Vayishlach opens as our ancestor Jacob heads home to Canaan with Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah, their children, and all they possess. His twin brother Esau, whom Jacob had not seen in twenty years, ever since he stole his birthright and fled, is coming to meet them along the way. The night before the dreaded encounter, an ish suddenly appears. The ish and Jacob wrestle until dawn. Who is the ish? The Hebrew is plainly translated as person, but ish can be a divine figure. Our sages have identified the ish as God, Esau’s ministering angel, and sometimes as Jacob’s shadow self.
Medieval commentator RASHI interprets va-yei’aveik [“wrestled”] as twining around one another, being tied together like a bow—“for this is the way of two people who strain to topple each other to the ground” (32:25). What a way to envision conflict—as a battle between two interconnected souls. Jacob is forever changed by this struggle, and is blessed and given a new name by the ish — Israel. The name of our people.
Jacob calls the place where what began in fear and anger and ended in blessing as Peni’el: “I have seen God face to face.” The two brothers reunite the next day without incident, Jacob tells Esau that: “to see your face is like seeing the face of God”(33:10). This “mystery-shrouded narrative,” modern scholar Nehama Leibowitz writes, is “one of the most puzzling chapters in the Torah.” What does Jacob’s struggle with the ish signify? How is it like ours, the one we are living today?
In Godwrestling Round 2, Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes about this wrestling match. He attributes Jacob’s transformation into Israel to that moment when he “recognized that in some ways we are radically different from each other, inescapably and at our very roots turned toward different and incompatible desires.” This is embodied by the two siblings who have struggled with and against the other from the time they entered this world. Esau and Jacob are locked in a seemingly never-ending embrace. One does not value what the other values nor dreams what the other dreams. Accepting this tough reality, and acting from love, is where we have to start. May we all be like Jacob and the ish – and summon the strength to transform our painful conflicts into something better.
Written for and presented at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in Los Angeles, California.