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Back to earth

Vayishlach | Genesis 32:4-36:43

Jacob is a complex character. Divinely ordained to ascend to patriarchal primacy, Jacob is forced to flee from his family when his older twin brother, Esau, determines to kill him as punishment for the theft of the birthright.

Traveling alone, with darkness falling, Jacob decides to rest for the night and has a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder. He continues on his journey, eventually reaching the land of his mother’s birth, where he resides for several decades. During that time he prospers, securing two wives and two concubines, producing 11 children, and amassing a considerable fortune.

Despite his material success — or perhaps because of it — Jacob finds himself unable to live alongside his relatives, and some 20 years after leaving home, he sets out to return to his homeland, which is where our portion picks up the story.

The night before he is to cross the boundary that will return him to the soil of the Promised Land — and into contact with Esau, whom he has not seen in the interim — Jacob has another encounter with supernatural forces. A presence wrestles with him, wounds him, and bestows upon him a new name — Israel.

The order of the encounters seems inverted. Leaving home is a struggle, not a passage easily endorsed by divine visitation. Wrestling is a sport for the young, whose resilience and determination are equal to the task. And changing one’s name is an act we usually associate with our early attempts at self-definition. In other words, if you have to wrestle with angels — or demons — you expect to do so early in life.

Conversely, returning home at the later stages of the journey ought to entitle one to the sort of comforting vision that Jacob instead received at the beginning of his journey from home. To lay down one’s head in quiet solitude and be allowed the comfort of continued sleep — remember that Jacob’s vision comes in a dream — is what we have earned.

To know that the messengers of God who ascend and descend daily to protect us on the journey are still on duty and that God will “watch over us wherever we go” — when the place to which we are ultimately going seems uncomfortably closer than it once was — is the sort of revelation one has earned after years of attending to the responsibilities of adulthood.

When we are young, eager to leave home and start out on our own, the journey indeed seems like an ascent, and the imagery of the ladder becomes both obvious and appropriate. The future stretches before us almost without limit, as the ladder reaches up through the clouds. “Climbing the rungs” has in fact entered our vocabulary as a representation of the necessary early stages of autonomy and accomplishment. 

But as we age and mature, as the journey from home begins to curve gently around so we find ourselves returning to where we began, it is the river, not the ladder, that becomes a more accurate metaphor. We begin to think of how we will cross over, rather than how we will climb; we can see our destination — not above but in front of us.

When Jacob dreamed, the Torah says he saw the messengers of God “ascending and descending,” and Rashi, the preeminent biblical commentator of the 12th century, asks: “Did they really first ascend and then descend?” And the answer is yes; for as high as we climb, we must eventually descend, and it is then that we discover that our journey has brought us back to earth.

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