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Parshat Vayishlach: Who Did Jacob Actually Wrestle?

Parshat Vayishlach: Who Did Jacob Actually Wrestle?


Parshat Vayishlach is like a novel within the Torah about the life of Jacob. Why? Because unlike most ancient stories, the story of Jacob is a story of a character who changes. When we first met Jacob, he was doing things like tricking his brother Esau out of his birthright, tricking his blind father into blessing him, and tricking his Uncle Laban out of several hundred sheep. Now it’s years later, he hears that his twin brother Esau–the one whose inheritance he stole so many years ago — is coming to meet him, along with a security detail of four hundred men. Jacob handles this the way he’s handled everything else in his life — by manipulating, dodging, and hedging his bets. He divides his entourage into two camps so that if one of the groups is attacked, he’ll at least have some children and goats left over. He asks God to remember him for prosperity and Jacob arranges for a series of gifts to be sent to Esau. Finally he sends his wives and children ahead across the river, and spends the night alone. Then something strange happens. As the Torah tells us, “A man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak.” A man. And then when the man saw that Jacob was winning, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket. Jacob isn’t the type to take things lying down, and even having his hip dislocated doesn’t stop him from winning this seemingly unprovoked fight. But somehow this mysterious opponent is different. Defeated, the man says to Jacob, “Let me go, because dawn is breaking,” The Jacob we know isn’t about to let this guy go without getting something for himself out of the transaction, so he tells the man that he won’t release him unless the man blesses him. But instead of blessing him, the man changes him, saying, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, — which means ‘wrestles with God’ — because you have struggled with God and men, and succeeded.” Jacob then asked the man what his name is, but the man responds, “Why do you ask me my name?” and then the man leaves. Jacob understands that something important has happened, though he doesn’t yet know what He names the place P’niel, or “the face of God,” meaning, as he puts it, “I have seen God face to face and my life has been preserved.” As Jacob limps off into the sunrise on his damaged hip, we see something in him that we’ve never seen before: humility. Then he sees his brother Esau. Before his encounter with the mysterious man, Jacob might have met his brother with an armed entourage or have avoided him somehow, But the new, humbled, crippled Jacob bows to the ground seven times at Esau’s feet. Esau runs up to greet and kiss him, and the two brothers weep. Then Jacob tells Esau that, “to see your face is to see the face of God.” and asks him to please accept his gifts. They reconcile. Who is this mysterious stranger who wrestled with Jacob and changed him so? The Torah goes out of its way not to tell us. The most common explanation is that Jacob was “wrestling with an angel.” But just a few chapters back, Jacob met a whole slew of angels climbing up and down a ladder, and the text wasn’t afraid to call them angels. This wrestler is clearly called a man, Another possibility is that this wrestling match is a metaphor for Jacob wrestling with his own conscience. It’s an intriguing idea, but the story is a bit too physical. When’s the last time your conscience dislocated your hip? Consider this: the mysterious man really was Jacob’s brother Esau. This is a physical reenactment of Jacob’s first moments, when, as the Torah tellsus, Jacob and Esau wrestled with each other in their mother Rebecca’s womb, Now Esau has his opportunity to finish that first wrestling match, knowing all that Jacob has done to wrong him, but also knowing knowing how time and life can change what matters most to us. Esau comes by night so Jacob won’t recognize him, but Jacob does know who this man is. He names their meeting place P’niel because there, in Esau, he saw God face to face. While it might be more exotic to wrestle with an angel, Jacob knows at that moment that the way we see God on Earth is by facing the people we’ve wronged, by looking into their faces and by knowing that we too can change. Producer: Sarah Lefton Animation Director: Nick Fox-Gieg Animation: Colleen MacIsaac Editorial Director: Matthue Roth Theme Music: Tim Cosgrove Written and Narrated by: Dara Horn Sound Recording: Gabe Schwartz

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