Life is never simple, and the struggle to overcome fear and be a better person is a continuing journey of wrestling so that holy Light may prevail. We see that clearly in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach. Jacob, having fled his brother Esau’s wrath and threat to kill him, has spent some twenty years in a foreign land working for his Uncle Laban who has tricked him yet again and again. Through hard work, cleverness, and with God’s protection, Jacob has become a wealthy man. Beginning with nothing, he has gathered wives, children, servants and many, many flocks. Now God has told him to return to his homeland.
We can imagine Jacob’s fear at once again facing his brother. Can he take God’s promise of protection as a sure thing? Jacob prays:
“Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and kill me” (Gen. 32:12).
Fearful also for the lives of his wives and children, he sends his servants ahead to greet Esau with a generous present of livestock. He sends his wives and children to a safe place, and Jacob is alone, to struggle with his guilt and his fear.
All during that night he wrestles with an “ish” (literally a man) – perhaps an angel, perhaps an emanation or a dream of God. Winning the struggle, Jacob demands of the ish a blessing (Gen. 32:29) and receives the name Israel, which means God-Wrestler, or Champion of God. However, Jacob emerges with a wound to his thigh, a permanent sign of the difficult and painful struggle. He names the place where it happened Peniel (face of God), for there he has seen the face of God. Jacob then meets Esau, and the encounter goes peacefully.
In each of our lives, there are fearful challenges. Perhaps they are about health; perhaps about livelihood; perhaps about difficult relationships. It is not accidental that Psalm 27 was selected for us to read in the month before the New Year, as it touches on the fear we face in our lives and the need for God’s light as protection:
| לְדָוִד. יְהוָה אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי מִמִּי אִירָא
יְהוָה מָעוֹז-חַיַּי מִמִּי אֶפְחָד
|1 [A Psalm] of David. God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? God is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?|
| בִּקְרֹב עָלַי מְרֵעִים לֶאֱכֹל אֶת-בְּשָׂרִי
צָרַי וְאֹיְבַי לִי הֵמָּה כָשְׁלוּ וְנָפָלוּ
|2 When evil-doers came upon me to eat up my flesh, even mine adversaries and my foes, they stumbled and fell.|
|אִם-תַּחֲנֶה עָלַי מַחֲנֶה לֹא יִירָא לִבִּי
אִם תָּקוּם עָלַי מִלְחָמָה בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ
|3 Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war should rise up against me, even then will I be confident.|
May we find, as Jacob did, that connecting to God’s Light and Presence brings us guidance, confidence, and peace of mind.