Vayishlach –“And He Sent”

This is the story of Jacob. tree of life blue

Jacob is returning to his homeland and is about to see his brother Esau for the first time in 20 years.  The last time he saw Esau was when he tricked their father Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn from Esau. When Esau found out, he threatened to kill Jacob.  Instead Jacob fled –he went to live with his uncle in a distant land.   

Now 20 years later, Jacob is traveling with his wives, his sons, his daughter, servants and animals.  He is about to encounter Esau and he is very very scared.  He learns that Esau has 400 men with him. Jacob is terrified that Esau means to attack him. 

What does he do?  He sends half of his servants and animals, as a gift (or bribe), hoping to soften Esau’s heart.  When there was no sign of attack, he sent the other half.  Then he sent wives and children.

Now Jacob is alone.  It is the middle of the night and It is moment of reckoning.

We’re told that an eish visits Jacob and wrestles with him until the break of dawn.  When the eish sees he cannot defeat Jacob, he wrenches Jacob’s hip socket.  But Jacob has hold of him.  The eish says:  let me go.

Jacob is wily.  He tries to cut a deal.
Jacob says I’ll release you, but first you have to give me a blessing.

The eish asks:  What is your name?  Jacob. 

The eish says:  No!  Your name is no longer Jacob.  From now on, your name shall now be “Yisrael” — Israel — one who has wrestled with beings divine and human, and prevailed. 

These few verses raise many questions:

Who was Jacob wrestling with?  Who was the eish?  Scholars have debated for centuries –eish means man but  was it really a man?  Or was it an angel?  Esau’s angel?  God or a reflection of God?   Jacob apparently thought he was wrestling with God –because in the morning, Jacob/Israel named the place Peniel – Face of God.  But still the debate continues.  Was it God?  Or was he wrestling with himself —  His conscience, his own self-doubts?

Whoever or whatever it was, one thing is certain – Jacob was facing a great challenge.  On the one hand there is Esau’s anger and desire for revenge that have been growing for 20 years.  On the other is Jacob’s own fears, regrets and doubts.  Before he could face his brother, Jacob had to confront himself at the deepest level.  He had to find out what he was made of.

What is the significance of this night of wrestling?  This was a moment of reckoning for Jacob.  All of us have had moments of reckoning in our live – or will have them.  Defining moments.   They often occur when we are alone and vulnerable.  When we are facing something an important decision.  Or questioning the  path we have been on.  When we need to find our own deepest essence and find out what we are made of. 

What does it mean to prevail against God?  One thing is clear – after this night of reckoning, Jacob was no longer the same.  The man who met Esau was not the Jacob who cheated him of his birthright, it was a different man.   For the first time in his life, Jacob did not run away.  He was ready to confront his own weaknesses.  He was ready to face an uncertain future, ready to rely on his own strength.  When the eish says let me go, Jacob cuts a deal – he demands a blessing – and that is when he became Yisrael/Israel!

What does this have to do with me?

Those who know me well can tell you that I have pretty much always wrestled with life!   With parents, school, career, where to live,  relationships and becoming a mother.

But I especially wrestled a few years ago when I underwent treatment for breast cancer.  When I learned that I would need to have chemotherapy and a mastectomy,  boy did I wrestle!  I wrestled with myself, with God, with life itself.

I’d like to think I prevailed.  I at least made peace with having cancer.  I learned to accept what I lost, and embrace what I gained.  And I gained a lot.   I pulled my family and friends in because I needed them closer and they were there for me.  I learned to forgive God and life and myself.   I realized – even more – how precious life is, and uncertain – there is no promise of tomorrow – for anyone.  The only thing there is to do is to live each day – this day – this very day right now– to the fullest – with all the love, joy and gratitude you can muster.  Learning to do that was an enormous blessing.  And guess what?  Life has gotten a lot easier.  Less struggle.  More joy!   So, the thing about wrestling – you are different in the end.  You are forever changed – in the best possible way!

What are the Lessons of Vayishlach?

You’ll recall that Jacob was terrified to meet Esau, so you’re probably wondering what happened between the brothers when they finally met, right?  After his night of reckoning, Jacob goes limping to meet Esau. Esau sees Jacob and embraces him with open arms.  All was forgiven.  All was well.

  1. First lesson — and this I can tell you as a mediator and forgiveness teacher — if you can find peace within yourself, then you can find peace with others.
  2. You don’t have to be perfect.  Jacob was far from perfect – he was a liar, a schemer and a manipulator — yet throughout his life he found favor with God.  So don’t pretend to be someone you are not.  It’s a waste of energy and eventually you will have to face your eish.
  3. You have a choice about how you show up in life.  In truth, we are all Jacob – capable of scheming and deception – and we are also Israel – capable of wrestling and prevailing.   When the time comes, have faith that you can find what you need within yourself to meet the challenges before you.
  4. Life leaves scars.  Some of us have surgical scars.  Some of us have other infirmities.  Jacob walked with a limp the rest of his life.  But the point is this:  If you have wrestled with God and prevailed, if you have discovered your true essence, then those scars are a small price to pay.
  5. Finally — Alone time can be good for your soul.  Sometimes, the wisest thing you can do is to “Vayishlach” — send everyone way so you can be alone, and while you’re at it – disconnect from the internet.  When you are alone- when you reckon with life, you have the opportunity to discover your true self.  Not the self defined by your family.  Not the self defined by your culture or even your own limited beliefs about who you are – but your true self, your essence, your Israel.   Then the key is having the courage to follow your own unique path.

This is the hero’s journey.


About Eileen Barker

EILEEN BARKER has been writing and speaking on forgiveness, and guiding people who need to either forgive themselves or someone else, for many years. A practicing litigation lawyer who rejected the traditional adversarial role, Eileen has focused her practice on mediation, helping thousands of people resolve disputes outside of court. This work led her into a deep exploration of forgiveness as it relates to resolving conflict and making peace, both with others and oneself.

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