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Lessons From Parasha V'shalach - by Cantor Friedman

I wish I could say it was hard to choose my very favorite pericope of Torah. It isn't that I don't think this ancient document is not compelling or beautiful or brilliant; I do. It is just that the nine pesukim or verses in Parasha V'shalach speak to my personal challenges and emotional life. As the parasha is read on December 5 in congregations around the world, it is the subject of my remarks today.

In the parasha, we are told that Jacob is about to come face to face with Esau, the brother whose birthright he stole. To assume Esau might still want to kill him, or seek retribution is not a far-flung theory. Jacob the heel (program note: the Modern Hebrew word for heel is Ah-kayv/Ya' you hear the similarity?) is about to face a frightening unknown which sets the backdrop for the story.

We are told that Jacob sends ahead a very generous gift chock full off cows, camels, bulls, and donkeys over the River Jabbok. Later that evening, Jacob sends ahead his wives, concubines, children, and the remainder of everything he owns. Jacob is alone and the Torah is a bit vague about what happens next. We're told that a man (whose seems to appear from thin air) wrestles with him until the break of dawn. The verses are confusing as to who speaks when, but it presents as if one were watching a tennis match:

How interesting. I would imagine that had I been personally attacked by a strange man on the banks of a river in the middle of Jordan I may not have had the same response and requested a blessing from my attacker. I might be more apt to question the who, the why and the what of this vicious confutation, but Jacob seems almost unfazed by the actual attack in favor of the need to receive the being’s acceptance. The need to be blessed. The need for validation, for a “good job” in response to the brutality leveled against him.

The Torah’s brilliance is not solely in the universality of the text. It is in the understanding of the scope of the human psyche. The human experience of our matriarchs and patriarchs are not any different than our own. We have all experienced anxiety, grief, anger, delight, lust; and behaviorists believe that by the time one is three years old the full breadth of these feelings have been catalogued by our brains.

So why do I find this story so compelling? As I detailed before, Jacob is a Jerk with a capital J. He deserves the full wrath of his brother, and this is clearly an “experience” born out of fear and heightened anxiety.

But not so fast. Jacob’s fear normatively would have dictated a different response, wouldn’t it? “STOP!” “Don’t hurt me!” “Leave me alone!”

Instead his response is to try to win acceptance. “Bless me” he says. “Accept me,” and maybe more valiantly, “transform me.”

And he is transformed, not just in the way he will walk because of the injury to his hip for the rest of his life, but also in his name. “No longer will you be called Jacob,” the man says, “but Yisrael, for you have struggled with God and human beings, and you have prevailed.”

Yisrael can of course be Israel, but it could also be “Yisharel,” one who God makes straight. One who has a backbone, one who stands up, one who soldiers on despite psychic or physical pain.

We are all wrestling on a daily basis, all the more so in this uncomfortable COVID reality. We doubt, we struggle, we are self-critical and whether or not we prevail is solely our choice. We can crumple and limp, or we can steel ourselves with the knowledge that we can be a blessing. How? By reaching beyond ourselves to embrace the other, virtually of course, and by healing one another as a means to healing ourselves.

I wish you all peace and strength, now and always.

Cantor Shelly


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