Wrestling Our Way Home: A Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5773

From my Erev Yom Kippur sermon last Tuesday:

I’ve often thought that there’s (a different Torah portion) that is just as appropriate – perhaps even more appropriate – for Yom Kippur.  I’m referring to the famous episode in the 32nd and 33rdchapters of Genesis, when Jacob wrestles on a riverbank with a mysterious stranger the night before he meets up with his estranged twin brother Esau.

Anyone who’s read or studied this text will attest that it’s a phenomenal story with deliciously rich spiritual symbolism.  Indeed, I often find myself returning to this portion for its insights on forgiveness, reconciliation and personal transformation.  All of which, of course, are central themes to the Yom Kippur holiday.

So on this Yom Kippur eve, please allow me to submit this story as an alternative Torah portion for your spiritual consideration. I hope its lessons will help us all engage more deeply in the spiritual work that lays ahead this coming new year.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

Tomorrow, as we do every year, we’ll hear the traditional Torah portion for Yom Kippur – a section from Leviticus that describes a powerful, if somewhat complicated, ritual sacrifice of atonement.  Since it’s in Leviticus, the portion goes a little heavy on the animal evisceration – and I know that for many it can be a challenge to understand its relevancy to their lives.  Nevertheless, even though we don’t atone by sacrificing goats any more, I do believe the portion has a great deal to teach us about repentance – and the complex interplay between individual and collective atonement.  I certainly understand why this portion was chosen for a place of prominence in the Yom Kippur service.

Despite the power of this Torah portion, however, I’ve often thought that there’s another one that is just as appropriate – perhaps even more appropriate – for Yom Kippur.  I’m referring to the famous episode in the 32nd and 33rd chapters of Genesis, when Jacob wrestles on a riverbank with a mysterious stranger the night before he meets up with his estranged twin brother Esau.

Anyone who’s read or studied this text will attest that it’s a phenomenal story with deliciously rich spiritual symbolism.  Indeed, I often find myself returning to this portion for its insights on forgiveness, reconciliation and personal transformation.  All of which, of course, are central themes to the Yom Kippur holiday.

So on this Yom Kippur eve, please allow me to submit this story as an alternative Torah portion for your spiritual consideration. I hope its lessons will help us all engage more deeply in the spiritual work that lays ahead this coming new year.

Before I get to the wrestling episode, however, we need a bit of back story. I know many of you are familiar with the story of Jacob and Esau, the twin brothers born to Isaac and Rebecca.  Even before we meet Jacob and Esau, we learn that they were destined to struggle with one another – in fact they struggle together before they’re even born.

During her pregnancy, Rebecca experiences great pain.  When she asks God why, she is told that this is more than just average prenatal stress.  She is told that the two struggling sons in her womb represent two separate nations, and that the older is destined to serve the younger.  This rivalry plays out even during the moment of then twins’ birth.  Esau, the elder, emerges first, followed by Jacob, who is grasping his older brother’s heel, as if he is trying to somehow make it out before him.  For his pains, he is given the name Ya’akov, meaning, “heel.”

As the twins grow up, it becomes clear they are polar opposites of one another in every way.  Esau is a big hairy hunter who likes the taste of game, while Jacob is the milder one who prefers home to the wild outdoors.  We’re also told that, in time honored Biblical fashion, the boys’ parents play favorites. Esau is favored by his father Isaac, while Rebecca prefers Jacob, who has been described by more than one interpreter as something of a Mama’s Boy

If there was ever any doubt that Jacob was smarter and more calculating than his older brother, this point is driven home one day, when we find Jacob home cooking lentil stew. Esau comes home tired, sweaty and hungry from the hunt and asks Jacob for some of the food.  Jacob, ever the calculating younger brother, says he will sell him some stew in exchange for his older brother’s birthright.  Esau readily agrees, saying “I’m going to die, what good to me is my birthright?”

I’d suggest we’re meant to feel some cognitive dissonance in response to this episode.  On the one hand, it seems underhanded of Jacob to take advantage of his older brother’s vulnerability at that moment.  One the other hand, he seems to understand the importance of family legacy more than Esau, who seems to value a bowl of lentils more than his own birthright.

