Confronting the Sitra Ahra

Like Jacob's struggle with the unidentified man, each of us must recognize, confront and struggle with our sitra ahra, our darker side.

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Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

  • Jacob prepares to meet Esau. He wrestles with a "man," who changes Jacob's name to Israel. (32:4-33)

  • Jacob and Esau meet and part peacefully, each going his separate way. (33:1-17)

  • Dinah is raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country. Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi take revenge by murdering all the males of Shechem, and Jacob's other sons join them in plundering the city. (34:1-31)

  • Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin and is buried in Ephrath, which is present-day Bethlehem. (35:16-21)

  • Isaac dies and is buried in Hebron. Jacob's and Esau's progeny are listed. (35:22-36:43)

Focal Point

"I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: With my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike." (Genesis 32:11-12)

"The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip. That is why the Children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob's hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle." (Genesis 32:32-33)

Your Guide

Why does Jacob say that he is "unworthy of all the kindness that You have steadfastly shown Your servant"? (Genesis 32:11) What does he now understand about his life and his relationship with God?

Have you ever had a moment of insight and recognition similar to Jacob's? How did your life and your relationship with God change as a result? Do you see any connection between such a moment and the events of September 11?

To what extent is Jacob's wrestling with the "man" a consequence of his newfound understanding? To what extent is it a reward?

Who do you think is the "man" who wrestles with Jacob? Does he represent an external or an internal force? Is Jacob delivered "from the hand of [his] brother" (Genesis 32:12) as a result? Why does Jacob experience this wrestling match alone?

Is it common in the Reform Movement to talk about wrestling with God? To what extent do Jacob's experience and the consequences of this wrestling match mirror our own encounters with God, Torah, and Israel?

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Rabbi Burt E. Schuman

Rabbi Burt E. Schuman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel, Altoona, PA.