Posted by: Subway Conductor | December 4, 2020

A Derasha for Parshat Vayishlach

This week’s Torah portion presents us with the most important image in the entire narrative of the patriarchs. One theme that I have emphasized recently is that the patriarchs (and other biblical figures) are not models of perfection. We have observed character traits in the patriarchs that constitute a challenge that needs to be overcome. For instance, I mentioned in a previous derasha that the Ramban (Nachmanides) says explicitly that Abraham sinned when he told his wife Sarah to say that she was his sister and not his wife. The Ramban says that this manifested a lack of faith in G-d on Abraham’s part. Certainly, when it comes to the patriarch Jacob, we are dealing with a character who presents many problematic traits. We recall the story that when his brother Esau came in from the field “dying of hunger,” Jacob gave him food only after Esau agreed to sell him his birthright as the firstborn. Is this the father of the Jewish people? One of the most dramatic and pitiful scenes in the Torah occurred when Jacob disguised himself as Esau and tricked his blind father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing that he had intended to give to his brother. Esau was so stricken by despair as a result of this ruse that he threatened to kill Jacob. It was because of this trickery that Jacob was forced to flee from his home and go to the old family homestead in Haran where he stayed for twenty years. There he encountered an even greater trickster, his uncle Laban. There is a powerful criticism leveled against Jacob by Laban that makes clear the patriarch’s guilt. Jacob works for Laban for seven years in order to marry his daughter Rachel. However, Laban makes a switch, giving his older daughter Leah to him in place of the desired Rachel. When Jacob discovers the deception in the morning, he accuses Laban of dishonesty. Laban responds by telling Jacob, “Here, we do not do such things, putting the younger before the older.” This was a sly way of rebuking Jacob since he had put himself, the younger son, in place of his older brother in the matter of getting the blessing from his father. This is a classic case of justice which is handed out “measure for measure.” Jacob is punished for his trickery precisely by being deceived in the same way. Laban takes advantage of the darkness just as Jacob had taken advantage of his father’s blindness to accomplish the deception. It is amazing that the Torah preserves these questionable stories about the patriarch of the Jewish People. They clearly point to the fact that Jacob was not born as a perfect model of ethical behavior. The patriarchs are not models of perfection, rather they are models of how we must struggle to overcome our own character traits.

The image I believe is the center piece of the Torah’s attitude toward life is the wrestling match that takes place in this week’s portion. Jacob is on his way back to Israel where he will meet his brother Esau again. The Torah describes how he stayed alone one night and wrestled with “a man.” The Torah is quite ambiguous as to the identity of this wrestling partner. Is it a man or an angel? The midrash states that it was the angel of Esau. Or it was the yetzer hara – the evil inclination. I believe that Jacob was actually wrestling with his own yetzer hara. This image of wrestling is precisely what life is about – life is a constant struggle. Each of us is born with a yetzer hara which urges us to do things we shouldn’t and prevents us from doing things we should. The forces within each of us, the baser side of our nature, the urges and impulses, the instincts which keep us from achieving the ethical and spiritual aspirations which we all have – this is the yetzer hara. The patriarchs are models not of perfection, but of this struggle with our own natures. In the weekly Torah portions, we watch them grow and become great people. It does not come easily, but only with great persistent effort. This is why the wrestling match is such an important image.

After he wrestles all night, the angel tells him that he will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel “because you have striven with G-d and man and have prevailed.”  It is this striving, this struggle which is the essence of life. Just as Jacob can only become Israel after he wrestles, so we can only become the people we have the potential to be by means of constant striving.

There is an old Jewish joke that begins, “A great rabbi was on his deathbed. His students asked him, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ The rabbi replied, ‘Life is a book.’” I think that we can say, based on our Torah portion, that according to the Torah, “life is a wrestling match.”

Good Shabbos!

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