This week’s Torah reading contains the Torah’s first real wrestling match….between Jacob and a man whose identity was intended to be a mystery.
There are echoes of aspects of this tale in Chapter 32 of Genesis that I see in discussions and negotiations on pressing issues in our country and around the world.
The Affordable Care Act is now in the midst of fixes to a website and adjustments to policies underpinning the law. Insurance companies, medical service providers, consumers of health insurance and medical services, the Obama administration, and legislators and leaders at the state and national levels all have a stake in what will happen. It is a process that appears, to those of us on the sidelines, complex, painstaking and even painful.
The negotiations with Iran tying the easing of sanctions to limitations on its nuclear program appear to be progressing in small steps, much to the worry of leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The central issue here is not just weapons development, but the engendering of trust that there is a real desire for cooperation and understanding on the part of all those who are party to these talks.
The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations appear to be at a standstill. Palestinian leaders cite as difficult Israel’s issuing of building permits in the Judea/Samaria areas beyond the 1949 armistice line. The killing of an Israeli soldier this on a bus in Afula by a Palestinian teenager, who sought to avenge Palestinian Arabs who are imprisoned for their acts of violence, signifies an underlying lack of acceptance of Israel as a country and Israelis as neighbors. The issue is, again, the need for assurance that cooperation and understanding are goals for everyone concerned.
It is difficult to trust someone that you believe is still seeking your demise, rather than mutual success. The story of Jacob’s wrestling match seems to reflect this issue as well.
The two men wrestled all night until the breaking of the dawn, with neither one prevailing over the other. Jacob’s opponent asked to leave as the sun was about to come up, signaling that he was not who he seemed if he needed to leave so quickly. Jacob let him go on the condition that he receive a blessing, which came to him in the form of a new name, Israel, one who struggles with God. The new name was accompanied by this explanation: “For you have wrestled with beings divine and human, and you have prevailed.”
Jacob’s opponent likely was no enemy at all and no one to mistrust. Some commentators say it was Esau’s angel. Others say it was Jacob who wrestled with himself. He was about to meet his brother Esau for the first time since he deceived him to take the firstborn birthright and blessing. Jacob knew that deceit wouldn’t work this time against his brother and the 400 armed men who were approaching . The wrestling match gave Jacob a chance to search his soul and to muster the confidence he needed to reunite with Esau based on a positive family connection. It was time to overcome his fear that hatred from the past would plague his relationship with his brother forever.
When the two finally met, they hugged and kissed each other. The word “he kissed him” has dots over it in the Torah text, giving commentators a chance to say that Esau didn’t mean this show of brotherly affection. One explanation said that Jacob’s neck turned to marble to prevent Esau from fulfilling his intention to bite his brother rather than kiss him.
I would suggest that we explain the dots over the word as calling attention to this amazing moment of forgiveness and reconciliation. As the brothers hugged one another, they were no longer opponents. They were on the same side. They had both done well with their lives. There was no longer a reason to hate. Jacob didn’t want to live anywhere near Esau, but the two were able to respect the success that they both had enjoyed. They trusted and loved each other more than they ever had before.
The most meaningful line in that reunion that links back to the wrestling match is spoken by Jacob, as he tells Esau: “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” Like Jacob, we need to do our best to discover the part of God that resides within every person.
In political and international conflicts, it is easy to designate an opponent as “the other” whom you don’t want to succeed. When it comes to peace in our world, the well-being of our citizens, and showing concern for the human family, there should be no “other.” Over the last week, there has been an overwhelming humanitarian response to people in the Phillipines in the wake of the violent storm that took so many lives and caused extensive damage. Such situations demonstrate the innate human ability to see beyond conflict and differences and to offer a helping hand when necessary.
There may be times when we need to wrestle with others or with ourselves. If we see our adversary as “one of us,” the outcome may ultimately lead us to fresh understandings, renewed confidence and well-founded trust. May all of our human struggles be for good, for growth, and bring us hope that the peace that reigns in the highest places will permeate the human family and the world. And let us say Amen.