But on the other, other hand we already know that there is even deeper going on here – namely, destiny. Since it’s already been determined that the older is fated to serve the younger, perhaps we’re being asked to have a measure of compassion on both of these children, who are unwittingly, innocently playing into a fate that has somehow already been determined for them.

Later, when Isaac is on his deathbed and nearly blind, he asks Esau to hunt some game and prepare it, so he can eat his favorite meal and give his eldest his final blessing before he dies.  Rebecca overhears the conversation, and tells Jacob to disguise himself as his brother with animal skins, bring his father food that she will prepare, and trick his father into giving him his older brother’s blessing.

Thus Jacob deceives his father into giving him the blessing that was meant for Esau.  When Esau discovers the deception, naturally, he is devastated.  He cries bitterly and asks his father if he has a blessing left for him.  Isaac sadly tells him it is too late – he has already blessed Jacob and made him master over him.  Esau vows to kill his brother and with angry sarcasm, comments that this must be why he name was named Ya’akov, which means “deceiver” as well as “heel.” Rebecca, fearing the worst, tells Jacob to leave home and flee to her brother Laban’s house until Esau’s fury subsides.

It’s during his sojourn at Laban’s that Jacob grows into manhood.  It’s not an easy sojourn – and with a bit of the old “what goes around, comes around,” Jacob himself becomes a victim of deceit at the hands of his uncle Laban.  Still, Jacob becomes a successful and prosperous man. By the time he leaves his uncle’s house and starts for home he has a large family, with many servants and great wealth.

Our portion, Genesis 32, opens with Jacob and his family leaving Laban’s house and heading toward Edom, where his brother Esau happens to reside. Jacob sends ahead messengers, in hopes of “gaining his brother’s favor.”  The messengers return, telling Jacob that Esau, together with four hundred men, is coming out to meet him. Jacob, understandably frightened now, prays desperately to God, divides his family up into groups and sends them ahead separately, hoping to placate Esau with tribute.  Then he spends the night alone on the bank of the Jabok river.

During the night, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious “man” until the break of dawn. When the man sees that he cannot prevail against Jacob, he wrenches Jacob’s hip and says to him, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!” Jacob answers, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”  The man asks, “What is your name?” and he replies “Jacob.”  Then he says, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with beings divine and human and you have prevailed.”  Jacob asks the man, “Please tell me your name!”  But the man tells him he cannot and soon Jacob is left alone once more.  Jacob then names the place “Peniel” which means “Face of God,” explaining, “I have seen a divine being face to face and I live.”  As the sun rises, he makes his way across the river, limping on his wounded hip.

As Chapter 33 opens, Jacob sees Esau coming with his 400 men. He divides up his family into two groups, then goes on ahead. He approaches Esau and bows low to the ground seven times until he is near his brother. Esau runs toward him and, weeping, they embrace and kiss one another.  Esau looks at Jacob’s wives and children and asks “Who are all these with you?” Jacob replies, “These are my children, with whom God has blessed me.”  Esau then asks, “Why have you sent all these ahead of you?” and Jacob says “To gain your favor.”

Esau tells him he has more than enough wealth, but Jacob insists, “No, please do me this favor by accepting this gift, for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” Esau eventually accepts his brother’s gifts and they both travel toward Esau’s home in Seir.  After a brief sojourn, they part, and Jacob’s family travels on ahead to the city of Shechem. And with that, our portion ends.

It’s probably obvious to you why I chose this story as an alternative Yom Kippur portion. At heart it’s concerned with teshuvah – repentance, the spiritual essence of this day and the entire High Holiday season.  And if we read the story carefully, if we dig deeper under the surface of the narrative, we can see an entire process laid out for us in literary fashion.  Indeed, Jacob’s struggle may well help us understand our own struggles – and the spiritual journeys we take every year at this time.

Let’s start with the image of Jacob and Esau struggling in their mother’s womb.  If we understand these brothers to be symbolic of human relationships in general, we seem to be told that conflict is our destiny –  that relationships are somehow defined by struggle.  While this may seem like fatalism, can we honestly deny it?  Certainly we all dream of the day in which conflict between peoples and nations will be no more – but until that day, it seems to me, our job is not to deny or avoid the struggle, but to deal with the inevitability of conflict in a healthy and healing way.

