Wrestling with our Vulnerability

Jacob in our Torah is known for his spiritual experiences. Earlier in his life, we are told, he had a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder, and receives a blessing from God. In this week’s Torah portion, we find him wrestling with an angel, leaving that encounter with a limp, a new name, and another blessing.

The episode with the angel comes at a transitional moment in Jacob’s life. Just prior, he spent years living with and working for his relative Laban. He marries two of his daughters, Rachel and Leah, has children with them and with their attendants Bilhah and Zilpah, and accumulates a lot of wealth. Now, we read in the Torah, he is on his way to reunite with his estranged brother Esau.

While he and Esau are twins, they led very different lives. They were physically different in size and stature and features, and they were each a favorite of one of their parents, Esau their father Isaac, and Jacob their mother Rebecca. Things came to a head when Jacob, who was technically the second born and therefore not the rightful heir, convinces his brother to sell his birthright for a bowl of soup, and then tricks his father into giving him the parental blessing by dressing up as his brother when his father was old and could not see very well. The two brothers, who were seemingly never very close prior, severed ties after this episode. Jacob was sent away, ostensibly to find a partner but also to avoid Esau’s revenge.

As the Torah reading opens this week in Genesis 32, Jacob is on his way to see his brother. The Torah describes Jacob as being “greatly frightened” and “anxious” (v. 8) and makes preparations accordingly, dividing his camps and flocks so that if one is attacked, the other can escape. He also sends ahead gifts for his brother, hoping that they will appease him. Finally, he sends forth his wives and children until he is left alone. It is then that the angel comes to wrestle with Jacob.

Fast forward to the reunion, and Jacob’s fears and anxieties turn out to be misplaced assumptions. Esau receives him cordially,

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. Looking about, he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.” Then the maids, with their children, came forward and bowed low; next Leah, with her children, came forward and bowed low; and last, Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed low. And he asked, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” He answered, “To gain my lord’s favor.” Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably. Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” And when he urged him, he accepted.

Genesis 33:1-11

They do not, however, remain close. After this meeting they go their separate ways, ultimately reuniting once again to bury their father Isaac. The parasha ends with Esau’s genealogy, but the narrative continues with the line of Jacob.

But I want to turn back to that pivotal encounter with the angel. The Torah says that Jacob and the angel wrestled until dawn, with Jacob prevailing. The angel dislocates Jacob’s hip to gain an advantage, leaving him with a permanent limp. Jacob still had the upper hand and demanded a blessing from the angel, the angel blesses him with a new name–Israel, or “one who wrestles with God and people.” God confirms the blessing and the covenant a few chapters later, and it is this name that will go on to describe the collective Jewish people.

It is a mysterious episode, and we can posit different ideas about what the angel and the act of wrestling represents. But we can only understand it in the context of where Jacob is at this moment: standing on the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob is alone, in the dark of night, in an unfamiliar place, the night before a potentially frightening outcome.

He is, in a word, vulnerable.

As you may know, in addition to my work at the congregation I am serving as a chaplaincy intern at Providence St. Peter Hospital. As part of the work I visit with patients and families, and, as it is an educational program, receive individual supervision and participate in group instruction. It has been a tremendous learning experience.

Having been a patient, a caregiver, and now a chaplain, I know that it is in these moments in the hospital that we are at our most vulnerable. Our bodies have failed us, hopefully only temporarily, and we put ourselves in the hands of caregivers, practitioners, technology, and a health care system. Hospitals are places of recovery and healing, and they are also places of comfort and loss. They are places like the bank of the Jabbok River, where we are alone, in the dark, in an unfamiliar spot, facing a potentially frightening outcome.

Recently I asked my chaplaincy supervisor why we tend to judge certain deaths. If someone died of Covid, for example, we want to know if they were vaccinated. The answer will impact how we think about that death. Or we want to know if a certain illness can be linked to a behavior, or an accident can be linked to a risky action. She answered that it is because in our fear of death, if we are able to judge the death as being linked to an action, then we feel we have some control, we will feel safe. “Since I’m vaccinated,” we can say, “that won’t happen to me.” Or, “well I don’t drink, so I won’t die of liver disease.” We are hesitant to deal with the human vulnerability that comes from accepting the knowledge that death can take many forms, and is ultimately out of our control.

The same is true, I believe, when we talk about social issues, particularly about homelessness. We want to ascribe reasons for those who are unhoused: it’s because of their mental illness, or it’s because they are addicted to drugs, or it’s because they don’t want to get a job, or some other specific cause. When we name something, we can feel better by assuring ourselves by saying, “well I don’t struggle with serious mental illness,” or “I don’t use hard drugs,” or “I have a steady job.” So we avoid and deflect, and it becomes easier to look away. Here too we don’t want to deal with the human vulnerability that “there but for the grace of God go I”–that anyone is one natural disaster, or one medical crisis, or one shift in the job market away from homelessness, and that we as a society have failed to provide an adequate social safety net to prevent that from happening.

Our spiritual ancestor Jacob experienced a moment of deep vulnerability, which included confronting his own fears and anxieties. We would do well to allow ourselves to do the same. For in order to truly wrestle with matters of life and death, in order to truly wrestle with our communal challenges, in order to truly wrestle with God and people, we need to make ourselves vulnerable and confront our own fears and anxieties.

The wrestling is not easy, and can make us feel even more vulnerable. Like the angel dislocating Jacob’s hip, the wrestling can change us permanently, we might carry ourselves differently afterwards. But this is not a loss, it means we have been touched by God.

And with that touch comes blessing. As we learn in the Torah this week, it is only at that moment of deep vulnerability that we are able to wrestle, and it is through the wrestling that we receive blessing. In the Torah that blessing is a sacred mission and a holy covenant. As the inheritors of that blessing we too are gifted with a sacred mission and a holy covenant. And it is by our vulnerability and our wrestling that we are able to see the “face of God” in the other, seeing them as a whole human being, as Jacob saw Esau.

And Jacob is also blessed with a new name, Israel. Which is our name, Israel. We are Israel. We are the ones who wrestle with God and people. So let us continue to live into that name, let us continue to wrestle. And let us remember from where that wrestling begins: from recognizing, and naming, and owning our vulnerabilities.

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