An alternate title to the Torah portion last week might be this: "See Jacob Run." After what must have been a complicated upbringing that resulted in his deceiving his brother, Esau, and father, Isaac, Jacob runs away from home. His mother, Rebecca, advises him to get out of town to escape Esau's wrath — and Jacob does, as fast as he can.
After being away for a number of years, Jacob realizes it's time to go home and face the music. In returning to the land God promised his grandfather Abraham, Jacob knows that he will have to face Esau. When the time finally arrives, Jacob does not run to meet his brother; he no longer walks quite so well. Jacob limps to this reunion of two estranged brothers. Yet in his limping, he stands tall.
The night before this long-awaited event, Jacob is confronted by an unknown assailant, who wrestles with him until daybreak. Call this mystery man an angel of God, Esau's advance man, Jacob's conscience, whatever — he cannot manage to pin down Jacob. He does manage, however, to wound his hip, and after wounding his victim, the assailant wishes to leave.
However, Jacob doesn't want this star of the Biblical Wrestling Federation to depart. Though difficult to comprehend, Jacob demands that this man who just injured him now bless him. Why in the world would Jacob want to be blessed by the very person who just wrenched his hip from its socket?
I have long valued the writings of the poet Robert Bly, where I find an answer to this question: "Where a man's wound is, that is where his genius will be. Wherever that wound appears in our psyches … that is precisely the place where we will give our major gift to the community."
From our wound comes our gift.
Unless we have led an exceptionally charmed life, we have — each man and woman — been wounded in ways over the years. These nicks may have been inflicted by illness and disease, by disappointment and failures, by loss of love or loved ones. Each of us, in some way, limps through life. We may call these our life curses. Jacob knew better, however. His life wounds, which culminated in this nocturnal struggle, were, in fact, his blessings.
Indeed, like Jacob, we have been wounded in countless ways. We have worked hard to heal and conceal these wounds. We may have felt shamed by them. We still wish they never occurred, and yet, as we look back, we may realize — in Bly's words — that these wounds have been the basis of the gifts we were to give.
What's in a Name?
So, Jacob demands a blessing from his assailant. The wounder says to him, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed."
The very name "Israel" — in Hebrew, "Yisrael" — means one who wrestles with God. There are few, if any, people in the world who've been wounded as much as the children of Israel, and few, if any, people who've given gifts to the world as repeatedly as we have. We have not only survived, but thrived.
In the morning, Jacob and Esau see each other for the first time in years. Esau runs to his brother; Jacob cannot. He limps. With his limp — his wound — he now stands tall. He is now Israel. And we are his children.
As a people, we are wounded and limping, all in our own particular ways. Nevertheless, we have given, and still have more gifts to give, and like our ancestor Jacob, we, too, have reason to stand tall.
Rabbi Eliott N. Perlstein is the rabbi of Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro.