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04/06/2015 07:08:00 AM


Va'yishlach Decency:

"Am I my brother's keeper"? Abraham challenges the conscience of God: "Will You sweep away the innocent alongside the guilty? Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do justice?" And Isaac poses the question innocent martyr will articulate for generations: "Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?" Joseph encounters a man at the crossroads of Shechem who asks him, "What are you looking for?" Moses responds to the Voice from the Burning Bush, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites?" The question captures the essence of the character's life struggle. The question captures our own struggle.

Jacob's story is similarly built around a question. Jacob purloins his brother's blessing and birthright and runs for his life to his uncle Laban. Jacob -- the perennial conniving trickster -- whose name means "heel," for his effort to supplant his brother in utero as in life meets Uncle Laban (whose name means "white," or "blank"), the consummate master of deceit. He exploited his brother's hunger and stole the birthright. He exploiting his father's blindness and stole the blessing. And now in the darkness of his wedding chamber, blinded by his desire, he finds himself with the wrong bride.

Finally, after 21 years in exile, it is time to return home. But returning home means facing Esau and his death threat. What will Jacob do? The Torah reveals the mind of the manipulator: He sends messages filled with obsequiousness, only to be told that Esau is coming accompanied by 400 men. He begs the help and protection of God. He sends a lavish bribe. And finally, a last ditch strategy: Divide the family, divide the camp into two columns. Let one be attacked, the other will escape.

"That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he 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. Then he said, 'Let me go, for dawn is breaking.' But he 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 struggled with beings divine and human and have prevailed.'"(Genesis 32:23-9)

What is your name? asks the nameless adversary. It is the question Jacob has wrestled with since birth. Amid a life spent feinting and faking, on this one dark night he is asked: Who are you? Who would you be? A lifelong struggle for survival, but to what end? What is your purpose? What is your genius?

The question remains unanswered. Abraham's name was changed from Abram and is never again called "Abram." Similarly with Sarai/Sarah. But Jacob's name vacillates: Sometimes he's called Jacob, and sometimes Israel. At times, the crafty manipulator. At times, the bold God-wrestler. His identity remains indeterminate -- it remains a struggle, an objective to be pursued. He is a work-in-progress, God's unfinished Tzadik. And we, Jacob's children, God's unfinished project.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780