This week’s parsha begins with momentum: having fled the house of Laban, his father-in-law, Jacob now anxiously prepares for his reunion with brother Esau, whom he has not seen since Jacob duped their father into blessing him with a birthright. Much time has passed since then; Jacob is now a father and husband to many; married to Rachel and Leah, he counts their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah as fellow mothers of their collective tribe of children. And yet, the text tells us as Jacob moves toward his meeting with Esau, “[Jacob] was terrified. So anxious was he that he divided the people who were with him into two camps. He thought, ‘if Esau advances on the first camp and strikes it, the remaining camp will be able to escape.’ (Gen. 32:8-9) Jacob expects the worst from his encounter with Esau; weighed down with guilt, he prepares for the inevitable payback for what he did to his brother so many years ago.
Night falls and Jacob is alone. We read in the text that “a man wrestled with him until the rise of dawn. When [the man] saw that he could not overcome him, he struck Jacob’s hip-socket, so that Jacob’s hip-socket was wrenched as the man wrestled with him … then [the man] said, ‘let me go; dawn is breaking!’ But [Jacob] said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ The other said to him, ‘what is your name?’ and he said, ‘Jacob.’ [He replied], ‘no more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel … for you have struggled with God and with human beings and prevailed.’” (Gen: 32:25-29) Jacob, moved by this powerful exchange, renames the site of their altercation Peni-el – meaning, “for I have seen God face-to-face (panim-al-panim) and prevailed.”
It is clear both from the exchange itself and the name Jacob chooses for the site that this has been a holy encounter for him. From Peni-el, Jacob goes to meet Esau where, in one of Torah’s most sacred and heavy moments, the two brothers fall upon one another in an embrace and burst into tears.
This week, many of us will head to gatherings with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving, a secular holiday which, at its best, pushes us to think about gratitude and thankfulness at a time of year when both might be furthest from our minds. From competing Black Friday sales to stressful airplane travel to discussion of current political or global events with our family members, this particular week of November may pose more conflict than camaraderie and more gripes than grace. Yet – sometimes what we need most during this holiday season is a reminder of the powerful exchanges that come when we face those we love panim-al-panim – face to face. Though we may wrestle – physically or emotionally – with the challenges thrown our way, we can emerge from those matches with a greater understanding of who we are … even, in some cases, receiving an unexpected blessing from places and persons we least expect.
With that, we at at TDHS wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving. May it be a celebration of gratitude and grace, compassion and love.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen