Our Torah portion this week features one of the most seminal moments in our history as a people. Jacob is returning to Canaan after his hasty exit some 20 years earlier. Esau, as the older brother, even if only by a few minutes, was rightly entitled to inherit the birthright of land and leadership, and also the blessing from their father Jacob. Instead, Jacob manipulates both his brother and father so that he receives both the birthright and the blessing. To escape what is sure to be an enraged older brother, Jacob, with their mother Rebecca’s help, quickly flees from their home to Haran, the ancestral home of their grandparents Abraham and Sarah, to the estate of his uncle Laban. Now, he returns with his wives, their handmaidens, his children, his servants, and seeming great wealth. But he fears his brother, so when night falls, he sends his family and household ahead, and he remains alone at the River Jabok. There, in the dead of night, a “man” comes upon him and they wrestle. The implication is that this was a divine messenger. The “man” wrenches Jacob’s hip at the socket, and disappears before the dawn. Thus, Jacob becomes “Israel”—“who has wrestled with God, and survived;” as he prepares to meet his brother once again.
Previously I have noted that our tendency in reading the story of Jacob and Esau is to separate the two personalities into caricatures. Esau is ruddy, wild and boorish, without any discipline or consciousness of the consequences of his words and his actions. Jacob is smooth and calculating; thinking of the future, always calm and controlled. Then again, some interpreters have posited the notion that Jacob and Esau are actually one person, and the exaggerations are actually two sides of the same personality. I suspect this is not what the Biblical author intended, but it is an interesting thought nonetheless.
There are similar commentaries regarding Jacob’s wrestling with the “man.” Perhaps this was actually Jacob wrestling with himself; struggling with the part of himself that he feared, or even hated.
This has been a week of wrestling for us. One, after the other, after the other, men whom we have known and trusted in their public roles; whether in government, in the entertainment industry, and this week most notably, reporting and interpreting the news, have been accused of various levels of sexual misconduct. First and foremost, sexual misconduct is unacceptable, period. But also in this mix is the fact that they have taken advantage of their powerful positions to engage in this misconduct. This crosses over into the realm of abuse. In any equation in which there is one person who commands power of any kind over another, and takes advantage of the less powerful person, particularly in this way, this is an abuse of power. But the revelations of the past few weeks have left us confused and disappointed at times; and at others, frustrated and angry.
All of us have to confront the fact that people—ourselves included—are not monolithic entities. We are complex personalities. While this does not always manifest itself in such harmful ways as misconduct and abuse, it generally necessitates our having to wrestle with the effects of our decisions and behavior throughout our lives. When we brand people as either all good or all bad, that is very seldom the case. Our job as human beings, and particularly as Jews, is, as our tradition teaches, to constantly examine our deeds and motivations; our behavior, the words that we allow to come out of our mouths, and their effect on other people. We constantly are obligated to exercise judgment over ourselves as to whether or not we are doing the right thing. It is a lifelong wrestling match, if you will. It is difficult, and at times painful. But the reward is being able to emerge from our wrestling with our dignity and integrity intact.