As I indicated earlier, I do believe we’re asked to hold a measure of compassion for every character in this narrative.  There are no definite heroes or villains – only imperfect individuals who are struggling to do their best even as circumstances seem to conspire against them.  So too in our own lives: none of us are all good or all evil – there is only the grey complexity of our humanity as we wrestle to control events that so often seem outside our control.

If there is anyone who must bear the brunt of the blame in this story, in fact, I would suggest it’s God – the one who sets in motion events that will inevitably cause these people to experience conflict and pain. Regardless of our theologies – or whether we even have a theology at all – I think this aspect of the story rings true.  Whether we believe it is Divine Will, karma, fate, or just plain randomness, there is so much in the world that is outside our control.  We will never truly find an adequate answer to the question “Why does pain and struggle invariably seem to enter our lives and our world?”  The only one we can and should answer, it seems to me, is “What are we going to do about it?”

One of the most enduring questions asked about this story pertains to the identity of the mysterious night wrestler.  The text, deliciously obtuse on this question, simply refers to him in Hebrew as an “ish” or man.  Some say the man is an angel of God, some say he represents Esau, others believe he represents Jacob himself. The Freudians among us might say the man in Jacob’s Id; Jungians would likely say it’s his “shadow self.”

So which one one is it?  To that question I answer, of course: “Yes.”

The mystery man certainly represents Esau, inasmuch as Jacob has been bearing considerable pain, guilt and anger toward his brother all these years: guilt over how he willingly deceived him, anger over the unfairness of his brother’s privileged status and pain over the unresolved nature of their relationship.  Indeed, Jacob had likely borne the weight of these burdens for his entire adult life until up to this point.

So too in our own lives. It never fails to amaze me how effortlessly we summon the strength to bear the staggering weight of this kind of painful baggage.  We somehow manage to accommodate ourselves to the steady accumulation of hurt, guilt, resentment and anger toward those who are closest to us. We bear these burdens so skillfully and so well – but we rarely stop to consider the damage this weight actually does to us along the way.

It’s painfully difficult to face those whom we’ve hurt – particularly those we love. When relationships become broken, we often tend to carry the wound around with us numbly. It can be terrifying to allow ourselves to truly feel the hurt of this brokenness.  That might be one way of understanding Jacob’s wounding during his struggle.  In the morning, he limps toward Esau – but he has not been defeated. On the contrary, he has finally, at long last allowed himself to drop his disguise and come face to face with his brother; to feel the pain he has avoided for so long. Mending our relationships necessarily entails pain, but if we do it honestly and openly, in the end we will find that when we look into the face of the other we will finally see, as Jacob says, the face of God looking back at us.

Read another way, we might say that the mysterious wrestler represents Jacob himself.  Some suggest that in fact by wrestling with Esau he is wrestling with himself – that his twin brother represents his “Esau side,” if you will.  While in a literal sense, this is certainly a story about the relationship between two brothers, we could also read it as one man’s struggle to integrate two very different sides of himself: to own up to his physically powerful, sensual, bestial “Esau side” together with his intellectually powerful, wily, inwardly focused “Jacob side.”  In this way, Jacob is finally taking off his Esau disguise and is facing that part of himself honestly for the first time.

I’ve always been struck that the dialogue during the wrestling match and during Jacob and Esau’s embrace, it’s difficult to tell at first who is doing the talking during the conversations. In both cases, the dialogue goes back and forth so quickly it often takes more than one reading to discern who is who. This literary blurring of identities suggests to me that perhaps we might read this narrative as a story about one man – and his painful struggle to integrate his identity.

It’s also notable that this story takes place on the bank of a river, on the eve of a crossing.  So many stories in the Torah use the crossing of waters as a symbol for spiritual consciousness and transformation. Many commentators point out that the name of the river, Jabok, contains the same letters as the name Ya’akov, indicating that this struggle is taking place on the deepest depths of his own sense of self.  The only place where he can integrate himself fully into a place of spiritual wholeness.

And In the end he does indeed prevail. And notably, he receives a new name.  No longer is he Jacob the deceiver, the one who grasps fruitlessly at the heel of his Esau idenity.  Now he is Israel, the one who struggles to intergrate himself, to find wholeness on the deepest level and is transformed. Then Jacob himself engages in an act of naming: he names the place of his struggle “Peniel” which means “Face of God,” explaining, “I have seen a divine being face to face and I live.”

