Vayishlah 5783 – Jacob’s Transformation is Our Own

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

A recent subject of National Public Radio’s show called RadioLab, was “transformations.” Examples were given of how, sometimes surprisingly, people are not necessarily locked in to a specific pattern of behavior. Behavior can and sometimes does change. This is an appropriate theme for my D’var Torah, as it relates to Jacob, because today’s parashah is a story about his transformation.

Now personally, I’ve never been a big fan of Jacob. His failings have been laid bare the past few weeks – how so much of his life was about his deception of others. His brother, his father, his father-in-law. Even, as we heard last week, his conditional acceptance of Gd. Now, it seems that this week, he is about to get his comeuppance. He is about to meet his brother again, and he fears that his brother will finally get to exact a measure of revenge on him.

The night before the meeting, we read of Jacob’s internal struggle. He wrestles with an unidentified being. The struggle hits home, I’m sure, for all of us. As Jews, we struggle constantly. We struggle with Gd in an attempt to reconcile what we see and what we experience despite a Divine presence in the world. So much misery exists! Unlike in some other faiths, we don’t have an easy answer for this. Of course, we struggle with ourselves. Are we who we really want to be? Are we doing what we should be doing? We struggle with family members over sometimes inconsequential matters. We struggle with other people in attempting to construct a society in which Gd’s teachings are enacted.

And Jacob embodies this more than other Biblical figures. He finds danger. He escapes. He deceives others and he is taken advantage of. He struggles with Gd and he is transformed. And yet even after all this, his daughter is violated. His sons quarrel. His people suffer from famine and he is uprooted, ultimately to be returned to the place of his birth only after his death. “My years have been hard,” he would tell Pharaoh. His entire life is a struggle – with himself, with others, with Gd.

What’s so instructive and, yes, inspiring, about the Torah is that its characters are people we can identify with. They make mistakes, they struggle, and figuratively or literally, they limp as a result, as Jacob limped after his nocturnal struggle. But sometimes they learn in ways that we can, in the best of our Jewish tradition, find instructive and inspirational. Maybe we can all find some of Jacob in ourselves. Hardships and tragedy are not blessings, but it is up to us to transform – to become a blessing to others in response.

We all continue to limp from the genuine struggles we have faced. In fact, we sometimes bear those scars, and limp, for a lifetime. Some are scars that were the result of our own misdeeds; others were cast upon us through no fault of our own. But all were from some crisis in our lives. Real crises cause real scars.

But what happens in today’s parashah? Jacob wouldn’t let go until he received a blessing. And so – the crises that we live through should, hopefully, result in an awakening within us of the need to turn crisis into opportunity. To turn tragedy, even, into actions that will ultimately bring change for others that will benefit them. It’s not easy. Sometimes, it takes years for this to happen. For many, it never does.

Jacob’s nighttime struggle comes to an end. But we read that even after he is given a new name – Israel – by none other than Gd, the Torah continues to refer to him as Jacob. Although Jacob has been transformed by his experiences, he is still . . . Jacob. And this is the case with us. We can change, as we inevitably do, during the course of our lives, but the traits we carried with us along the way continue to be part of us. We are shaped by our experiences permanently.

Our past is very much our present. Our prior struggles and experiences bubble to the surface with sometimes distressing ease as we encounter challenging situations. But we need not accept whatever shortcomings we have as permanent. Like Jacob, we can change, we can evolve, we can be transformed.

Jacob’s struggle was clearly a struggle from within. And as we all should have learned by now, we can’t reconcile our existential struggles and ultimately find comfort until we win our internal struggles.

In what would become a hallmark of his descendants, Jacob doesn’t give up. “I will not let go,” Jacob tells his adversary on that fateful night, “Until you bless me.” A dark, restless and troublesome night gave rise to a dawn of reconciliation with Esau and perhaps even with himself.

Jacob wasn’t about to give up the struggle with the stranger until he extracted something positive from it.

The Biblical figures of Genesis were not without their blemishes. They became angry. They fought. They showed selfishness. They feared and wept. In sum, they were people with whom we could identify.  Especially Jacob. Jacob taught us that we can be transformed. We can survive crisis and conflict.

Judaism is the faith of restlessness and honesty. Of seeing the blemishes in ourselves and in society, and striving to transform each. We are, after all, the descendants of Jacob, the children of Israel.