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Toward Shabbat: Vayishlah

Every month I’m fortunate to meet with a “spiritual director”—a practitioner who is trained to guide people through questions pertaining to their spiritual lives. As we’ve spent more time together, we’ve moved from merely talking about my prayer life and Shabbat practice to the dynamics of my personal relationships and the things that keep me up at night. What has remained consistent is the nature of her questions: “Aaron, if you don’t mind me asking, where is God in this?” I don’t always have the answers, but I’m grateful to be able to turn to this week’s parashah for some clarity.

The opening chapter of Parashat Vayishlah describes one of the most famous narratives in all of Tanakh. As Jacob is on the brink of confronting his estranged brother Esau, we read:

וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר.

(Bereshit 32:25)

“And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” Without the aid of our mefarshim (commentators), reading this verse on its own would immediately raise eyebrows. Didn’t we read that Jacob was alone? How could he possibly be wrestling another man if he’s alone? Our tradition confronts this inconsistency by explaining that this man was actually some sort of divine figure.

Bereshit Rabbah explains that the figure was Esau’s guardian angel. Chizkuni agrees that the figure is an angel representing Esau, though he is of the opinion that the angel has taken a human form. For Radak, the figure is an angel, but it was sent by God not to protect Esau but to strengthen Jacob’s courage before his encounter with his brother.

Varied as these hypotheses are, they each reveal a spiritual connection for Jacob. And just a few verses after this scene, when neither figure prevails, this being seeks to take leave of Jacob. In return, Jacob asks for a blessing, to which the figure replies, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Yisrael, for you have wrestled with figures both human and divine.” Jacob is now defined by this encounter, as one who “wrestles with” (Yisra) “God” (el).

And yet, I still can’t help but wonder why the text tells us that he was all alone. Perhaps the scene was a dream. Maybe Jacob was wrestling with himself, an inner demon, or a deep-seated anxiety or insecurity. The incident occurs when he is on the precipice of encountering his twin brother, one whom he knows he has wronged, and he is finally forced to confront all that has transpired between them; his internal struggle is symbolized by a literal one. And yet, he is still blessed with a new identity, as one who wrestles with the Divine.

As I imagine Jacob all alone, unsure of what fate awaits him, I am comforted by the possibilities of this verse. The next day Jacob will be met not by a brother who wishes to harm him, but by a brother who greets him with open arms, a hug, and a kiss (Genesis 33:4). Maybe Jacob did wrestle with God—not by tussling with another figure or with an angel, but simply by wrestling with himself. And perhaps his blessing was not his new name, but the feeling of healing and reconciliation he finds upon reuniting with his twin.

The ambiguity of the text allows us to find greater empathy in Jacob’s story. We ourselves may not be directly confronted by angels of God, but we do have the opportunity to be vulnerable, honest, and accountable with ourselves. The next time my spiritual director asks me, “Where is God in all of this?” I may not immediately know the answer. But I’ll feel greater clarity in knowing that there is holiness, healing, and divinity to be found when we are brave enough to search, to confront, and to wrestle.

May we all merit to be like Jacob and find healing, growth, and intimacy with God.