From Raging Wrestle to Godwrestle: Jacob & Esau

Rabbi Arthur Waskow: From Ch. 1, *Godwrestling -- Round 2*, 11/11/2004

Godwrestling: Jacob and Esau

I wrestled again with my brother last week,
First time since I was twelve and Grandma stopped us:
"She won't even let us fight!" we yelled, embracing,
But she said talking was nicer.
Wrestling feels a lot like making love.

Why did Jacob wrestle with God,
why did the others talk?
God surely enjoyed that all night fling with Jacob:
Told him he'd won,
Renamed him and us the Godwrestler,
Even left him a limp to be sure he'd remember it all.
But ever since, we've talked —
weve only talked.
Did something peculiar happen that night?
Did somebody say next day we shouldn't wrestle? Who?

We should wrestle again with our Comrade sometime soon.
Wrestling feels a lot like making love.

But Esau struggled
to his feet
from his own Wrestle,
And gasped across the river
to his brother:
It also
a lot

When I wrote that poem. I thought it was just about wrestling. Now I realize that if its two parts had bodies instead of only voices, one of them would have the other in a half nelson, and the other would be slippery straining to break out. Two voices, straining and struggling with each other, yet for one moment fused in an embrace.

The voices came together in my hearing because I came upon the biblical story of Jacob and Esau while I was struggling with my own brother. So I came to that story with a question of my own: what does it mean to discover only as a grownup how to have a brother and to be a brother?

What did it mean for Esau and for Jacobfor my brother and for meto discover only as grownups how different and how alike we were, how parts of us were enemies and parts were loving friends, how we had been held apart all our lives? What did it mean to learn only as grownups how to touch and be touchednot only each other but anyone else as wellhow to feel and be felt, fight and make love?

And how inevitable it was that we could learn all this only as grownups. And how disastrous. How inevitable it was that we had visited upon us, in the third and fourth generations, the failings of our family. And what disasters that had bred.

Inevitable, and disastrous. That was one link to Jacob and Esau, for the sense of inevitability and disaster pervaded my reading of the story of Esau and Jacob. Not my reading alone, for when I entered my lifewrestle with my brother I was meeting Jacob and Esau in a special way. I was learning to grapple with Torah in the midst of a community of Jews.


There is a connection between Jacob's famous wrestle with God (Gen. 32) and the very beginning of the story, when Jacob and Esau begin to wrestle with each other even before they are born (Gen. 19.) They struggle so furiously in the womb that their mother, Rebekah, is torn and shaken by their combat. She screams to God, at God, a question that in its own shape and grammar is at war with itself:

If this,

what for —


And God explains that this is all necessary. The two children within her must struggle and the younger must win. But God leaves Isaac ignorant of the future; only Rebekah is burdened with the knowledge of how their lives must be. At the very moment of birth, Jacob his name means "the Heel" in both its English sensesgrabs at Esau's heel to drag him back, but fails and so is born second.

As they grow older they keep on struggling over the rights of the firstborn. Left on his own, with no message from God, Isaac grows ever fonder of Esau. Another Fabrangener suggests that perhaps Isaac is simply playing out another inevitability from his own past: maybe Esau reminds him of his own lost brother, rough and rowdy Ishmael.

So the struggle deepens, not only brother against brother but mother against father. The inevitable comes to pass and proves disastrous. Rebekah teaches the cunning of her familythe cunning of her brother Labanto her second, weaker son. So he defeats the rougher, plainer Esau with his wordswhen if he'd wrestled in the body he'd have lost. On Rebekah's advice, Jacob finally proves himself a heel by cheating his brother and lying to his father in order to win the first born's blessing. Rebekah wins what God has told her must be won.

But at what cost! Her sons estranged and ready to kill each other, her husband furious, her family shattered. How can she bear it?

Why does she bear it? Having borne the boys, how can she bear their war against each other?

Why doesn't she scream again? It's one thing for her to scheme to bring to pass what God has said must come to pass, but when it takes lies and cheating, when it comes to the edge of murder, when Jacob has to flee the household, why doesn't she even scream? Do you only get one scream a lifetime?

Perhaps Jacobs own scream was his twenty years in exile. And the grim humor of Jacob's weddings to Leah and Rachel. We can all but hear their father Laban muttering to himself:

"You lied to your father about who was the first born son? Then I'll lie to you about who is the first born daughter. You won what you wanted because of your father's weak eyes? Then you'll win what you don't wantLeah, who has weak eyes. You learned that trickery from your mother Rebekah? You forget that she grew up here; she learned it all from me. ... And I'll teach you twice as much. "

The two sisters struggle over who is to have more children, their own version of the struggle for the rights of the first born."Listen to the text," he bursts out; "their struggle is so tense that Rachel says, With Godlike wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed.' Parallel to the Godwrestle language, parallel to what Jacob does, and this one comes first! It's as if Rachel taught him how to do it!

This is a kind of karma. Jacobs future is mirroring his past. It is not just Laban and Rachel that are teaching him, but all of life is teaching him, God is teaching him. He is gathering the cosmic harvest: "What you sow, that shall you reap."

