Parsha Vayishlach (And He Sent) – Jacob and Esau Part 1

Genesis/Breisheet 25 – 33

Once upon a time there were fraternal twins, Yaakov (Jacob) and Esav (Esau). Born to Yitzchak (Isaac) and Rebekah, they were the grandsons of Sarah and Abraham.

Since Esav emerged first, the blessing and birthright of the eldest son was conferred upon him through no choice (or fault) of his own.

“Loved by his mother” Yaakov is described as a fair and smooth skinned “ish tam,” (mild mannered man), who enjoyed domesticity and hanging out with mom.

“Loved by his father” Esav is described as a rugged, hirsute man with a ruddy complexion, who spent weeks in the wilderness hunting game to put meat on his family’s table.

When Esav returned from a hunting trip feeling sickly, famished and exhausted, he found Yaakov in the cook tent, whipping up a batch of red lentil stew. After voicing his distress, he begged his brother for a bowl of stew. Yaakov agreed on one condition: He wanted Esav’s birthright. Esav agreed to hand it over, saying, “I’m about to die anyway, what good does a birthright do me?”

As a result of this exchange, Esav is condemned in Genesis for “despising his birthright.” In rabbinical commentary he is accused of faking or exaggerating his distress.

Later on, when their father was blind and bedridden, their mother devised a scheme for Yaakov to steal his brother’s blessing by dressing him in Esav’s clothes and placing goat skins on his arms, so that he would feel hairy like Esav. Lying to his father’s face, he affirms he is Esav and tricks his father into giving him Esav’s blessing.

Fast forward 20 years and the brothers are about to meet again. Yaakov has one night to prepare for an epic showdown, after hearing that Esav is coming for him with an army of 400 men.

The night before they meet, Yaakov camps out in the wilderness, where a mysterious man wrestles with him all night, even though he is described in the Torah as being alone. (Breisheet 32:25). 

“And Jacob was left alone (levado); and there wrestled a man (ish) with him until the break of day.” The plot thickens! We have two contradictory statements in the same sentence, prompting us to solve the riddle. There are many paradoxical riddles in the Torah, which remind me of Buddhist Koans.

Desperate to depart before day break, the ish (man) touches Yaakov’s hip along the sciatic nerve and dislocates it. The Zohar describes the sciatic nerve running down a man’s thigh as a powerful source of lust and desire. The dislocation symbolizes breaking the lust and desire that drives him to do unscrupulous things.

Why was his opponent so anxious to leave before dawn? What does exposure to ‘the light of day’ signify?

There are many commentaries on this parsha, but the million dollar question remains the same — if Yaakov is alone as the Torah states, who is wrestling with him?

One interpretation is, the evil inclination (yetzer hara) andthe good inclination (yetzer hatov) within him is engaged in a smackdown for the championship belt. The Zohar describes Yaakov’s wrestling match as his dark night of the soul.

Wrestling is intrinsic to his story: He grabbed Esav’s heel as he was emerging from the womb, he wrestled with his sons, his father-in-law, his wives, his integrity. In a below the belt move, he wrestles his brother’s blessing and birthright away from him.

Greed, sibling rivalry and toxic parenting are all defining elements in Yaakov’s life. Yaakov is rich in material goods, but poor in integrity.

Even after his hip is injured, he refuses to stop wrestling until he receives a blessing. Yaakov’s obsession with blessings has not waned. The blessing he received from his mystery opponent was a new name.

Your name shall no longer be Yaakov but rather Yisrael [Israel] for you have struggled with God and man and you have been victorious. Yaakov said “I have seen God “panim-al-panim”(face to face) and my soul was saved.” The sun rose as he left, limping from his injury.

Breisheet 32:29

The word Yisrael/Israel means “one who wrestles with God.” During his own personal WrestleMania, he enters the ring as Yaakov and limps out as Yisrael. None of us emerge from our battles with ourselves or others unscathed.

In Judaism, it’s customary to change your Hebrew name when suffering from a serious ailment of body, mind or spirit to shift to create a paradigm shift. Notably, Yaakov’s name change didn’t stick. He is called Yaakov immediately following his name change, and many times thereafter.

When faced with Esav and his army, Yaakov bows to the ground seven times before him. Overcome by emotions, Esav runs to his bro, embraces him in a bear hug and kisses him.

Yaakov tells Esav, “When I saw your face it was like seeing the face of God…” and prevailed upon him to accept his gifts. He knows how to pour on the charm.

Esav, jazzed by the prospect of reconciliation with this brother, invites Yaakov and his family to travel to Seir with him. Yaakov tells him he must travel slowly due to his wives, children and herds, but when Esav offers to send assistance he declines and promises Esav he’ll follow behind and meet him in Seir.

Once Esav sets out ahead filled with trust and hope, Yaakov does a 180 and takes his family to the Valley of Sukkot, breaking his word to Esav. Esav is betrayed by his brother once again.

Esav, who is portrayed as less refined in appearance and personality than Yaakov, is judged as the bad apple, while Yaakov is called “the favorite of the patriarchs.”

Yet it is Yaakov who proves himself to be a self-centered scoundrel and trickster throughout his lifetime. Esav wanted a brother and family more than the birthright and blessing placed upon as a newborn. When surrounded by greed and envy, even a blessing can be a curse.

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  1. Pingback: Torah Portion Vayetzei – “And He [Jacob] Went Out” | 54 Portions (Soul Talk)

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