The Fight Within
This week’s parsha opens with a meeting between two brothers who have not seen each other for over twenty years. Jacob and Esau had left one another on very bad terms. When we last met them together, Esau had wanted to kill his brother after being swindled out of their father’s blessing by brother Jacob. The Torah narrates Esau’s feelings and intentions:
And Esau said to himself, “The days of my father’s demise will be soon, (then) I shall kill my brother, Jacob.”
Instead of forever trying to avoid his brother, Jacob curiously sent messengers to Esau to initiate a meeting between the two. Even though Esau had not seen Jacob for all these years, he still harboured tremendous resentment and hatred that did nothing but ferment since those painful events that took place so long ago. Deep emotional wounds have no statute of limitations and a wronged Esau never lost sight of his opportunity for revenge.
But Jacob is no fool and if he has shown us anything about his character, it is that he is quite adept at getting what he both wants and needs. He did this in obtaining the birthright, he did it in securing his father’s blessings, he did it with his father-in-law, Laban when marrying his daughters and he did it when he amassed much wealth against all odds. But now he is in for the showdown of his life as he faces his closest rival, twin and foe, Esau.
Such meetings do not happen without preparation, and leaving it to chance will certainly result in failure that will endanger himself, his family and the entire future of the Jewish nation. His preparation is a lesson in diffusion of confrontation and becomes a model for such for all time.
The Torah points out that Jacob employed three different methods in dealing with Esau. Firstly he divides his camp so that, in the worst-case scenario of an all-out violent conflict, all of them will not be concentrated in one area where annihilation could result. Worst comes to worst, there will still be part of his family to flee and survive. Secondly he prays, stating unequivocally to God that he is petrified that Esau may exact revenge against him. And finally he sends Esau a series a gifts. “I will appease him with these gifts that are being sent in front of me, perhaps he will forgive me.” He cleverly does not send them all at once, but in many stages, to slowly whittle down the twenty years of anger and animosity that have been building up in Esau’s heart.
But the most important preparation comes when he is all alone that night before the fateful meeting. During those dark hours he “wrestles with a man until daybreak” which Jewish tradition tells us is a confrontation with the guardian angel of Esau – the very spiritual force of the man he most fears. It takes Jacob the entire night to win the battle, and even then, he does not escape unscathed, leaving it injured and limping. It is this nocturnal struggle that fully readies Jacob for the events that will occur the following day. All the acts of conflict preparation, prayer and gift-giving will be for naught if the internal battle with his Esau side and twin cannot be won.
Jacob must overcome all that Esau represents within himself – spiritually, mentally and psychologically – before he ever stands a chance at winning, or winning over, Esau the man, Esau the brother, Esau his twin – Esau in the mirror. For Jacob to reign victorious over his brother, he must subdue and hence subsume Esau’s character. He must fight to transform himself into becoming the fulfillment of his father’s words as being both the (spiritual) “voice of Jacob” and the rough, ruddy and powerful warrior hands of Esau.
Because that is what it was all about, wasn’t it? Jacob dressing up as his brother was not a silly charade to fool his father, discovered as soon as it happened. No, it went much deeper than that. It was a lesson by mother Rebecca to her husband that Isaac had it all wrong. The future of the Jewish nation did not go through both Jacob and Esau but only through Jacob. Jacob as Jacob but also Jacob as Esau. Esau had no part. He had no role.
Personally, we have all kinds of battles in our lives – each and every one of us. We struggle to make a living. We fight our personal demons of lusts and addictions to food or money or sex or pride. We battle with our lack of confidence in ourselves as we fail to live up to our potential. We have people who despise us and seem to live to make our lives miserable; they are there in our face on a regular basis, an ongoing thorn in our side. Every day is another fight, another battle, another confrontation – and it never seems to end.
Jacob teaches that we have to make all the necessary arrangements and preparations to win those wars. But when all is said and done, winning ultimately depends on that crucial confrontation with our selves that takes place during the long, cold, dark night. All the prayers, gifts and plans will amount to nothing if, in the dead of night – and in the silence where there are no distractions – we do not make the effort to dig deep into ourselves and make the commitment to win. The beginning of any successful war against Esau starts with the war against the Esau within.
When we confront those moments, face them, seize them, grab them and refuse to let them go just like Jacob who wouldn’t release Esau’s angel – then that very battle turns around and becomes a source of blessing. The battle isn’t something we merely survive but that actually shapes and propels us. Then and only then will we find our lives drastically changed at daybreak, when the sun breaks through and finally shines upon us in all its glory.
And he (the angel of Esau) said, “Let me go for it is daybreak.” And Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” And the angel said, “Your name will no longer be Ya’akov (from עקב – meaning a ‘heel’ that is tread upon with disrespect) but Yisrael (a Prince of God).”
At daybreak when the light shines and the truth is known, at that moment we become transformed from stepping stones, trampled-upon lowly heels to the princely men and women that God had intended for us all along.
… it’s a long, long journey
Long, long journey, journey back home…
Yeah in the midnight, in the midnight, I burn the candle
Burn the candle at both ends, burn the candle at both ends
And I keep on, `cause I can’t sleep at night
Until the daylight comes through
And I just, and I just, have to sing
Sing my hymns to the silence
My hymns to the silence