Exile and Survival: Jacob's Legacy

Jacob and the Jewish people have learned powerful lessons from the experience of exile.

Print this page Print this page

Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world. The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.

In Parashat Vayishlah, Jacob is transformed from successful itinerant businessman to spiritual ancestor of the people of Israel. Events include a solitary nocturnal struggle with the legacy of Jacob's past, personified variously as God, God's emissary, or a projected human form. This dramatic episode grabs our attention because it provides the powerful name both Jacob and we have borne throughout history--Israel, the God wrestler.

Jacob and Esau's Reconciliation

This drama, so replete with images of symbolic wounds and archetypes of shadow sides, completes a process that enables Jacob to approach his brother Esau in a fashion that leads to reconciliation. Esau embraces his brother. This surprise conclusion is hardly anticipated by the text, which makes clear at every possible turn that Esau's retinue of 400 men was clearly understood by Jacob and his representatives (who failed in their mission to placate Esau's enmity) to be a military show of force.

Was it Jacob's limping that evoked his brother's sympathy? Was it his directness and simple courage in moving forward alone, ahead of his own troops, contrasted with his hightailing it out of town decades earlier--his stolen birthright in tow?

Jacob's Spiritual Growth

The answers may be inferred from three subtle hints of language in the opening verses of chapter 32 of Genesis, which include the beginning of our parashah. They indicate that the process of spiritual growth began for Jacob in his exile experience.

Jacob is the first of our ancestors with true, lengthy, exile experience, since Isaac never left the land and Abraham's excursions were clearly temporary. That he understood the significance of his experience can be inferred from the very last word of last week's parashah: “machanaim” (Genesis 32:3) – i.e. "Two Camps," Jacob’s name for the place on his journey home where he first encountered God's messengers/angels. The commentator Rashi describes the two "camps" as the differing spiritual presences (angels) to be experienced in the galut (diaspora) and in the Land of Israel. Shortly we will see the lesson Jacob learns from this prior experience.

The first hint of a process that we might see as preparing for reconciliation with Esau is contained in his instructions to his servants carrying his peace offerings. Before describing his material success and offering gifts, he requested that they tell Esau,"I was a ger (sojourner, resident alien) with Laban" (Genesis 32:5, "garti im Lavan") these many years. Rather than stress his material and familial success, his summation of his experience was, "I now know what it is like to be dispossessed of power and control."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Gerry Serotta

Rabbi Gerry Serotta has served since 1982 as Campus Rabbi at George Washington University, and also serves as Associate Rabbi, Temple Shalom of Chevy Chase, MD.