This is precisely what is asked of us on Yom Kippur – and during so many other critical turning points in our lives.  We seek to make ourselves whole. We are bidden to face the shadow parts of ourselves, the shadow parts of our souls, that we may truly bring together the disparate elements of our humanity and become the kind of people we are meant to become. This is a terrifying struggle, of that there is no question.  But if we manage to engage in it with spiritual honestly and integrity we may find ourselves saying, as Jacob/Israel does, “I have seen a divine being face to face and I am live.”

Face to face. Wrestling is an act that takes place face to face, with no barriers or artifice.  Many diverse traditions, from the Ancient Greeks to Japanese Sumo wrestlers, view wrestling as a form of spiritual purification. And those who have wrestled will attest that there is a purity about it, a sense of face to face encounter in which nothing comes between the two parties involved.  Again, Jacob’s face to face encounter contrasts sharply with his encounter with his father as a boy, when he disguised himself as another and stole a blessing through guile.  Even though this had been already ordained by God, it is still quite possible that this ill-gotten blessing had dogged Jacob for his entire life.

And perhaps this is the meaning of Jacob’s comment, “I will not let you go until you bless me!”  That night on the riverbank, he finally gains his blessing honestly, not by way of disguise, but face to face, without deception.  This happens to us every Yom Kippur, when we say in our liturgy “Hineini” – “Here I am.”  On Yom Kippur, each of us stands unmasked, without artifice, in God’s presence. At least once a year we know that we must bare ourselves and our souls if we are to find the sense of atonement – the sense of “at-one-ment” – that we seek in our lives.

This transformation, to be sure, is an ongoing, never ending process.  At the end of our story, Jacob is transformed, his named changed from “Jacob the Deceiver” to “Israel the Godwrestler.”   But if you read on through the rest of the Book of Genesis, you’d find he isn’t referred to exclusively by the name Israel. Interestingly enough, for the rest of his life, the text refers to him interchangeably as either Jacob or Israel.

Does this mean that his transformation is a failure?  Not all – it only means that his transformation is all too human.  We never end the struggle.  In the real world, transformation is not a magical one-time occurrence.  It is a step by step, day by day, year after year process.  Ideally, yes sometimes it feels tragically, we never really stop struggling until the day we die.

In this regard, Yom Kippur truly is a spiritual gift. It offers us an automatic, annual opportunity for us to put our struggles in a kind of sacred context. To stop struggling long enough just to feel.  To find the face of God in the faces of those we love. In the faces of those we fear. In our own. To let down the masks we hide behind long enough to glimpse our true selves – and for that one moment on the Yom Kippur day, we might understand what it means to be whole.

There so much more to say about this story, which is only just a few verses long, yet never stops yielding meaning upon meaning.  One level of meaning I did not explore tonight is the extent to which it also teaches us about struggle on a collective level.  Indeed, both the names Jacob and Israel are used to refer not only to a Biblical character but to the Jewish people as a whole. And I would venture to say that this story provides a central paradigm – perhaps even the central  paradigm – for collective Jewish identity today. But that’s for another sermon. (You’ll have to return here in the morning to hear that one.)

In the meantime, I’d like to end my remarks to you with a poem I wrote this past year.  As I said earlier, after this episode, Jacob is referred to as both Jacob and Israel until the day he dies.  And to be sure, this episode does not mark the end of his struggles.  There will be challenges ahead, including moments of great pain.  Jacob/Israel’s role in the Joseph narrative is particularly tragic.  But by the end of his life, he has come full circle.  As Genesis ends, he is surrounded by his sons and offers them each his blessing before he dies.

Here is my poetic rendering of that moment, from verses in Genesis, chapters 48 and 49:

now israel’s eyes were dim with age he said

i can see the one in whose

steps my father walked even when they led straight

into the fire i see the one who answered

my mother but could not relieve her

pain i can see so plainly my own reflection masked

and unmasked deceiver and deceived ascending

descending wrestling embracing fleeing

returning yes i see quite clearly these scarred and

withered hands are the hands of jacob but the face is

the face of god when he was ready to stop

struggling jacob drew his feet into the bed

breathed his last breath

and finally returned


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