Shabbat Shalom! So much happens in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayishlach! First, Jacob prepares to reconcile with his brother, Esau. He separates his clan: in case Esau attacks one, the other will be safe. Then he separates himself from them both, and sets up his own camp alone. While he is alone in the night, a man comes upon him and attacks him. They wrestle until daybreak, and the man dislocates Jacob’s leg from the hip socket. Even in his pain, Jacob manages to overcome the man, and holds him down until the man gives him a blessing. Rather than a straightforward blessing, the man tells Jacob, “You shall now be called Israel, one who wrestles with God.” In the morning, the confrontation with Esau goes so much better than Jacob could have imagined, with both men embracing and crying and exchanging gifts. After this brief and joyful reunion, the families go their separate ways again.
The next thing the Torah tells us is about the assault on Dinah, a violent sidenote about the children of Jacob in a story that otherwise completely revolves around him. The Prince of Shechem loves Dinah and lays with her and there are many takes on how this union unfolded. Regardless of her consent, however, the Prince did not have her father’s consent, and that is where the true assault lies. Angered by the lack of propriety and respect for tradition that the Prince has shown, Dinah’s brothers decide to commit genocide against all the men of Shechem. The narrative ends abruptly with Jacob and his sons arguing briefly about the slaughter, and then Jacob swiftly pivots and seems to decide this is the perfect moment to tell his family about the experience with the angel and his new name. Israel’s clan travel onward, and his beloved Rachel dies on the road. He buries her where she dies, leaving her as the only matriarch or patriarch not buried at Machpelah with all the others. Lastly, we encounter a strange single sentence inserted between Rachel’s death and the genealogies that close the parasha. “Reuben lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Israel heard about it.” Though we are not given any more information, we are left to imagine the family strife that this union stirred up, in a family already so given to strife.
The stories of Reuben and Dinah in this parasha seem very different, but they have two things in common. They both are examples of family expectations of relationships being violated, and they both offer very little information about how the people involved in the relationships actually felt. When the Torah writes about Dinah, it is clearly far more concerned with the insult the Prince of Shechem has committed against her father and brothers than it seems to be about her own consent. Anita Diament interprets this in her novel, The Red Tent, as evidence that Dinah loved the Prince back and wished to lay with him, but her family was insistent about the sort of relationship she must have. Although I generally disagree with the narrative that Dinah consented, I think it’s possible to consider for the moment and see the act of violence her family commits on her behalf as a lesson against family expectations. Reuben’s side note perhaps teaches the same thing. Reuben is the oldest of the 13 children, and Bilhah is the youngest of Jacob’s women. They may be closer in age to each other than any other people they have met in their insulated lives, and it may have been a beautiful love story. We know absolutely nothing about their relationship, or the relationship Bilhah had had with Jacob, and yet we are given this tiny piece of information, hinting at the disruption that their union caused in Jacob’s camp.
Family members can hope that their younger loved ones find the kind of partner that they think is best, but they cannot, or at least, should not, force that. Whether that means expecting partners to be the same religion as your family, take on your traditions, follow your rules, or it means keeping apart unions simply because you don’t like it, or it means expecting only heterosexual partners, none of these are realistic goal or fair impositions. The heart wants what it wants, and seeing as there is such an amazing diversity of humanity out there, it seems impossible that everyone will fall in love with someone who fits perfectly into their birth family structures.
When Jacob wrestles with the man at the beginning of the parasha, one interpretation has been that he is wrestling with himself, and in overcoming that fight, he has wrestled and formed a new relationship with God. We must all wrestle with ourselves at some point or another in our lives, and that wrestling may leave its lasting affects. However, it may also bring us closer to God. One might wrestle with themselves when they have to confront their own homophobia to accept when someone they love comes out to them. One might wrestle with themselves when they are ready to come out. One might wrestle with themselves when deciding how to pursue justice and equality when it has been denied. If we wrestle honestly, and find that at daybreak, we are ready to face justice with love and confidence in our true selves, then we find ourselves face to face with God - just as Jacob tells Esau that seeing his forgiving face is seeing the face of God.
May we all wrestle in the attempts to bring greater Tikkun Olam - repair of this world - into our communities. May we wrestle to uncover our truest selves and be proud of our identities. May we wrestle to ensure inclusion and equality for all people in our communities. May we wrestle to help those we love overcome the stumbling blocks that have been put before the marginalized in our community. And may we find at daybreak, we are face to face with Divine justice, holy love, and righteous welcoming. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.