Who are You Wrestling With?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

8th Torah Portion, 8th in Genesis – Vayishlach

32:4-36:43 (154 verses)


            Jacob prepares to meet Esau. He sends his entire retinue across the River Jabok, then waits alone. There he wrestles with a “man,” who changes Jacob’s name to Yisrael. Jacob and Esau meet and part peacefully, each going his separate way. Dina is raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, who was chief of the country. Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi take revenge by murdering all the males of the city of Shechem, and Jacob’s other sons join them in plundering the city. Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin and is buried in Ephrah, which is present-day Bethlehem. Isaac dies and is buried in Hevron. Jacob’s and Esau’s progeny are then listed.


            Over the centuries there has been quite a bit of discussion about the wrestling match that occurs between Jacob and this man (an ish) who suddenly appears and attacks him (Genesis 32:25). Is this really a man or perhaps an angel? Some have suggested this is a dream and perhaps this represents an internal struggle for our patriarch. In the following story, I have taken a tact suggested by a few that this man is in fact Jacob’s brother. The reader will note that there is some ambiguity in the language:

Jacob crossed the ford of the Jabbok with all of his possessions.  He sent them ahead and he was left alone.  And in the darkness, a man appeared.  Jacob peered into the darkness, but could not see his face.  As he came closer, Jacob could make out the outline of a large muscular man.  The gait seemed somehow familiar to him.  Jacob trembled as he became suddenly aware of who this man was.  His legs began to weaken and his knees came close to buckling.

“Hello brother,” he said.

“Hello Esau,” Jacob quivered.

“Why do you run away from me, my brother?  Why do you fear me so that you have to run away from our parents’ home?”

“I am not running away from you, Esau.  I am not running away from Abba or Imma either,” Jacob answered.  “I am running toward my destiny in life.  Anyway, I did not want to fight with you.  You have always been so jealous of me.”

“And didn’t I have the right to be jealous.  You broke every rule and got away with it.  You should be taught some humility or at least, some humiliation.  It was I who had to be the responsible one.  I took care of you.  While I was out hunting for food for the family, you stayed home reading books and studying.  When the other kids picked on you, it was I – for some unknown reason – who protected you.  I worked and sweated.  I did everything that Abba asked of me…for what?  For nothing!  You, you got all of the recognition. Imma liked you more than me.  I know that.  That’s ok.  It really didn’t bother me.  Abba appreciated who I was and the work I did for the family.  You got things because you were handsome or you could trick someone, the way you tricked me and Abba.  You don’t even know what it means to work for anything, to struggle, to try hard, to work with your own two hands.

“You have your head in the clouds without a worry in the world.  Some day you will have to learn to take some responsibility and take care of others the way I took care of you.”

Jacob lunged after his brother.  They wrestled there in the early hour of the morning in the mud of the Jabbok.  Esau got the upper hand at one moment and then Jacob the next. Esau wrenched Jacob’s hip so that his muscle became strained. But Jacob did not let go. They continued to wrestle until dawn. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.’ But he answered, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’[1] Each brother pushed the other to get one last advantage. Both of them fell backwards, straining, heaving, and gasping for air.  They looked at each other, covered in mud and straining.  Both began to laugh uncontrollably.  Jacob looked over and said, “You were asking for it, you know.”

“Yes, but you needed it,” responded his brother.

“I suppose you are right,” said Jacob.

 “Well, well, well, so my brother is a human being after all.  Maybe you realize that you need to live your life struggling with us oafs on solid ground rather than you walking around in the clouds with the angels.”

Jacob looked over to his brother.  “You know, I suppose I needed to come back so you could help me.”

Esau stood and helped his brother up.  He put his arm around his shoulder to help him get his balance.  He looked at his little brother in the eyes.  “I still don’t like you, little brother.”

They walked to the camp together.


  1. Who do you suppose is asking for a blessing at the end of the story?
    1. If it were Esau, what kind of blessing would he be seeking from Jacob?
    2. If it were Jacob, what would he want from his older brother?
  2. In the actual Torah story, Jacob is named, Yisrael, “one who struggles with God.” What are the struggles you need to wrestle with?
  3. What are the typical struggles siblings have with each other?
    1. What blessings can they receive from each other?
  1. Do you have to wrestle with yourself or him/her to receive that blessing?

[1] Genesis 32:27.