© Trisha Arlin
This torah portion is another one of those that has more than one story in it, but I’m going to talk to you about the story of Jacob, returning back to the land he grew up in. Jacob had had to run away after he tricked his father into giving his the blessing that should have been given to his brother Esau. Jacob had gone to the house of his mother’s brother, Laban, and worked for him for a very long time, and gotten married to Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel, and had a whole mess of children, and acquired a lot of sheep and goats, and after all that Jacob decided it was time to return to his father’s land. But he was afraid because his brother, Esau, had been very angry at him, for good reason, when he’d left home.
The night before he’s supposed to see Esau for the first time, Jacob sends his family and his friends somewhere else for safety, and he spends the night by himself. A stranger appears, and Jacob wrestles with him. Some of the sages think that this stranger, who is never identified, is an angel, some think it might be Esau in disguise. When their fight is over, Jacob holds the stranger and won’t let him go until the stranger blesses him. And the stranger asks Jacob,
“What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 29 Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28-29)
And that’s how Jacob became Israel, because Jacob struggled with this stranger.
I like to think that this stranger that Jacob struggled with was fear, his own fear. In this situation, I think Jacob was afraid that Esau would take revenge on him and hurt him, or his people. I also think he was afraid of his own past, of his own guilt, of what he had done to steal Isaac’s blessing from his brother. He had had a long journey from Laban’s house back to his old home to think about Esau, the red hairy man, and in his mind Esau become a monster. And if they had actually met when Jacob was at his most fearful, then probably one or both of them would have been violent and hurt one or both of them.
But Jacob took the time to wrestle with his fear, and subdue it, and when he saw his brother, he saw his brother not as a big angry scary man, but as the man he actually was, someone who was very happy to see his long lost brother:
Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. (Genesis 33:4)
So if there’s lots of stories in this torah portion worth telling, why am I telling this story today? I’m telling it because in the last week or two, a lot of people have become very aware that young, black men, unarmed, are getting shot and killed on the streets of our country, that young black men have to worry that police or vigilantes will look at them and, because they have built up in their heads that young black men are scary, they will shoot and kill them. Not because they’ve done anything, not because they’re doing anything, not because they might do something, but just because they are young black men. As Esau became a monster in Jacob’s mind because he was afraid, these young men become monsters in the minds of these other men, heir fear allows them to think of these young men as less than human, as less deserving of respect and compassion than a white person, and so they are murder these young men.
This goes against all our values as Jews and as human beings. Just as Jacob struggled with the stranger, we must struggle with our fear of monsters. It is upon us to wrestle with our fear, and defeat it. It is upon us to upon us to strive with everyone to overcome these bad values, and work together to create a world where people are seen for themselves, where young men and women of color can walk the streets in safety.
Please check out this prayer by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat: