Struggling with God

November 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

There is a saying: at twenty-five you have the face that you inherit, but at fifty you have the face that you deserve.  I cannot tell you whether that is precisely true, but it does seem to contain some wisdom.

From midlife onward your life – and your face – both become the sum of your choices. That’s why 25-year high school reunions are so interesting – and so galling. You find out whether those kids you knew then continued on the same trajectory or not, and you learn whether that direction was profitable or not. Some are predictable, and some are a complete surprise.

Jacob is at that point in his life – somewhere in midlife, learning what the aggregate of his life-choices might mean. He has left the service of Laban, having outgrown his position as a servant-shepherd, ready to take on a new role. He is smart and capable, able to serve as the leader of his own clan – so why, he wonders, is he still working for a servant’s wages? No, the time has come for him to take his leave, along with his entourage, which has in fact become a rather large caravan.

But that departure from Laban’s household also means that it is time to return home to face his demons there. And he is worried: going home requires that he face his twin brother, the very same one who vowed to kill him all those years ago. His brother never was one to let bygones be bygones, so this homecoming could be a genuine problem. Jacob is afraid.

Worried about the outcome, Jacob sends messengers ahead of his caravan to send greetings to his brother Esau. But they return to him with the message that his brother is coming out to meet him in person.

That’s not good.

And, the messengers explain, Esau has 400 men with him.

That’s not good either.

Jacob fears the worst. And so he prays. His prayer to God at that moment reflects his sense of desperation:

O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you’! I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike.[1]

Jacob is afraid, genuinely afraid.

But his prayer is not just an expression of fear; it is also a realization. As the modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes, his prayer also reflects a sudden insight, an insight gained in the midst of his prayer.

Jacob suddenly realizes the emotional cost of what he had done all those years ago.

As she writes: “Perhaps the suffering of the twenty years’ servitude and exile with Laban, the deceptions practiced on him there had not driven home to him the full significance of the deed of ‘thy brother came with guile.’”[2]

At the time of his deceit, he had not really understood how his behavior would hurt his brother; now, as a grown man, having been tricked himself, he has insight. Pausing to reflect on these experiences, he finally understands the shame and humiliation that his brother felt.

As Leibowitz continues, “Perhaps he still justified the immoral deed by the justness of the end, given the seal of approval in his father’s confirmation of the blessing after the deed: ‘yea, and he shall be blessed.’ He had still not experienced even the shadow of a doubt regarding the rightness of his conduct. Only now through his prayer he experienced a re-appraisal of his conduct.”[3] And he realizes that he has been unworthy of all of the blessings he has received.

And, it suddenly dawns on him just what it must have meant to his brother to have been tricked like that. And he suddenly understands what he, himself, has done. And now, as a result, he has become a fully ethical being.

Hermann Cohen, the neo-Kantian Jewish philosopher from the turn of the last century, argues that genuine morality is born when we understand how the other person feels. Up until that moment, we are not truly making ethical choices: we have no sense of why a given action – such as tricking your brother – might be wrong or unethical. It is when we realize he hurts just like I do that we are able to make moral choices.

In fact, all of ethics can be summed up as follows: I should not hurt him because he hurts just like I do.

But Jacob is like that: sometimes he is ethical, sometimes not; sometimes he is responsible, sometimes not. Sometimes he is able to transcend himself, to gain genuine insight and recognize his part in the drama and act ethically – and sometimes not.

This division within him is evident in one of the most famous passages in the narrative of his life. After sending his clan across the Jordan River, he sleeps alone on the other bank.

Why is he alone? It does not say. Maybe he thinks that if Esau attacks both of the camps at night, he is more likely to survive if he is out on his own. It does not occur to him that his family might want the reassurance of his presence in the camp.

While Jacob is alone, he is attacked. Who is this man who attacks? Why does he attack? What does he want?

When he [the attacker] saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.

Why exactly does this attacker tear the ligaments in Jacob’s hip? It seems like something more than bad sportsmanship. Either that, or angels are sore losers.

However, it appears that the attacker fully intended to kill him. The attacker would have to settle for just wounding him, however, because that is the best he can do. In fact, as the struggle continues, the attacker has to ask Jacob to release him:

Then he [the attacker] said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But [Jacob] answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

This is our first hint that this being might not be a man after all.

English: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Česky...

English: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Česky: Jákob zápasící s andělem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”[4]

Why is it that this being won’t give his name? And who is it?

One possibility, proposed by the rabbinic literature, is that this man is an angel, the prince of Esau. In other words, this angel is what we might call the guardian angel of the people of Esau, and it was Esau’s and Jacob’s angels engaged in battle.  A cosmic battle takes place before the two brothers meet; its significance is to foreshadow that Jacob’s people will eventually win, but at great cost. As Ramban explains: “There were other generations who did such things to us and worse than this. But we endured all and it passed us by…”[5] Ramban and the Midrashic literature would like to have us think that God sees to it that Israel always wins.

But there are problems here with this reading. For one thing, God doesn’t ever give him that promise. And frankly, I don’t think that we should bet on that.

Another possibility – proposed to me by one of my Bible professors some years ago – is that the attacker is actually Esau himself, come to do battle with Jacob. That’s why, when they reunite, Jacob exclaims, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” He had thought he was wrestling with an angel, only to discover that angel was really Esau. His brother did indeed try to kill him, just as he had vowed to do, but when he realized that he could not do so he gave him a blessing instead.

There is a certain logic to this reading, in the sense that it allows Esau to fulfill his vow to attempt to kill him, and it resolves the tension of Jacob’s stolen blessing: now Jacob receives the blessing directly from his brother, and the blessing is no longer considered a theft.

It is an excellent suggestion. But in recent months, I have been less enamored of this kind of reading. I find, of course, that each time that I encounter the text, it has something different to say.

This year I am finding a lot of meaning in the tension itself; I have felt a greater appreciation for the Bible’s willingness to leave some things unresolved, am I am a little less willing to collapse the text into a neat resolution.

The narrative does wind on itself, like some sort of DNA helix: certain things get repeated, or handed down, sometimes in precisely the same way; yet in each new version there is also something novel and unexpected.

This episode is one of those repetitions. Jacob yet again, in the hours of darkness, is faced with a deception: In this case, he is wrestling someone who will not tell him his name or his reasons for being there. But this time, when asked, Jacob gives his own name, and gives it honestly: Jacob, the supplanter. The one who will trick you in order to take your place.

And the angel tells him, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Israel literally means he-who-struggles-with-God. The root of the verb is ‘to struggle or contend with’ – but interestingly, etymologically the root is also related to the root for ‘dominate’ or ‘reign’.[6]  So there is a very real sense of struggle here: which will be dominant, the desires of this unruly man, or the will of God?

And so the episode with the angel tells him: No longer are you the one who supplants your brother. No longer are you the one who engages in tricks. You are now the one who struggles with God, with ethics, with all that is high and holy in deciding what to do.

Of course, you are also always still Jacob, the one who seeks the shortcut or the quick win. Yet you are also capable of becoming someone much grander, much greater than that: You are Israel, the one who struggles to transcend himself.

And that lesson has resonance: We all struggle with our lesser nature. We all have to make an effort to choose well, to transcend ourselves. And in that sense, we too are Israel.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

[1] This is the JPS translation.

[2] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit/Genesis, translated by Aryeh Newman, p. 364.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This is the JPS translation.

[5] As quoted in Leibowitz, pp. 369-70.

[6] According to the Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language by Ernest Klein (Jerusalem: Carta, on behalf of the University of Haifa, 1987): sin-resh-hey is ‘to fight, strive, contend’ (p. 681) and sin-resh-resh is ‘to rule, reign, dominate’ (p. 684). See also the entry for ‘Israel’ on p. 266.

The voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau

November 16, 2012 § Leave a comment


The experience of losing my voice this week has had me thinking a lot about the power of speech. The ability to ‘have a voice’ – in the sense of being able to speak for ourselves – is indeed critical to our sense of self-worth.

In this week’s Torah portion, we hear the story of Rebekah’s ruse: Isaac is ready to give a blessing to one of his sons. The exclusive nature of the blessing would seem to indicate that it has some legal weight; perhaps Isaac is ready to retire from his role as head of the household. One presumes that he had been leading his family clan for some time; there is no mention of the transfer of power from Abraham to Isaac. Perhaps after the binding and near-sacrifice, Abraham was no longer interested in formal ceremonies.  But Isaac was willing to engage in the custom of giving his sons a blessing as he retires. His son Jacob and his grandson Joseph will do the same when their turn comes.

Isaac had always favored Esau, his outdoorsman son, and he tells him to make a festive meal for just the two of them, and they’ll talk.  Esau, however, is not a man of many words; he says one word in their brief exchange (the Hebrew word for ‘here I am’) and he leaves, ready to go into action. He is a powerful man and a skillful hunter. He speaks rarely, and in nearly every conversation he speaks of death. There is something about him that makes people tremble, a quality that puts others on their guard.

Rebecca is Isaac’s wife. She has no voice, at least when it comes to her husband. She speaks in whispers, of controversies and of plots. As we read, “Rebekah had been listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau had gone out into the open to hunt game to bring home, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, ‘I overheard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying, ‘Bring me some game and prepare a dish for me to eat, that I may bless you, with the Lord’s approval, before I die.’ Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you.’”

Jacob, in turn, tries to tell mom why this is a Very Bad Idea, but when he does, he gives the wrong reason: he doesn’t say ‘Mom don’t try to use me to trick my father and my brother.’ Rather, he’s worried that they will get caught. Her irritation is evident in the text as she exerts her power over him in her response: “But his mother said to him, “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.”

Then there is the scene in which the son attempts the trick. Though the scene could certainly be played straight, there is an element of comedic farce: for example, exactly how hairy is this brother if they have to use sheepskin to mimic his arms and neck?

When Jacob comes in, more or less dressed as a sheep, his father Isaac asks who’s there:

[Jacob] went to his father and said, “Father.” And he said, “Yes, which of my sons are you?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau, your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.”

But Isaac is not convinced. He objects that Esau could not have made it back that soon:

Isaac said to his son, “How did you succeed so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because the Lord your God granted me good fortune.”

That’s the first objection voiced. Now he’s sounding really suspicious:

Isaac said to Jacob, “Come closer that I may feel you, my son-whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him.

That’s the second objection voiced. Imagine what that scene would look like if it were hammed up with over-acting. Played broadly, it’s actually pretty funny to picture the old blind father patting down the sheepskin on Jacob’s neck thinking it’s really Isaac.

But he’s still not fully convinced:

He asked, “Are you really my son Esau?” And when he said, “I am,” he said, “Serve me and let me eat of my son’s game that I may give you my innermost blessing.” So he served him and he ate, and he brought him wine and he drank.

That’s the third objection voiced. But even after dinner he expresses his doubt:

Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come close and kiss me, my son”; and he went up and kissed him. And he smelled his clothes and he blessed him, saying, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed.

That’s the fourth objection voiced. And again the farce: Just how stinky is Esau if he’s that distinctive in his smell? You could imagine the father sniffing Jacob deeply, making an exaggeratedly sour face and then declaring – oh yeah, that’s Esau all right!

Which of course makes you wonder: maybe the father knew all along?

Here is another question to consider: who is the villain, and who is the hero in this story? You can argue plausibly for any two. I have seen a variety of commentaries, and they don’t all agree as to who is right and who is wrong, nor do they agree as to the reasons why. It’s not so simple, is it?

If we look at this text through the lens of the Rabbinic literature, for example, we will notice that the rabbis treat the two boys as archetypes, with Jacob as the people of Israel and Esau the nation of Rome. From their perspective, Rome’s endless brutality more than justified the trickery. In their version, Jacob the hero is always right and Esau the villain is always wrong.

If we look at this narrative through the lens of family dynamics, we will notice that the preferential treatment Abraham showed for one of his boys appears here again in Isaac’s treatment of his two sons. And these family dynamics get repeated endlessly: Just as Jacob tricks his brother, so too will he be tricked a pair of sister-rivals. The lesson here is that we tend to recreate our family dramas, down to the small details, carrying them from generation to generation. In this reading, Rebecca and Isaac bear the blame for not being more self-aware. And there are no heroes.

If we look at the story through the lens of feminism, we will notice that Rebecca is hidden, unable to venture out, unable to speak for herself. She must rely on subterfuge and reside in shadows. Her use of trickery is an expression of her weakness in the face of the more powerful male.  Here Isaac is the one who is wrong, the patriarchic villain, and Rebecca is the hero for getting what she wants even in a position of relative powerlessness.

The story has neither hero nor villain, just people behaving badly. You are the one who picks the hero, the one with whom you identify, and you are the one who chooses the villain.

But the story also hides a deeper pain, which is why it is so endlessly interesting to us. Why is it that this family can’t talk to each other? Why does Rebecca feel the need to manipulate her younger son in order to trick his father into giving him recognition? Why does the older son keep getting duped by his brother and his mother?

What happens in these situations – what drives folks to engage in these elaborate schemes – is the belief that they will not be heard.

I have used this example before, but it is apt: let’s say you are swindled and you take the guy to small claims court. You prepare your case, organize your papers, and practice your speeches. You are going to explain exactly how you were wronged. You are going to have your day in court. And when the day comes, before you even get to speak, the judge summarily rules in your favor without hearing the case. Would you feel satisfied with that result?

To a large extent, we would rather be heard, even if it means that we might lose our case.

We all want to be heard, on our own terms, in our own voice. So, in listening to this story – and to the stories you hear as you go into your week – ask yourself: who is not being heard? Seeking out that voice and the perspective that it represents might go a long way toward relieving unresolved pain.  It’s not always possible, of course; just as I have lost my voice this week, others too can lose the ability to give voice to their perspective. But do try to listen. We all want to be heard, on our own terms, in our own voice.

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