Parshat Vayishlach

Torah Reading for Week of December 4-10, 2011

“Reluctant, Necessary Transformation”
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ’04

Although the term “angel of G-d” appears 116 times in Tanach, the plural, “angels of G-d” only appears twice, both times to Yaakov, who is the focus of this parasha.  The first episode occurs in Genesis 28:12, the well known dream involving a ladder with angels going up and down….UP and down, implying that the angels’ journey began here, with us, on this level of reality.  Yaakov’s first encounter with angels concludes with G-d’s promise: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15) The second occurs just a few verses before the beginning of our parasha, in Genesis 32:2, where the text states “Yaakov went on his way, and angels of G-d encountered him”. This second incident with multiple angels sets up the fulfillment of that promise by setting the stage for Yaakov’s transformation, as he is indeed on his way, returning home.

“Home” is not just a physical place, but the realm of memory, holding both the promise of comfort and the potential for renewing old conflict.  Yaakov’s past history with his brother Esau, replete with trickery and deception, led him to anticipate conflict, escalating to fear as Esau approached with four hundred men.

Anthropologists find that transformations are often comprised of three phases: a preparatory phase of leaving the past behind, a liminal phase of confusion and uncertainty, and a conclusive phase, during which the transformation is publicly marked.

For Yaakov, he begins as his ‘old self’, dividing his camp to protect his assets in case he fails in battle with Esau, only praying to G-d after attempting to secure his military position, and then attempting appeasement by sending his servants with gifts.  Yaakov is acting as we all do when we are reluctant to change, trying the strategies we’ve used in the past.  In these situations we often use the expression ‘dragging our heels’, perhaps in reference to Yaakov, whose name is explained as meaning “holder of the heel” since he was born holding his twin brother Esau’s heel. Now, no longer protected by his troops and with reduced material wealth, fleeing Laban and fearing Esau, Yaakov begins to reassess himself.

About to start the second, liminal, stage of transformation, he voluntarily sheds his material prosperity, sending his wives, maidservants, children and all his possessions across the river Jabbok.  Then, “Yaakov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn”.  In mysterious and bewildering encounter with the ‘ish’ (the Hebrew specifically does NOT describe this as an encounter with an angel), one wonders whether the ‘ish’ was in fact Yaakov, his past and future selves in conflict, engaged in the kind of painful identity forming experience that few choose willingly.  We drag our heels when we need to change, until the pain of remaining in the past is overwhelming, and replaced by our relatively less painful anxiety about the unknown future, and we change.

In the final stage, Yaakov has been transformed: physically damaged, spiritually transformed, his arrogance replaced by humility, and with a new name, Israel, “G-d wrestler”.  No longer the grasping, sneaky, resentful young man avoiding responsibility, Yaakov has grappled with his former self, struggled with his conscience, and determined to face his brother, his homeland and his G-d as a responsible adult.  He is ready to return home, truly a new man, and a fitting forefather whose name we proudly carry unto this day.

The multiple angels Yaakov encountered helped him get ready for his personal metamorphosis.  Let us remember that, if we are open to them, Divine messengers are available to us as well, to help facilitate life’s necessary transformations.

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