Parshat Vayishlach: Finding Blessing in Suffering

Dr. Rachel Remen, a pioneer of integrative medicine in the United States, has cared for many patients with severe illness. She, herself, has lived with chronic illness since she was a young girl. Her experiences in the medical world from both sides have given her deep insight into the human psyche. As a doctor she discovered that coping with the physical elements of disease pales in comparison to the emotional struggle of the patient. The challenge of the medical provider is not just to care for the physical ailments, but also to be sensitive to the emotional struggles of the patient – the fear of death, the difficulty of coping with limitations and loss, etc. Dr. Remen has come to integrate the spiritual teachings of her grandfather, a Kabbalist who passed away when she was just seven years old, with her own insights into the human psyche based on her experience in medicine. In her book, “My Grandfather’s Blessing,” she says that life, with all of its pain, is a blessing. This lesson she learns from the following story in Parshat Vayishlach:

And Yaakov remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. And he saw that he was not able to [overcome] him and he hit his hip and Yaakov’s hip was dislocated, as he wrestled with him. And he said: “Send me off for dawn has broken,” and [Yaakov] said: “I will not send you off unless you bless me.” (Bereishit 32:25-27)

Yaakov wrestled with a man, who later is revealed to be an angel of God. Yaakov was severely injured in the struggle and, as a result, his descendants refrain from eating sciatic nerve to this day (ibid 32:31-32). In the end, Yaakov overcame the angel and at the conclusion of the fight he unpredictably requests from him a blessing.

The message of the story according to Remen, is that even in those places we have most been hurt, we seek to discover the blessings of life. We don’t seek suffering, but when it comes we try to have it lead to growth.

We see a similar idea in Bereishit Rabbah. The midrash says that for every blade of grass there is an angel that strikes it and says “sprout and grow” (Bereishit Rabbah Parsha 10:6).

Yaakov – Yisrael: Man of Struggle

The story of Yaakov and the angel sheds new light on Yaakov’s character. At first glance, it would seem that Eisav, the man of the field who lives by his sword (Bereishit 27:40), is the strong one on the family, whereas Yaakov, the “simple man [that] sits in tents” (ibid 25:27), is passive and weak, the “mama’s boy” (ibid 25:28).

The story of this struggle, however, paints a different picture. In the previous parsha we saw a story that demonstrated Yaakov’s physical strength when, upon his arrival in Charan, he rolled the giant stone off the opening of the well, an act that usually required the joint effort of all the local shepherds (ibid 32:8-10). In fighting the angel, however, he revealed in himself his unique ability to struggle with and overcome meta-physical obstacles. Fittingly, following the struggle with the angel, Yaakov receives a new name that signifies this newfound ability: “And [the angel] said, ‘Your name will no long be called Yaakov, rather Yisrael, for you have contended with God and man and you are able’” (ibid 32:19). The special ability mentioned is not just physical power, but the power of will and spirituality.

The truth is that his original name, “Yaakov,” which he earned for an act that he managed to perform before even leaving the womb, also signifies a character entangled in conflict, in that case an attempt to attain beyond his given portion: “And afterwards his brother came out and his hand grasping Eisav’s ankle, and he called his name Yaakov” (ibid 25:26).

Adversity Builds CharacterBoth of Yaakov’s names hint at his life story, a life of struggle. It seems as if the deck is always stacked against Yaakov, and he must always fight to overcome adversity. Since he was born second, he had to buy the b’chora (the birthright of the firstborn) and because his father favored Eisav, he had to take the brocha (blessing) with trickery. Because of this, he had to run away from his home to Charan, not to return until twenty years had passed.

In Charan he also had to struggle – working fourteen years for Rachel and six more to support his family, “These twenty years… by day the drought consumed me and ice by night and sleep fled from my eyes. These twenty years, in your house I served you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flock and you changed my wages ten times” (ibid 31:38,40-41). When he finally returns to Eretz K’naan, he learns that, more than twenty years later, his brother’s murderous rage never ceased and he is confronted by the reality of Eisav marching towards him with 400 men.

Despite it all, Yaakov manages not only to survive but to beget twelve sons from whom descend the twelve tribes of Israel. But his success comes at a heavy cost; his personal life was full of pain. ”Few and bad were the days of my life” (ibid 47:9). And his deepest yearning – “Yaakov wanted to settle in tranquility” (Rashi, Bereishit 37:2) was never actualized.

Eisav – The Here and Now

Eisav’s story, on the other hand, is just the opposite. Everything comes easily to him. Besides being the firstborn (and thus entitled to the birthright), he was his father’s favorite and was set to receive the brochot. He was good-looking (the description “edomi” is indicative of beauty throughout Tanach), and unlike Yaakov, who was alone, Eisav was charismatic with inborn leadership qualities and 400 followers. Alas, what comes easily is easily lost. He was the firstborn through no effort of his own and he sold the birthright for a bowl of lentils. In the end, Eisav is left with no blessing and no birthright. When he had the birthright, he disparaged it (Bereishit 25:34), and only upon losing it did he appreciate its value. Only losing the blessing brought him to shout “an exceedingly great and bitter exclamation” and cry (ibid 27:34,38). Even in the end, when Yaakov and Eisav can no longer live together due to the combined mass wealth they had accumulated, Eisav concedes and leaves Eretz K’naan (ibid 36:6-8).

In terms of “Doing” and “Being,” changing the face of reality versus accepting it, it would seem that the man of the field would be the man of action and the guy who sits in tents would be connected to being. A careful reading of the Torah, however, indicates just the opposite; Yaakov constantly challenges the status quo and changes the face of reality, whereas Eisav is a passive character who allow others to determine his destiny.

The tale of these two brothers is hard and bitter. Yaakov ultimately succeeds, but at great personal costs, while Eisav leaves Eretz K’naan without blessing or birthright. There is, however, a continuation to the Yaakov and Eisav saga. In the coming parshiot we will see that it is, in fact, possible to integrate the two personalities.

Yisrael: You Have Contended with Man and God

The new name that Yaakov receives from the angel is carried on by us, his children, until this very day. As they say, “The apple does not fall far from the tree,” and Am Yisroel’s story follows the patterns of Yaakov’s life. There is the Chinese curse – “You should lead an interesting life” — that I suspect has come to fruition for Am Yisrael. Throughout the 2000-year exile, Am Yisrael has been forced time and time again to fight for our right to exist in the spirit of our beliefs and heritage. Here we are, finally returning to our land, and, like Yaakov, we too have discovered that the constant threats know no end. However, despite all the beatings we have taken throughout history, we have not disappeared. More than anything, it is our ability to respond to suffering by growth that has allowed us to flourish.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Yaakov Tzemach.

Rav Dr. Yakov NagenRav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.

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