Existential Encounter

parashas Vayishlach 5781

“And Jacob was left alone.”

– Genesis 32:25, JPS 1917 Tanach

Jacob, who had recently acquired a family, as well as a secure livelihood, after twenty years of working for his Uncle Laban, was finally returning home. Yet, he would have to face the consequences of unfinished business with his brother Esau, who may have still been harboring a grudge against him after all of the years. More significantly, Jacob will find that he first needs to face himself, in acknowledgment of his own character. Was he the deceiver, who reappropriated the blessing of the first born that should have gone to his brother Esau? Or was he the right man to have obtained the blessing, because he truly represented the values that were destined to be passed on to his descendants?

If the blessing had gone to Esau, then the Abrahamic legacy may have been squandered, made less substantial by a lack of spiritual vision on the part of the recipient. For, Esau was primarily focused on Olam HaZeh (This World), where instant gratification, hedonism, and the base desires of the animal soul (nefesh habehamit) prevail over the godly soul (nefesh ha’elokit), unless reined in under the guiding principles of higher values, such as those found in the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, as well as those inculcated by the commandments, and all throughout kitvei kodesh (holy scripture).

Although Jacob upheld those higher values, he had to know within himself, whether or not he was truly worthy of having received the blessing. His deference towards Esau exemplifies a change in his character. Jacob sent generous gifts ahead of him, in order to appease the anger of Esau; later, he will bow seven times as he approaches Esau. Yet, before that meeting, he was left alone at night with himself, his conscience, and the prospect of losing everything he had obtained in life the next day. One can only imagine what thoughts were occupying his mind at this pivotal moment in his life; for, the burdens of his past must have weighed heavily upon him.

The Torah records that “there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:35, JPS). This man was really an angel, sent to detain Jacob until the morning, when he would have to face Esau; as the Rashbam explains, Jacob had considered fleeing, to avoid the confrontation with Esau. Yet, during the wrestling match that ensued, Jacob prevailed, thus showing that he indeed realized his weight in gold, not the gold found in the earth, rather the gold of spiritual value, in the eyes of G-d. As confirmation of his integrity, the angel informed him, that he would no longer be called Jacob (heel, deceit); he was given the name, Israel (uprightness, integrity).

Individuation

“Now the L-RD said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.”

– Genesis 12:1, JPS 1917 Tanach

Abraham was called out from his environmental mileu, in order to start a new life, free from the shackles of the past that had chained him to a world of idolatry. In modern psychological terms, he broke free of the conditioning that kept him from pursuing his own identity. Specifically, the term, “individuation” seems apropos in more ways than one.

First of all, Abraham is described as an “ivri,” meaning that he was from ” the other side” of the Euphrates River. The English transliteration would be “Hebrew.” The word also connotes that he was on one side of the moral sphere, while those from Ur Chasdim, whom he left behind were on another.

Today, while many remain entrenched in their familiar environs, others decide to move on to another place, both geographically, as well as spiritually. Part of individuation includes “separating out” what is right for ourselves as individials, from what can no longer be maintained within the framework of our personal worldview.

Additionally, Abraham was called for a specific mission in life: “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). Chassidus, a mystical component of Judaism, teaches that every individual has a mission in life. Abraham was given a good idea of his mission in life. However, for those of us living in this modern world, we are challenged, perplexed and sometimes flummoxed at the thought of finding our mission in life.

Our journey to the destination that G-d may ultimately have in mind for us, is often beset by many trials and errors, as well as false starts and wrong paths. Yet, at some point we may be able to reflect upon our past, and be able to see how everything actually led to exactly where we stand today. As the saying goes, “hindsight is golden.”