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Fighting Angels and Chasing Demons

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )


As he made his way back home to the land in which he was born, the land which was promised to his children, there must have been many thoughts swirling around Yaakov's mind. The threats which had caused him to flee had not changed; only Yaakov had changed.

Years earlier, Yaakov had run away, to escape the real possibility that his brother would do him harm. His mother Rivka assured him that when Esav's murderous hatred abated, she would send him a message, and let him know it was safe to return. Yaakov knew that he had brought Esav's rage upon himself by impersonating his elder brother and stealing the blessings; the fact that he had done so at his mother's insistence did nothing to assuage his guilt or to satisfy Esav's thirst for revenge.

In Lavan's home, Yaakov embraced the years of servitude to which he was subjected: First, he toiled for seven years for the promise of Rachel's hand in marriage. When he awakes the morning after their wedding only to discover that the woman sleeping next to him is not his beloved Rachel, but her elder sister Leah, his reaction is completely unexpected: He confronts Lavan, whose response is sinister, sarcastic, and biting: "That's not the way things are done here. We don't put the younger sibling before the elder." Yaakov is silent; he accepts his fate with equanimity. Like Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov, Yaakov seems to believe that he deserves to be punished for the crime he committed, and Lavan's words must surely have sounded to him like well-earned rebuke. He accepts the punishment, and agrees to seven more years of servitude.

The years slip away; the all-clear message from his mother does not arrive, and Yaakov cannot be certain whether his mother simply was unable to send the message before her death, or if Esav's anger has not subsided. Either way, as soon Yosef is born, Yaakov knows it is time to make his way back home.

As Yaakov prepares to disengage from the house of Lavan and strike out on his own, we cannot help but notice that a change comes over Yaakov. Perhaps the decision to go home has emboldened him, or perhaps his new courage and guile are what help him make the decision to start the next stage of his life; either way, Yaakov begins his journey by facing up to his erstwhile tormenter. Lavan, who has benefited greatly from Yaakov's years of dedicated service, soon finds himself outsmarted by Yaakov, who takes his new-found wealth and his growing family, and with God's blessing and encouragement, sets out for his father's home.

Yaakov speaks up for himself, venting decades of pent frustration, and casts aside the roles he has played; he is no longer a victim, no longer a refugee, no longer a person to be mistreated or abused. Yaakov has found his voice; he has become empowered. This does not mean he behaves rashly or without careful thought and planning: He is wise, and cautious, as he prepares for the showdown he had been avoiding for so many years - but he has no intention of backing down: He is coming to stake his claim on the land God promised him. What made Yaakov suddenly able to confront Esav was precisely this new resolve: Yaakov had to know that he was in the right, and he had to be prepared to take what was rightfully his, before he could face a man like Esav.

The night before the fateful confrontation, Yaakov is accosted by a mysterious adversary.

When he had started his journey, Yaakov had dreamed of angels climbing a ladder; upon returning, an angel tries to stop him. But this is not the same Yaakov who ran from Esav and cowered before Lavan. Now, Yaakov takes on - and defeats - his heavenly assailant. He is a new man, and his new name reflects this new identity: He has become Yisrael. With his trust in God and a clear conscience, with his confidence that he has the right to inherit the Land promised to him and his descendants, Yaakov/Yisrael will be victorious. After defeating an angel, Yaakov is finally ready to face his demons.

© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2017
For more Essays and Lectures on Vayishlach:

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