The People and the Book: The truth-teller

It was himself with whom Jacob wrestled. God now speaks inside his own soul.

Drawing by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Drawing by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
IN THE previous week’s Torah portion Jacob dreams the swift night through; in Vayishlach he wrestles all the harsh night long.
After the former, he picks up his feet and runs; after the latter, he limps. We all need both our dreams and our struggles, and, even if we end up limping afterwards, we must find the courage to keep on going.
Both Jacob’s dream and his struggle occur at the border.
Maybe both mark him and us as spiritual migrants, seeking somewhere else to live out our hopes.
Fleeing his cheated brother Esau’s anger, Jacob sets out northeast from Beersheba toward Haran. He alights at dusk upon “the place,” both a specific location marked by the definite article, (Mount Moriah, “the place mentioned earlier,” suggests Rashi) and at the same time an unnamed anywhere on the lonely journey between his childhood home and his uncle’s tents in Padan Aram, where his parents have advised him to seek refuge.
Laying his head on the bare stone, which serves as an altar for his inner self, Jacob dreams that a ladder links heaven and earth, from the top of which God promises him protection wherever he goes, children and blessings which will endure for generations. It would be impossible to imagine how a houseless young man, far from home apparently for the first time, could possibly have a more reassuring dream.
It’s not surprising that he makes good speed the next morning. The rest of the journey seems as effortless as rolling the huge rock of the mouth of the well to water Rachel’s sheep, or as falling in love. This he does at first sight of her, kissing and weeping at once. The years pass “as a few days in his eyes”; he finds wives, work and future in what seems, at first, like the blink of an eye.
Then, as happens to so many of us who may imagine we have left our flaws far behind, his past life begins to pursue him in every turn and fold of the future.
It finally lays full hold of him on the very same journey between uncle and parents, only now in the opposite direction, on which he had his dream, at the very same border between the landscape of past and that of the future, where this time he is prevented from sleeping at all: “A man struggled with him until the rising of the dawn.”
The unrevealed identity of the strange figure is fascinating, defeating such conventional explanations as that he represents the guardian angel of Esau, still fighting for his due deserts. Who then is this nameless “man” whom Jacob refuses to allow to depart until he has received the stranger’s blessing? I am gripped by the thought that he is the “man” whom Jacob recognizes that he himself has been. As he reenters the landscape of his childhood, alone at the ford of the Yabbok River, which later in the mystical tradition came to represent the boundary between life and death, the world of time and that of timelessness, Jacob the older encounters Jacob the younger with all his fortunes, misfortunes and faults.
He is not the dreamer but the truth-teller now; as each recognition, each “Did I really do that?” penetrates his consciousness, it grips him like another hold of an unrelenting wrestler. As Abraham is linked with hesed, loving-kindness, so Jacob is now bound together with emet, truth.
What might Jacob be saying to himself through that night of struggle in the dust of his own life? Vividly, the images of his own actions enter his mind and implode: I cheated my brother and deceived my father; I failed to recognize my beloved on the night set apart for the fulfillment of our love; I shouted at her when she was childless and anguished. It was himself with whom Jacob wrestled and would not release. The God who made promises to him from heaven now speaks inside his own soul.
It takes courage not to push away with all one’s force the bitter reminders of the worst we have done. One shields one’s heart instinctively against the acid of remorse. But Jacob refuses either to yield or retreat. “I shall not let you go until you bless me”; the struggle is not over until it has been turned into something precious.
If the blessings of good dreams are hope and confidence, those of the confrontation with our inner self are integrity, humility and wisdom.
It is no wonder Jacob’s very name is different after this encounter; to wrestle with the heart’s truths is always to struggle with God.
Afterwards Jacob limps; it’s a sensation familiar to anyone getting up slowly after a sleepless night of vivid inner battle. Your feet don’t float above the ground. But you put away your idols and redirect your steps.
You may now travel more slowly. But you’ll understand yourself more deeply, and where you must be going. 
Jonathan Wittenberg is rabbi of the New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism, UK