by Linda McMillan
It is the very things that we struggle with which both wound and bless us.
They say you can’t go home again. As one who has tried, I can tell you it’s not easy. While you certainly can walk through the same old door, you may not be the same old person. The greek hero Odysseus also had trouble going home again. He had to make himself known slowly and only to those he could trust. As a sign to them, he showed them a scar on his leg. After decades away, it was his wound that defined him. In this morning’s reading from Genesis, Jacob is going to try going home again too. We will see, though, that in many ways he has changed.
Here’s a little background:
As a young man, Jacob managed to get a reputation as a con man by circumventing Esau’s position and getting Esau’s birthright and blessing from their father, Isaac. This made Esau angry and, in fear for his life, and at his mother’s instruction, Jacob ran away to Haran.
While in Haran he worked for his uncle Laban for 20 years and married both his cousins, Rachael and Leah. During that time, Jacob became wealthy and Laban’s sons became jealous, and Laban wasn’t too happy either. So Jacob took his wives, his children, and all his livestock, and he ran away, back to Canaan.
In this morning’s reading, Jacob is on the very last leg of his journey. He has heard that Esau is approaching and that he has 400 men with him. Jacob was scared and with good reason. When he left home he was running away from Esau. It must have seemed obvious to Jacob that Esau was coming for his revenge. So, Jacob did what he usually did in these situations: He prepared to run away.
The scriptures appointed leave plenty of room for speculation. Other texts, though, provide some insight as to what happened next. Jacob got everyone else to safety and then went back across the Jabbock to get some small jars that he’d left there and to plot his escape. But, before he could make good on his plan, something happened. Esau’s guardian angel, or perhaps another angel, found Jacob alone and wrestled with him all night.
It is said that the dust kicked up by their fight reached all the way up to the throne of God! Yet, in the text, this epic battle only takes up a line or two. When the struggle was over, Jacob was changed. He had been wounded, he had been blessed, and he was no longer just a man with a big family, he was the father of a nation. No longer a “heel-grabber,” Jacob had become Israel.
Whatever stories there may be about this reading, and there are lots of them, one thing is sure: In going home to the place where it all began, Jacob experienced struggle, and nothing was the same after that. But, unless this story — and, in fact, all of the stories we love to tell — has some meaning for our own lives then it is just an interesting story from antiquity. So what about us?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been struggling this week. The recently released recording of Donald J. Trump bragging about his sexual assaults has sent many of us back to the beginning, back to where it all began. Maybe it was the simple knowledge that boys had more pockets and got away with more interesting adventures than the girls did.
Later, though, it would not be so simple. Almost every woman I know has a story to tell about something that happened, some man, some behavior. We don’t like to say we’ve been abused because we believe it’s our own fault. Like Jacob, we’ve not faced our troubles, we’ve simply run away to other projects, other jobs, other lovers, even other countries. Anything to avoid further abuse. We normalize it by calling it “locker-room talk,” and by saying that “boys will be boys.” And, if we talk about it at all, it’s to toss it off and show how evolved and above-it-all we are. But, this week we were called back home, back to where it all started. There was Donald J. Trump saying it right out loud, “You can grab them by the pussy.” “…You can do anything.” Anything. And we were not surprised because we know it’s true.
I have been wrestling with my own anger and the feelings that it covers. I know I am not alone. Many women are wrestling with similar feelings, just as Jacob wrestled with his own past when it finally caught up with him. Like Jacob, we have been injured again, and this time, there has been no running away.
There is one small, hopeful element in this reading. Towards morning, the angel said to Jacob, “Let me go… I have to get up to Heaven to sing the morning adoration.” But Jacob wouldn’t let him go unless he received a blessing. Instead of blessing Jacob, though, the angel gave him a new name.
At first glance , a new name seems like a poor substitute for an angelic blessing, but let’s think about the names we have. We all have the name our parents gave us. Some of us have a nick-name. My students call me Teacher. And, yet, I’ve been called some other things too. And, just as I’ve internalized the identity of Teacher, I’ve also internalized, “fat lesbian… you aren’t anything but one,” and, “whore… that’s all you are.” Those names stick. There are also the names I’ve given myself over the years. How could I be, “So Stupid?” Sometimes I think “So Stupid” must be my middle name. Self-recrimination, the taunts of others… it all adds up.
You have names too. I know you do. Names you’re proud of: Mom, Dad, friend… and names that only torment you when you are alone with your thoughts. If all that has you wrapped up in some kind of struggle, well, that’s the sliver of good news. Because it’s in the struggle that you can get a new name.
What new name would you give yourself?
What old name(s) would you throw out?
The reading today leads us to think that it is the very things that we struggle with which both wound and bless us. What would it feel like if your wound became a blessing? It sounds crazy, I know. But what if you really could heal? How would your life be different?
I have a friend who likes to remind me about the Japanese technique of Kintsugi, or mending broken vessels with precious metals. It is a way to honor the history of the vessel. The obvious comparison is to our sometimes/mainly/always broken lives and the hope that they may one day be stronger and more beautiful than before.
I do not know if such healing is possible. But, I live in hope!
Linda McMillan is a native Texan, a ukulele player, and a hoper. She lives in Shanghai, China.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Jacob was so named because he was born after his twin brother, Esau, and was grabbing Esau’s heel as they came out of the womb. Jacob means heel grabber. It can also mean one who comes after, or follows, or one who overreaches or circumvents, and Jacob certainly did some circumventing.
The map on this page shows the Jabbock River. You can see that it empties into the Jordan. It is generally agreed that the Jabbock was a wild sort of river. Jabbock means luxuriant. Now we call it Wadi Zurkah, which means Blue River. (I can’t vouch for anything else on this page, but the little map is pretty good.)
Jacob didn’t really “trick” Laban, but he was the benificiary of incredibly good luck, or blessing. Laban was not a fair man and he kept changing Jacob’s wages. Laban would say, “Jacob, you take all the spotted cows,” and then all the cows would be born spotted. So, Laban would change Jacob’s wages and say, “Jacob, you take all the striped cows,” and then all the cows would be born striped. It worked out very well for Jacob, not so well for Laban.
Jacob went back across the Jabbock to get some small jars. There are several stories from the oral tradition about these jars, all of them related to the Hannukah oil which burned for eight days. In fact, this parsha, called Vayishlach, is usually read the week before Hannukah in synagogues. Anyway, one well-known story is that when Noah received the olive branch from the dove he made some olive oil from the olives on it. He passed this oil on to his son, Shem. Shem gave it to Abraham, who gave it to Isaac, who gave it to Jacob. Jacob hid it at the location of the future temple. When the Hasmoneans wreaked havoc there they somehow missed this little jar and it was used to re-lite the candles. Thus, the light of Hannukah is the light of peace from the olive branch that the dove brought to Noah. There are other stories, but they are mainly variations on this theme.
(With thanks to Ann Fontaine.)
Some people think that the “man” who wrestled with Jacob was the guardian angel of Esau, some think it was the angel Michael who came to scold Jacob for not making a tithe. It has also been proposed that the angel initially appeared as a shepherd. It’s a story. Lots of people have speculated about it. Searching for the one true truth is a waste of time. It is better to find out what God might be saying to us today.
According to some thinkers, angel’s names change all the time. They get a new name which corresponds to each mission. So, it was impossible for the angel to reveal its name.
It is unclear exactly what kind of wound Jacob received from the angel. Rashi indicates that Jacob healed completely. Some say that he was healed when the sun came up. This is a good article about it.