Parashat Vayishlach

Two Minutes of Torah with Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky

Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 

—Genesis 32:25-29

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.  

Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  

Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.”  

Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Genesis 32:25-29 

Recently, I was speaking to an undergraduate class at Catholic University of America and a young woman asked a powerful question. By that time in the course, she had heard an Orthodox rabbi speak, had visited a synagogue, and was now listening to me, a Conservative rabbi explain that practices differ among Jews. A devout Catholic, a product of Catholic schools and strong family beliefs and practices, she was confused. Why wasn’t there only one answer? Who should she listen to about Judaism?  

I paused and replied, “All of us.” I went on to explain that most American Jews embrace having different answers to one question; Judaism is built on struggling with answers and questions, and we are stronger for that struggle. It is in our name – Israel – and it is our legacy. 

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, is a continuation of Jacob’s faith journey. Jacob is older now, with a large family and flock. He learns that his brother, Esau, whom he tricked and ran from, wants to see him. Jacob sends his family and servants ahead of him, to a safe location on the other side of a river and is alone. That night, he engages in a struggle with an unknown figure.  A man? An angel? His conscience? We do not know. Jacob is changed in that encounter, both physically and emotionally. He is someone who has wrestled with the Divine and lived. He is given a new name – Israel – one who has struggled with God and humans and had the strength to survive. 

Our people’s struggles are age-old and complex: antisemitism, a history of persecution, and lack of understanding between Jewish groups are only some of those challenges. Jews have persevered through all these hardships 

I believe the core of Jacob’s struggle on that fateful night was accepting the need to live with different opinions and ways of understanding. How do we understand God? How can so many Jews have so many contrasting ideas of what it means to be Jewish? How can the prayers have different words and different melodies, and still be part of the same religion? The students at Catholic University wanted to know the answer to these questions and it was unsettling to them that I didn’t have one clear answer. The idea of an entire faith tradition built on arguing and exploring and questioning was so different than their catechism.  

We sat in that room together, holding the tension of understanding Judaism and Catholicism, both intricate and nuanced faiths, yet so different from each other. I was reminded of the importance of having these interfaith conversations, which are the embodiment of wrestling with the Divine.  Such holy conversations take place each day at Catholic University, and I was honored to participate in one of them.