Parashat Vayishlah

Transformative Encounters

To be a Jew is to be as Jacob: struggling, transforming, and inspiring to others.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

When I traveled to Ghana with AJWS during the summer of 2005, I was seeking a challenging experience. I hoped it would be an opportunity to learn, through mind and body, just a little bit about what it means to live in the Global South. I did not know just how challenging it would be; how it would force me to look at the world and myself differently; how painful it would be to see the injustice of poverty up close. Yet it is critical to seek out productive discomfort such as this, and to let the experience stay with us, change us and shape us, and lead us to action.  

american jewish world serviceJacob experiences such a life-changing encounter in Parashat Vayishlah. The night before his reconciliation with Esau, he finds himself alone and wrestles with a "man" whom the commentaries have commonly viewed to be an angel. The wrestling match is typically understood as an attack on Jacob by the angel, but Aviva Zornberg suggests that Jacob may have sought out the confrontation.

A Painful Encounter

Zornberg's interpretation of Jacob as the instigator, stemming from a grammatical reading of the text, presents a radically different understanding of this mysterious scene: Jacob has left the comfort zone of his family and actively grapples with the unknown. The commentaries offer many interpretations for what this encounter means, but all agree that Jacob is fundamentally changed by it.

During their wrestling, the angel injures Jacob's thigh. Some commentators say that he will always limp, and the pain stays with him the rest of his life. Jacob learns that it is not enough to have had this strange and intense experience. He says to the angel (Genesis 32:17), "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."

The blessing he receives is a new name, one fitting to the experience: he will be called Israel "because [he] has striven with beings divine and human (Genesis 32:39)." Because of Jacob's name change, his identity is now intertwined with this encounter and he becomes defined by it: as someone who "strives"--or struggles--with both the moral and the human.

Emotional Scars

Our own moral and human struggles--like my transformative encounter in Ghana--are rarely marked with physical pain or public changes. Yet they are often emotionally painful and visceral. We feel the pain of new and uncomfortable knowledge.

Visiting the Global South, we learn that rights that we take for granted, such as education, are not afforded to all. We realize that millions of children are malnourished. We witness the debilitating effects of lack of health care. And perhaps most painfully, we realize that our societies are complicit in these injustices. And though the pain dulls, as did Jacobs', we carry with us the emotional scars.

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Alana Alpert

After receiving rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College in June 2014, Alana will serve as the Rabbi/Organizer of Project Micah in Detroit, an exciting collaboration between Congregation T'chiyah and the Harriet Tubman Center. A trained community organizer, educator, and service-learning facilitator, she has worked in a number of Jewish and interfaith social justice organizations. She is passionate about the intersections of spiritual practice and social change.