Did you know that the name Israel literally means “wrestle with God?” In this week’s Torah portion Vayishlach, meaning And He sent, God sent many things to challenge Jacob and help make him into a decent human being.
In parshat Toldot two weeks ago, Jacob, aided by his mother Rebecca, tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright. She favored Jacob, and believed that he was more deserving of Esau’s birthright than Esau himself. Esau left bitterly, brokenhearted, while Jacob went to work for fourteen years for his Uncle Laban in order to marry both his daughters, Leah and Rachel, his true love.
Leah had given Jacob many sons and a daughter, Dinah. Dinah was raped brutally by Shechem, who abused his monarchical power over the land where Jacob and his clan were staying. This is the first mention in Torah of the victimization of women through abuses of power.
It is no surprise Dinah endured this pain, as she is the daughter of Leah, the wife whom Jacob was tricked into marrying. Leah must have always carried pain with her: the pain of feeling less than, despite the fact that she bore ten sons of what would become the twelve tribes of Israel. To top it off, Dinah, being the only girl, likely internalized her mother’s feelings of being “less than.” While all of her siblings were to inherit entire tribes, not only did she receive nothing, but there were no plans for her inheritance or future at all, simply because she was was a woman. Today, studies show us how parents unknowingly often pass down their “demons” to their children. This story is a classic example.
Such a responsibility we have as parents! In the story of Jacob and Esau, the biggest takeaway for my daughter Abigail and I was that Rebecca truly failed Jacob and Esau as a parent. Instead of encouraging them to be each other’s biggest champions, she encouraged them to be one another’s biggest adversaries with her favoritism. This week, we learn from Jacob and Leah the importance of being true to oneself. While it was not possible back then for Leah to exert any kind of power, such as making a decision to not marry Jacob, finding someone who truly loved her, or even loving herself, this is not the case for us today. As a woman in the year 2020, I am blessed to have been able to make my own choices, keep my own counsel, and do almost anything that a man could do.
Also in this Torah portion, Jacob wrestled with the “ish” or “other.” A Midrash tells us that this “ish” was was actually no an angel, but rather was Jacob’s conscience about the way he had treated his brother and lived his life. In the end, Jacob prevails and attains the name Israel, “to wrestle with God.” This crazy time of being constantly together with our families, or constantly alone with ourselves, forces us into reflection. How can we be the best versions of ourselves? How can we learn from the mistakes of our forefathers and foremothers, as well as our earthly parents? As we are created “B’etzelem Elohim,” in the image of God, my takeaway from Vayishlach is that in order to be the best version of me, both for myself, for my family, and for my congregation, it is necessary for me to always be true to myself, to be working on myself, and to wrestle with God. While this was not the case for Leah, her story teaches us the importance of living in a way that she could not at that time.
What are you wrestling with? How can you learn from Leah and Dinah?