In this portion, Jacob does tsuvah.
Earlier, he and his mother conspired so that his dying father Isaac would bestow a blessing upon Jacob instead of on the first-born, Esau. Fearful for his life, Jacob ran away from home and came upon Lavan and his two daughters, Leah and Rachel. In a fitting twist of irony, Jacob thought he was marrying Lavan's younger daughter Rachel, but Lavan tricked him into marrying Leah. Jacob stayed with Lavan for 21 long years before he could take Rachel for a wife.
In this portion, Jacob comes full-circle, ready to reconcile the mistakes he made with his older brother. They have not seen each other in over 21 years, since that fateful day when Jacob intentionally tricked his father Isaac and his brother Esau.
Jacob is scared. When his messengers come back, they tell him that Esau is approaching along with 400 men. Again, Jacob is scared for his life.
But this time, Jacob does not run away. Instead, he prays to God:
God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, God who said to me, 'Go back to your land and to your birthplace and I'll deal well with you,' I am not worthy of all the kindnesses and all the faithfulness that you've done with your servant. Save me from Esau's hand, because I fear him.
Jacob is honest and vulnerable. He has grown up.
Later in that same night, Jacob finds himself alone. We can imagine the anxiety beating in his heart. We can emphasize with the remorse he feels for swindling his brother Esau. We wince at the 21 hard years Jacob spent toiling under Lavan's ruthless encampment. But now at sunset, Jacob is again in the liminal space between the past and the future.
A man accosts Jacob and wrestles with him until the dawn. The inside of Jacob's leg was dislocated. The man said to Jacob, Let me go, because the dawn has risen. Jacob responds, I will not let you go until you bless me.
At this point, the man tells Jacob that his name will no longer be Jacob, but Yisrael, because he has struggled with God and with people. And this is what the word Yisrael means - "he that struggles with God."
This is perhaps the most powerful story in all of Torah. It practically begs us to interpret it and discuss it, and we search for relevancy in our own lives as we wrestle ... as we struggle.
But tonight, I want to focus on just one line in this exhilarating narrative. After wrestling all night, Jacob exclaims, I will not let you go until you bless me.
The Jewish people have experienced more than its share of struggles. But regardless of situation or historical era, we continue forward through history, enriching our beautiful heritage that started with Jacob's grandfather, Abraham.
Abraham left everything that he knew behind to start an unknown journey. Abraham teaches us that comfort is not a Jewish value. Jacob teaches us that struggle, however, is a Jewish value.
It's a very Jewish thing to struggle. Our identity of Am Yisrael hearkens back to these moments of Jacob's struggle, reminding us that pain and struggle are not only necessary ... they are holy. But we have to do work to find and create the holiness. We have to hold on to the experiences until we discover the insights that they teach.
I will not let you go until you bless me.
Judaism teaches us that pain, struggle and tragedy are a part of life. But so too are holiness and blessing. We encounter various struggles in our lives- a difficulty, a fear, a sickness, a loss ... and we try to remind ourselves that these are a part of life. But Jacob teaches us not merely to "get through" these difficult moments. Jacob challenges us that we can not let go of the struggle until we have found a measure of blessing resulting from the struggle. This is the Jewish way. Through struggle and conflict that started even when in the womb, Jacob becomes Yisrael. And we become his legacy.