Opening Our Eyes to the Other – Student Rabbi Danny Moss at Fairmount Temple Worship- December 5, 2014

This blog post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple includes the remarks shared by Student Rabbi Danny Moss on Friday, December 5, at Shabbat Worship. Danny Moss is a third-year student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, and visits Fairmount Temple on a one-weekend-a-month basis. He shared this teaching as a D’var Torah on Parshat Vayishlach in the Book of Genesis. We encourage you to share this post on social media and to share comments on the post below to engender discussion.

I don’t know if anyone here can identify with this, but the Torah tells us about lots of brothers who just can’t seem to get along. Remember Joseph and his dazzling, spectacular coat [of many colors]? Or how about Cain and Abel – that one didn’t turn out so well. And then of course there’s the famous pair who return to animate this week’s Torah Portion – Jacob and Esau.    Now. As we know, siblings tend to butt heads and compete for their parents’ attention. But these stories take sibling rivalry to the extreme. They combine intense competition and jealousy with all sorts of murderous intrigue. This is serious stuff.

And this is just where we find ourselves at the beginning of this week’s torah portion: Jacob and his family approach Esau’s territory. The brothers have not seen one another in over20years —  since Jacob tricked his brother out of a birthright and a blessing from their father, Isaac. At their parting, tempers were high, to say the least.[1] Jacob feared for his life, and for good reason.

But now, arriving at the embankment of the Jabbok river, about to cross into his brother’s territory, Jacob is a different person. He is married. He is fantastically wealthy. He has children of his own. He is a little more humble than he once was. As the sun sets he prepares to face his brother Esau, who, for all he knows, is planning rise up against him in vengeance. The fact that Esau commands an army of 400 men doesn’t make things any easier. And yet, the sun is setting and Jacob is weary.

Having crossed the river, he lays down to sleep all alone, but sleep does not come. Instead, a mysterious man surprises Jacoband they wrestle until the break of dawn. In the end, the man cannot defeat Jacob, and Jacob does not let him depart without a blessing. This is when everything changes. The man says to Jacob:        “lo ya’akov yey’amer od shimcha, ki im Yisrael” – Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[2] for you have striven with beings divine and human, and you have prevailed. ישראל is Jacob’s name, and ours. We re literally a nation of “God-strugglers.” When there is a name change in the bible, look out – it is significant. This change of name undoubtedly signals a shift in Jacob —  but what does it mean?

The answer is tied up in the identity of Jacob’s wrestling partner. Jewish tradition is fascinated with this mysterious being. Who is he? Many classical commentators see him as evil – as the guardian angel of Esau,[3] or even as Esau himself. But there is another possibility: perhaps there is no other. Perhaps, after so many years of deception and trickery, Jacob is finally confronting himself. He is brave enough to know that he doesn’t very much like the person he was in youth, and so he wrestles that old self into submission. He takes stock of his past and ownership of his future, preparing himself not for confrontation, but rather reconciliation.

I bet you can guess what’s going to happen next. Leaving his deceitful ways behind, Jacob now approaches his brother with humility and graciousness. He offers a princely gift to show his goodwill. The brothers finally reunite in a loving embrace. They weep in one another’s arms, and all is forgiven. In one of the most poignant scenes in entire bible Jacob looks into his brother’s eyes, and says:  “Ra’iti fanecha kir’ot p’nai Elohim” – seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.[4]

Jacob departs that wrestling match limping on a wounded hip. He wrestles until the break of dawn, so I imagine he must be physically and emotionally exhausted. Yet, after reconciling with Esau the Torah describes him as שלם. That’s the same Hebrew root as שלום – meaning complete, at peace. How can this be? According to the Hasidic Sfat Emet, the word שלם indicates that Jacob is possessed of an integrity he never had before. Gone is the Jacob who deals with his problems through deception and evasion;[5] replacing him is Yisrael, the one who contends with God and man; who faces up to his problems openly and reflectively.

So that was the story; now here are three lessons I see in it:

  1. In order to open our eyes to the other, we must start within. The mysterious wrestling match is very deliberately placed within the biblical narrative. Jacob needs to confront his demons before confronting Esau. In order to repair that relationship he first needs to work on himself. So when something stops us from witnessing the spark of divinity within our brothers and sisters – and we need only open a newspaper to see evidence of this everywhere – we need to start by asking tough questions about ourselves.
  2. When we truly see the other, difference begins to fall away. We sometimes have legitimate grievances with others. Moreover, people around us bring diverse backgrounds, opinions, and life experience. But when Jacob and Esau truly see one another it is not because they pretend there is no difference between them; but rather because they affirm a higher value than difference – the value of love and brotherhood; the importance of family and community.
  3. Reconciliation is always possible. Most family tiffs do not involve death threats, but sometimes there are 20-year spells of silence. That can feel impossible to overcome And yet, there is a way forward. It may be agonizingly painful; it may require tremendous effort, but just as God never closes the gates of teshuvah, neither should we close ourselves off to improving our relationships. We, too, must strive to say, “Ra’iti fanecha kir’ot p’nai Elohim” – seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.

Shabbat Shalom.








[1][1] Esau had threatened Jacob and Jacob had feared him (Genesis 27.41; 32.12)

[2] Genesis 32.29

[3] Genesis Rabbah 77.3

[4] Genesis 33.10

[5] After 14 years of servitude, Jacob had slipped away from Lavan without warning in the previous parasha