Still, where is the scream and the transformatioin to grow from it?

The moment of transformation comes when Jacob realizes he must face Esau again. Jacob had fled from his home because he thought Esau might kill him; now he begins returning home and word reaches him that Esau, at the head of a powerful troop, is on the way to meet him.

This is the moment that connects their wrestle in the womb with the night of wrestling God. Jacob is frightened for his life, his wealth, and his family. He sends ahead to offer gifts to Esau, but he spends the night alone on the edge of the river Jabbok. (The river's name is his own turned inside out.) And what happens there? Alone though he is, he wrestles all night with "a man" who then tells him he has wrestled "with God and with men" and has prevailed. (Prevailed is the standard translation, used in almost every English version. But the Hebrew yacholti means you have been able, you have coped. More accurate for one who wrestles God and walks away in pain, with a permanent limp.)

The Person he wrestles renames him Israel, Godwrestler, but will tell Jacob no name to call him by. And Jacob calls the name of the place God's Face, because he had seen God face to face there.

Then Jacob crosses the river; Esau meets him, kisses and hugs him. And Jacob exclaims that seeing Esau's face is like seeing the face of God.

If Esau's face is like God's, then God's facethe Wrestler's face must have been like Esau's. In some sense, Jacob wrestled that night with Esau. As Rachel had Godstruggled with her sister, so Jacob learned to Godwrestle with his brother, learned to wrestle again with Esau as he had wrestled all his life; but this time in a new way. This time he wrestled not to conquer Esau, but to conquer his own fear and hatred of Esau. That itself was a new beginning, but even that wasn't enough. He wrestled with more than Esau: "with God and with men," says his wrestling partner.

What "men" ? If one man was Esau, who was the other? The second "man" he wrestled with must have been himself. At last he was able to stand in Esau's shoes, to turn from his fear of what Esau might do to him and at last to confront what he himself had already done to Esau. At last he was able to wrestle with his own guilt.

But even that was not all. What did it mean to wrestle with God? It meant that at last Rebekah's stifled scream could find a voice. Jacob passed through his own fear and his own guilt to ask the ultimate question:

Why does it need to be this way.?

Why do I need to cheat my brother, in order to make my own way in the world? Why are we pitted so, against each other? Why should I need to win the first-born's blessing? Or if indeed I should, why must I be a decent, loving person? I ought to win the first-born's blessing God told my mother so. I ought to be a decent, loving person. Then why did I have to give up one or the other? Why did I have to act indecently to win the blessing? Why couldn't Esau and I work it out together?

If I am required to become the spiritually "first-born," why must I also become a sneak and a heel? To become who I must become, why must I stop being the kind of person I ought to be?

That question was Jacob's wrestle with God. With that question he recogmzed that in some ways we are radically different from each other, inescapably and at our very roots turned in the direction of different and incompatible desires. With that question he faced the granite fact: in some ways human beings are pitted against each other often enough for love, often enough for money, but if not for love or money then for the honor, the prestige, the power of being "first born." (There can only be one "first born." I am a first born, I should know.)

Only when Jacob struggled against that piece of Things-As-They-Must-Be, only when he dared to wrestle with God, only when he knew it was God indeed and not mere human wants and wishes he was wrestling with, could he turn the war against his brother into love. It was his very recognition that the war of brothers was rooted in the granite of the universe that made it possible for him to turn that conflict into embraces.

And Esau? I am Esau, too, the older brother. It seems to me he wrestled too that night, on his own side of the river; wrestled not against fear of revenge and guilt over winning, for he had been the loserbut against his own hatred of the victor and his own shame at losing. And wrestled against the God whom he too realized as the source of his hatred and shame, the source of the defeat that led to hatred and shame, the source of the head-on collision that led to defeat.

For the brothers to turn their collision into comradeship, it was necessary for them to face the God of Necessity — necessary, but not enough. Once they saw that their collison stemmed not merely from their own, or Rebekah's, or Isaac's, wants and wishes, but from the granite of the universewhat then?

Once they stood face to face with Things AsThey Must Be, they could have fallen on their faces, turned their faces into granite. They could have learned to worship Things As They Must Be. They could have made an idol of ruthless competition, of "nature red in tooth and claw. "

But that is not what Jacob and Esau did. Instead of bowing down to the God of Necessity, they wrestled. Somehow they saw that God is also Possibility. Things As They Ought-to Be are just as deeply rooted in the universe. The one can be turned into the other. They were able to take their agony of spirit and learn from it not how to be confirmed and bitter enemies, but how to be friends.

They must have learned it from wrestling. Jacob must have discovered that night, in some unexpected grip or fling, that there was love in pressing of the flesh. That the tiniest shift of attitude or tension could turn a stranglehold into a hug. Once having learned that with the Person who had sometimes his brother's face, sometimes his own, and sometimes God's, he would have known how to turn warfare into love.

How to turn the inevitability of warfare into the freedom of love. How from the very perception of inevitability to gain the freedom to make that turning!


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