Shabbat VaYishlakh: Becoming Whole By Becoming Oneself

There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in – Leonard Cohen ז״ל

In this week’s parashah, the eponymous ancestor of the People of Israel is given the name Israel. The deceiving, conniving, too smart by half Jacob has apparently achieved some kind of transition.

The people Israel has for two thousand years developed our sense of identity as a people through learning the lives and lessons of our ancestors. In order to do so, those of us who are not male (or the other things the text might be seen to assume are normative) have had to learn how to do Midrash – to look beneath the surface of things – in order to relate to the essential humanity beneath what seems to be a patriarchal text.

Patriarchal but not without matriarchal moments; heterosexual but not without its moments of queerness; spiritually uplifting sometimes but more often a tale of mistakes, venality, and “stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”*

Jacob this week is stumbling toward his destiny, a trail that leads directly to his brother Esau, whom he has cheated and lied to, and then run away from. In so doing he becomes a paradigm of the necessary steps we still know we must take in order to achieve atonement; at-one-ment, reconciliation not only with another but, in the process, becoming more whole in oneself.

Such work requires difficult struggle. This week’s Torah recounts that struggle one night, which has been variously understood by many of us over the generations: the Torah itself refers to “a man” but the prophet Hosea says it was an angel (Hosea 12.4-5). Our Rabbinic Sages declared that it was Samael, whom they called Esau’s “guardian angel” and a source of evil (Rashi, peace be upon him, Gen.32.35).

Isn’t this just like ourselves? As the people, so the individual: before I finally locate the blame appropriately on myself, I will blame everyone else for my fault. My yetzer hara’ will convince me that I myself am blameless but just unlucky. These stages of denial lead me away from seeing how much I really struggled with the evil of blaming others, because all I see is the evil I have experienced.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, peace be upon him, taught that Jacob’s real problem is that he does not know himself, and does not value himself. That is why he steals blessings and birthrights. But our tradition rules that you can’t bless HaShem with a stolen lulav on Sukkot; our people has learned that stolen blessings are really useless. A blessing only applies to the one who fits it.

This week Jacob wrestles, really with himself in all those guises: the “angel” is his better nature, the “samael” is his yetzer hara’, the evil impulse we all feel and struggle with. Jacob wrestles with Israel, the person he is meant to be, most of all. 

It’s not so easy to grow. It’s terribly difficult to apologize, and make amends. But it is also incredibly powerful.

Jacob returns to Esau by stages. First he sends to Esau the material blessing he took, a gift of hundreds of sheep and goats, cows and camels and donkeys. Then, when he meets him, he returns the blessing of primacy: “be lord over your brothers,” (Gen.27.29). Jacob bows repeatedly to Esau, calling him “my lord.” 

And Jacob leaves that place of denouement in peace, which is to say he is whole, although he is limping from the struggle to become himself. Our ancestors learned that there is nothing as whole as a broken spirit, and that the truly repentant stand in a higher, more discerning place than those who have never struggled.

May it be a Shabbat of peace and wholeness for us. Hazak Hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

________

*Churchill, according to Sacks

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