Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
After 20 years away from his family, Jacob is told by G-d that it finally time to return to his family of origin. He has fulfilled his destiny in the home of his uncle Lavan. Jacob, who deceived his father Isaac and his brother Esau in order to steal Esav’s birthright has spent twenty years laboring for his uncle who deceived him. Our Rabbinic tradition uses the expression middah k’neged middah to explain the concept of instant karma. Jacob receives his due- his middah, that is, his quality in the same way he perpetrated his middah- deception for deception.
Meanwhile, Esav his brother has had twenty years to accept his loss and create a life for himself. He had sworn to kill Jacob when first he heard that Jacob had stolen his blessing. Now, twenty years hence, the two brothers will come face to face. Jacob is frightened for his life. He knows only one narrative, only one perspective and he is certain that his brother Esav means to do him in. He is not able to entertain the possibility of forgiveness.
Jacob is our wounded hero; a man with flaws and limitations who will discover the frontier of his own soul. His meeting with Esav will push him into the realm of the unknown. No longer in control or able to manipulate the outer world, like Lavan’s sheep whose mating he manipulated for his own gain, Jacob will be acted upon. The evening before encountering his brother Esav, Jacob will meet a mysterious man with whom he will wrestle the night through. Some say he is wrestling with the guardian angel of Esav, some say he is wrestling with himself, with his guilt over his deception of his brother.
By the end of the night Jacob will demand a blessing from the stranger who he now understands is an angel. The blessing will be embedded in a name change. His name is changed from Jacob, meaning heal of the foot, to Israel, the God wrestler.
In our tradition, there are man names for God. One name is EMET meaning truth. In kabbalistic teachings, Jacob represents the Godly attribute of Truth. In this sense then, Israel is the wrestler who struggles with truth. Before reuniting with his brother, he must wrestle with the truth about himself. He must come to terms with his more base qualities that motivate him to manipulate others for personal gain. He must confront his fear of retribution and his guilt. The time of hiding is over.
In our times, we are all called upon to be Truth Wrestlers in a struggle to discern authenticity. We are living in a time when the media is accused regularly of reporting “fake news” and when “alternative facts” are considered acceptable by some. Multiple investigations of our government leaders are underway as truth is sought after and exposed. Just today General Flynn was indicted for lying. And most recently scores of women have been coming forward to share the truth of their experiences which have long been held in a silent underground. Like Jacob’s dark night of the soul, we too are struggling with painful discoveries about our own society, about what we have tolerated and submerged, about abusive behavior we have sanctioned.
In the end Jacob will walk away from his encounter with a life-long wound, a clear reminder of his struggle. He will limp forward to meet his brother Esav. He will come face to face with his past offense and Esav will own a new truth- a new narrative of forgiveness. Torah tells us that “Esav ran to greet him. He- Esav- embraced Jacob and falling on his neck, he kissed him and they wept.” This was one outcome Jacob never expected. It is a beautiful picture of reconciliation that was only possible by first recognizing the truth that had so long been disguised under the skins of deception.
Truth telling is difficult, and as a society, the truth can be hard to bear. We are all wounded by living in a wounding society. But it is through this process only, that reconciliation, healing and social evolution is possible. After Jacob’s encounter with Esav ,Torah tells us, that despite his limp, Jacob arrived
“shalem”- in the city of Shechem. Some translators say shalem means safe. He arrived safely in the town of Shechem. But a more literal meaning of the word shalem is whole. Jacob arrived whole, in the city of Shechem. Despite his wound, he was now a whole person- having integrated his weaknesses, having owned his misdeeds. Now he was whole.
May we be like Yisrael- truth wrestlers. May we all develop the tenacity to demand the truth and to bear it compassionately when its face appears. May we be like Esav, forgiving in spite of our wounds and losses. And May our land be blessed with the heart to do the work of reconciliation and repair so that our daughters and sons may arrive shalem- whole and safe within our society.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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