name the
experience for himself in theological terms-to tells us how exactly this strange, ambiguous, transformative event was an experience of God: “And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel-the face of God, because,” he tells us, “I saw God face to face and my life was saved.”

But by now, we might be getting a little suspicious. If Jacob’s experiences of God are so dark and subjective, if they issue out of his own depths and if he himself tells us what they mean, then how
can we be sure that Jacob is really experiencing God at all? The Torah tells us only that he wrestled with an “ish”, a “man”. It is Jacob who tells us he has seen the face of God. Is he Jacob the liar, and is claiming the blessing of the God of his fathers his ultimate hustle? Or is he truly deserving of the name that is given him, Yisrael, a wrestler with God in an arena that is deeper and darker than anything his ancestors experienced or could understand?

I think the answer to that question might have to do with figuring out who this “ish”, this “man” that he wrestled with really was. There are three major schools of thought on this subjecet. Rashi tells us that the “ish” actually represnts Easu, that it was either Esau himself or Esau’s messenger, who snuck into Jacob’s camp on the night before their reunon to assassinate him. Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Sforno, the Renaissance-era Italian commentator assures us that we should read this text as we are used to reading it: Jacob wrestled with an angel, and therefore with God. But there is a significant phrase found in today’s parsha that holds out another possibility. In offering his prayer for protection, Jacob tells God: “Behold, with my staff I have
crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” Of course, on the practical level he is speaking about his family and possessions, which he has split into two groups in order to mitigate the damage that an attack by Esau might cause. But, on a deeper level, he may very well be speaking about himself. Feeling the pressure of the upcoming reunion with the brother he has wronged, the man who holds a very real and justifiable grievance against him, Jacob himself has split into two camps, and now, before he goes forward, he must wrestle with himself.

As I mentioned during last week’s Torah study, this wrestling incident—this indefinite struggle with an entity that may at one time be God, his brother, and himself, reminds me eerily of another moment in Jacob’s life. It wasn’t just any moment—it was the very first moment that we read about. The Torah tells us that before Jacob was born, he and his twin brother were together in their mother’s womb, and God also somehow hovered in their midst. We know this, because God was close enough to be able to tell their mother, Rivka, what was going on, when she complained about the pains she felt inside of her. “There are two nations wrestling within you,” God said, “and the elder shall serve the younger.” It sounds a lot like this later night of mysterious wresling—a convulsion in the darkness—and just as we are never quite certain whether Jacob speaks to God or to himself, so, here, we are not quite certain if God is commenting on Jacob’s character, or determining what it will be; telling Rebecca, “Your son will be like this,” or “I have made your son like this.”

Either way, it is a fate that Jacob fulfills, coming into the world with the determination that he will live by struggle-he will succeed by pushing and pulling-pushing away those who could be close to him if
this gnawing lifeforce suggests that he should pull towards himself what it is that they have-and always living with the hovering assumption that his turmoil is a part of God’s plan.

But, in the midst of all of this confusion, we discover in today’s parsha that there is something God says to Jacob in language as clear as daylight: Return, Jacob. Return to where you were born, and I
will be with you. Somehow, beneath it all, the only unambiguously divine voice he can hear is a voice telling him to return to where it all began, to face what he has not been able to face, or, as Jacob might put it himself: to see the face of God.

This phrase of his, “seeing the face of God” has such power in Jacob’s mind that he uses it more than once. We saw that it was the theological meaning that he gave to his experience of wrestling with the “ish”, but now we see that it is also something he says to his brother Esau, after their reunion has proven to be one of tears and embracing, rather than violence. ki al ken raiti fanekha kirot pnei elhohim, he says to Esau-”for therefore I have seen your face as if seeing the face of God.” In saying this, he drawns an explicit connection between the night before and the morning after, the wrestling and the moment now of looking into his brother’s eyes. He is telling us that he has discovered that they both share something of the same quality. But what is that quality? To answer this we will have to descend into Jacob’s darkness.

His dark night had begun with a prayer: Katonti, he said: I am humbled, I am not worthy of all that I have received. This may have been false modesty, or it may have been a guilt he had always felt now coming
closer and closer to the surface. My brother is coming and I am afraid, he said, I am split into two, and I don’t know who I am anymore. Protect me, help me to pass through this. And his prayer was answered, not with a miraculous deliverance, but with solitude, with a mysterious descent into his own depths, with the appearance of another whose face was sometimes his own, sometimes his brother’s, and sometimes glowing with a divine light, with a life and death struggle that he could neither win nor lose, with a pain in his heart that became a wound on his body, and finally, with a glimmer of daylight.

What happened to Jacob at this moment of daylight, when he saw in his grandfather’s morning light what he had only guessed at in his own darkness–when he found himself holding the presence of this other in a
furious embrace? “I will not let you go until you bless me,” he said. I will not let you go until you bless me. I have stolen blessings before, dressed so I would be taken for somebody else-but now I want to be seen
for who I am. “Who are you?”, he is asked, or, literally, ma shmekha? What is your name? I am Jacob, he says, Jacob the heel, Jacob the trickster, Jacob the liar. You are Jacob, he is told, and part of you always will be-it is your nature or it is what your life has made you. But there is also a part of you that has always been struggling for this moment, this clarity, waiting for the call to return, to wrestle with yourself, with your brother, with God, with all of the pieces of your fragmented life, for this moment of true vision, of seeing the divine face to face, of holiness. That part of you deserves a name as well, and that name is Yisrael, the divine wrestler. And just as you came out of your mother’s womb with your first name, go forward now with this one, go forward and see, if only for a moment, the image of God in the eyes of your brother.

We do not really know in the end who gives Jacob this new name-an angel of God, the forgiveness of his brother, the yearning of his own heart–and in a way it doesn’t really matter. He is the father of ma’ariv, the prayer of the nighttime, searching for God in the darkness. Whereas his fathers may have been more certain of what they heard, he must take upon himself the task of naming the holiness of his own experience. He must contend with the moral failings and the loss of vision that arise out of his will to succeed, and the damage they cause to his relationships, to his vision of God, and to the health of his own soul. He must strive to be blessed by the glimmers of divine daylight that only arise at rare moments in his life, fortuitous moments at which he finds the courage to discover in his wounded self and in his brother the image of God-moments at which he realizes the potential of his other name, the name he leaves as a legacy
to us, the children of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom

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