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December 1, 2023

Parashat Vayishlach: We Don’t Run Away

Daniel S. Ross

Parashat Vayishlach: We Don’t Run Away
Rabbi Dan Ross


In a morning ritual I imagine I share with many in this room, one of the first things I do every day is check the news. And recently, as we’re all too well aware, it’s not been pretty.

“Israel under attack.”

“Anti-Semitism on the rise at home and abroad.”

“Authoritarianism ascendant.”

These headlines rightfully terrify us. And, I don’t know about you, but at least a couple times a day, I dream about what it would be like to run away. To find a place to hide. To escape this messy world.

The headline of this week’s Torah portion Vayishlach offers no consolation. It’s as alarming as any we might read today: “Esau Amasses Army of 400 Men—Prepares to Confront His Brother Jacob.”

And, facing this most imminent threat, so fearful was our ancestor Jacob that the Torah, famous for its economy of language, uses three words where one would do:

וַיִּירָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב מְאֹ֖ד

“And Jacob was greatly afraid,

 וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ

and he was distressed.”[1]

Jacob’s panic prompts him to frantic action. He divides his camp in two, hedging that if Esau attacks one, the other may yet escape. He prays fervently: “Deliver me, [God],…from the hand of my brother…”[2] And he sends bountiful gifts ahead to Esau, hoping to placate his brother’s murderous intentions.

Then, something odd happens. After all of these frenzied preparations for his looming confrontation with Esau, Jacob finds himself alone in the middle of the night.

This is very strange. Because up to this moment,  Jacob has been surrounded by servants, by family, by his vast retinue. He’s been coordinating the movements of his caravans. He’s been sending messengers left and right. And suddenly, he’s all by himself. Which begs the question: Why?

The medieval French commentator Rashi offers a nice answer: Obviously Jacob forgot a few small jars and he was so pious with his possessions that he had to go back and get them. But Rashi’s grandson Rashbam suggests a more startling possibility: Jacob was trying to run away.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Esau had mustered a massive war party against him. He was “greatly afraid” and he was “distressed.” Of course he wanted to flee. Which is why God sends someone to stop him.

What happens next is one of the most famous—and mysterious—passages in the Torah.

וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַ

And a man wrestled with [Jacob] until the break of dawn. And when [the man] saw that he had not prevailed against [Jacob], he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket…

Then [the man] said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.”

But [Jacob] answered, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

[The man] said, “What is your name?”

[Jacob] replied, “Jacob.”

[The man] said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”[3]

This passage is, of course, most well-known as the origin story of our people’s name, Israel. And, with great pride, we have interpreted this tale as the lofty mission that has defined the Jewish nation for generations: that we are called to be “God-wrestlers”—to struggle with the biggest questions, with all matters of ultimate concern.

But Rashbam’s reading completely changes our understanding of this scene. Rashbam’s exegesis offers us a teaching that is at once simpler and more profound. Jacob was scared out of his mind. He was about to run away. So in the middle of the night, God sent this mysterious man to force him to face his fear. To teach him what courage really is.

In the words of Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird: “[Real] courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” Real courage is when you know you don’t stand a chance against your foe, but you get up the next day to face him anyway. You can only be brave when you’re afraid.

As the sun rises, Jacob leaves his strange encounter with this mysterious man

with even more reason to be fearful than before. His hip socket having been wrenched as they wrestled, he now limps into the morning light. But even in this newly depleted state, Jacob stands, as proudly as he can, to face his brother and his army.

And, in one of literature’s first great plot twists, instead of killing his brother, Esau kisses him. The next day’s headline: “Long Estranged Brothers Embrace.”

So many of us are hurting right now. So many of us are afraid. It’s so tempting to dream of running away.

But this Shabbat, Parashat Vayishlach comes to remind us that we can’t. Because that’s not what Jews do. We may suffer our sleepless nights. But then, like Jacob, we get up in the morning. We see that the light has not yet defeated the darkness. And, in spite of our fears, we rise to bring just a little more light into the world.

Shabbat Shalom.


[1] Genesis 32:8
[2] Genesis 32:12
[3] Genesis 32:25-29

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.