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Genesis 32:4-36:43: The Challenge of Becoming Israel

11/27/2012 04:33 am ET | Updated Jan 26, 2013

It's hard to believe that a mere seven weeks ago we were dancing in the streets on Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates both the conclusion and renewal of the annual cycle of Torah readings, and marks the end of the long fall holiday season, including the High Holy Days and the harvest festival of Sukkot.

In Judaism, cycles of seven are important. We have seven days of the week, culminating in Shabbat, a day of rest and renewal. We also have a seven-year cycle for the earth culminating in Shemitah (Sabbatical), a year of renewal not only for people but for the land and animals as well.

This week we are made aware of a more subtle cycle of seven. We have now completed seven weeks since the end of Simchat Torah, since chanting the last words of the book of Deuteronomy and returning to the book of Genesis.

Around this time of year it starts to feel like the sustenance we received from those moments of heightened connection to self, God, and community during the heady days of early fall has dissipated.

This year in particular, in addition to the personal challenges we have each faced, in the mere seven weeks that have passed we have seen the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, the fractious nature of a national election, and the latest escalation of violence in the chronic conflict in the Middle East. Each of these narratives is complex. While there have been moments of great generosity, the overall tenor of our discourse mirrors to us just how far from our ideal selves we've veered.

We seem to imagine that the work of teshuvah -- the process of return and renewal that characterizes the High Holy Days -- can be accomplished once and last the whole year. The performative, public and communal aspects of the fall holidays serve to elevate the importance of this work. We imagine that we can hold on to the feeling of humble acceptance of our own flaws and commitment to do better. However, life shows us that a regular practice of course correction is required if we are to stay connected to that inner place of wisdom from which right action and speech come.

Seven weeks after the fall holidays have ended this week's Torah reading offers us a path back into such a process. In this week's parsha (portion), Jacob demonstrates what it looks like to engage in the work of teshuvah. In so doing, he reveals the risks and rewards involved.

Over the years, Jacob has amassed wealth and resources. In this parsha he has just won his freedom from Laban and is therefore, for the first time, defining himself as an adult in the world. It is no surprise that as soon as his servitude ends, Esau appears on the horizon, waiting to be reckoned with.

All the unfinished business that had been held at bay now offers an opportunity for integration. Imagining confronting Esau after stealing his birthright so many years before, Jacob's first reaction is fear and defensiveness. As the text states, "Jacob was very afraid" (Genesis 32:8).

Seeing the problem as outside of himself, he takes care of things as well as he can. He separates his family and possessions into camps so that if one group is attacked all won't be destroyed.

Once he has taken steps to protect his family, Jacob then turns to God. He prays to God acknowledging that "I am small in comparison to You" (Genesis 32:11). Jacob, unclear of what he's asking for from God, recognizes that even in all of his preparations, his success or failure in this upcoming encounter with his brother is beyond his control.

Then, night falls. After crossing the Yabbok River "Jacob remains, alone" (Genesis 32:35). Alone, in the night, the demons of unfinished business come to call.

All night he struggles with an angel. As dawn approaches, the angel strikes Jacob's thigh, and in response Jacob demands a blessing. The physical damage to his leg is an emblem that the unresolved conflict with his brother that he had been denying has now become conscious. He emerges both imperfect and whole, both torn and blessed.

By coming to terms with what he had been running from his whole life, Jacob is able to take on a new identity. As dawn approaches, the angel says to Jacob, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel: for in your struggle with God and with men you have overcome" (Genesis 32:28). Through this Jacob becomes Israel -- a deeper and more complex manifestation of himself. And it is this process of becoming that we, the people who carry on this name, must ourselves take on.

If Jacob hadn't done this internal work, symbolized by his encounter with the angel, he and Esau likely would have gone to war. In that scenario, the conflict would have remained between Jacob and an external other; the opportunity to integrate unresolved parts of himself would have been deferred.

This is the process of ongoing teshuvah that the High Holy Days prepare us for, but do not complete. Confronting the darkness, alone in the night, is the difficult but essential work each of us must do who claim the name Israel. We must grapple with our own darkness, with what, like the angel in the night, is just beyond our consciousness.

When the light dawns we will find ourselves exhausted and limping, but in a place of compassion for ourselves and for others such that we can finally, truly embrace. The reward for this arduous work is revealed in the tearful and joyful reunion of Jacob and Esau, healing the many years of estrangement.

By allowing this parsha to open us to our own ongoing teshuvah process, we recommit ourselves to the challenge of becoming Israel.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.