Parashat Hashavua for Vayishlach
Rabbi Stanton Zamek
United Jewish Congregation, Hong Kong
In Parashat Vayishlach we find the mysterious story of the ish, of the man who may be something other than a man, who wrestles with Jacob at the shores of the Yabbok. The identity of this ish is a fascinating subject, but let’s leave that discussion for another time and examine an issue that, when we reach a certain age, we can all relate to— the pain in Jacob’s hip.
Jacob takes two things away from his encounter with the ish -- a name and a wound: And an "ish" 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.”
It is clear that Jacob’s injury was quite serious. The postscript to the story tells us that Jacob is still suffering the next morning: The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.
Some of our teachers want to see this injury healed. They find evidence of this later in the parasha, following the “reunion” of Jacob and Esau: Jacob arrived safe (shaleim, literally “whole”) in the city of Shechem. Rashi understands this to mean that Jacob was “whole in body” and that the limp was gone.
But doesn’t the story lose something if the injury isn’t permanent? We are the sum of our experiences, some of the most important of which are lessons we have learned the hard way-- through failure, through disappointment, through pain, through struggle. Even our greatest joys come at a price. Even our best choices cost us something. Every soul bears its battle scars, but these are not disfiguring. They are part of what makes every soul uniquely beautiful. Just as Jacob's limp shows that he is now much more than the cowardly, deceitful boy that he was, so the marks of our struggles are badges of honor, memorials to the events that have shaped us.
A healed, unmarked Jacob teaches us nothing. A Jacob with a bad hip teaches us everything. The injured Jacob reminds us that our lives are not simply strings of unrelated events, but stories filled with meaning to be discovered. The limping patriarch teaches us that wholeness comes from seeing the face of God in the world's imperfections and in our own. We are Yisrael-- the ones who struggle with God. How can the marks of that struggle, the sacred scrap that is life itself, be anything less than holy?