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Vayishlach – Facing Ourselves and Others

11/22/2021 03:41:10 PM


Rabbi Ezray

Do you know what the holiday of Diwali is? It is a festival of light celebrated by Hindus, Jain, Sikhs, and some Buddhists. It lasts 5 days; symbolizing the victory of light over darkness. It sounds a little bit like Chanukkah and Christmas. I had just learned about it, so my ears picked up when I heard Dr. Vivek Murthy share with our community two weeks ago that he and his family just observed the holiday. In a multi-faith talk about dealing with coronavirus, Dr. Murthy brought up the serious and widespread mental health crisis we are experiencing connected to the pandemic and suggested that the spiritual message of seeing our own Divine light and the Divine light in others may be one of the most important responses that we can have as we face the future. 

          In many ways, this is the lesson that Jacob learns and lives in our Torah portion. But before he could come to seeing the Divine light in a fellow human, Jacob had to confront that piece of himself that pulled him away from that truth – only then can he reorient himself to a new way of seeing the world.

          Let’s go back to his night of discovery. It’s night. It’s dark. The darkness is so thick it is as if you can feel it. He’s alone and his heart is pounding. Fear, questions, doubts all race through in his mind.  

          His fear seems justified. Jacob is coming home twenty years after fleeing his brother Esau’s angry wrath. When he left those many years ago, Esau vowed to kill him after Jacob deceptively took the blessing of the first-born from their father Isaac. Now Jacob learns Esau is approaching with 400 men.

          Thinking strategically, Jacob divides them into different camps so some will survive if Esau follows through on his vow of vengeance. He takes the whole family across the Yabok River, Yabok means struggle, and remains alone on the other side of Struggle River. Then a mysterious, enigmatic wrestling match ensues. (p. 201, Gen. 32:25 -31) 

          With whom is he wrestling? The answer is unclear; Verse 25: “And a man, ish in Hebrew, wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” Later in Verse 28, we are told that Jacob struggled with Elohim: a Divine Being/angel. And in Verse 31, Jacob names the place Peniel, “I have seen God face to face.” Why the confusion as to the identity of the adversary? It is intentional, conveying that in fact Jacob is wrestling with every aspect of existence simultaneously. This is an internal struggle; Jacob is struggling with himself.

          Commentators look at that different aspect of this internal struggle from different angles. Rabbi Morris Adler explain the scene as Jacob wrestling with his conscience – feeling guilt over stealing the birthright and blessing that belonged to Esau. His impending confrontation with Esau dredges up past behavior he had been avoiding for years. Like Jacob, we need to struggle with pieces of past we may regret. As much as we may try to deny past wrongs – they live in our subconscious and surface when triggered.

          Rabbi Jonathan Sacks goes a step further. He argues that Jacob is seeking to right the wrong that he is confronting. He must return to Esau all that he stole, thus the detail of sending gift after extravagant gift. Jacob returns the wealth and blessings he took from Esau those many years ago in order to make things right.  He has come to understand that he cannot define himself by what others have. He must find his own blessing. We too are called to right the wrongs of the past and find our own blessings rather than defining ourselves by our perceptions of others. This interpretation lifts up important questions: How are we overlooking our own blessings? How might we be defining ourselves by others’ blessing; desperately wanting what it theirs and not ours? For Rabbi Sacks, the references to wrestling with God teach about Jacob’s growing understanding that the call of God is to live for something other than wealth or power, but to see the divinity in all. 

          Elie Wiesel sees the wrestling match in a slightly different way. He interprets it as two sides of Jacob coming together. There was the Jacob who feels unworthy; doubting himself, fearing the future, and regretting past lies and manipulations. And there was the Jacob who dreamed, who sees God in unexpected places, who worked hard to overcome adversity, who stood up to his father-in-law Laban, and was promised that he would lead the people. For Wiesel, true victories are the ones we achieve over ourselves. Our call is to be aware of the inner struggles in which we engage and allow the different aspects of ourselves to merge.

          Each interpretation leads to reconciliation with ourselves and others. There is a beautiful scene of reconciliation and we read that the brothers run to greet each other. They embrace, kiss and weep. You can feel past anger and regret evaporate.  In the key verse of that portion, after beseeching Esau to accept the gifts, Jacob in Verse 10, says: “To see your face is like seeing the face of God - ra’iti fanecha kirot pnai Elohim.” Before the wrestling match, Jacob was the person grabbing his brother’s heel, what the name Ya’akov means, devising ways to acquire what belongs to Esau. He is no longer that man. He realizes that peace comes when we see our reflection in the face of God and let go of the desire to be someone else.  Love comes when we look at people and see the face of God in them. Jacob finally understands that he and Esau each have their own blessings.  And when someone recognizes your divinity, it transforms the dynamic between you.

          In a country so intensely divided, there is no more vital lesson than to see the face of God in one another. The antidote to division and polarization is heart; the love and compassion that happens when we see one another as reflections of divinity. The ripples of seeing one another in terms of divinity impacts work, school, and families and is the religious call of this moment.

          When Dr. Murthy shared that one of the impacts of COVID he would like to see us discuss more is mental health, he talked about seeing and helping to kindle the Divine light in fellow human. He lifted up the anxiety, upset, and strain that so many people are feeling. Seeing the face of God in fellow humans invites us to see the pain and suffering that is too often overlooked and understand that as we respond with compassion and presence, we create opportunity for another’s divinity to emerge. He called upon us to reach out to one another, to really mean it when we ask how people are doing and listen with heart. It will of course take more than care and seeing one another to deal with the mental health crisis that is real, it requires resources on many levels, but it all starts with truly seeing one another.

          “To see your face is to see the face of God.” Jacob appreciates his brother who he never really saw before, and it opens the door to healing. Before he could do that, he needed to wrestle with himself and understand how he had obscured Esau’s essence in the past. The lesson of seeing those who we overlooked is necessary in so many areas. It is why Rose’s drash, about seeing women like Dinah, whose story is too often marginalized and whose voice is not heard is so important. The MeToo movement has lifted this into our awareness.  It is why seeing the pain of rejection the LGBTQ community experiences is paramount, and why responding to the opioid crisis demands our attention. 

          Let’s lift up and celebrate the Divine light of our fellow human. Dr. Murthy shared that his parents, who were raised in India and moved to the United Kingdom, moved again to a small town in Newfoundland in the bitter cold of Canada where his father served as the district medical officer. Vivek asked his father how he and his mother sustained themselves in such dismal weather in a place where they knew no one. His father replied: “It was the connections we formed with people. They made us part of their family when we had no family.”  In Jacob’s language, people saw them and saw the face of God. And it is how his father cared for the medical needs of the community; caring for everyone in the community as they needed. His parents’ taught Vivek and his sister the healing power of human connection that comes when we see each other as reflections of divinity. Let’s live the lesson of Jacob: to see others with kindness and care, to come together and build connected lives, and show up as our true selves. To see your face is to see the face of God.  May we create such a world.

Sat, May 21 2022 20 Iyyar 5782