Wrestling with Race: Another Look at VaYishlach

As we will see in VaYishlach, this week’s Torah portion, Yakov splits his family and live stock into shnei machanot– two camps- as a defensive measure in preparation for confronting his long estranged brother Esav. Under the cover of darkness Jacob sends the two camps over the river and then returns back over the river. As we all know too well. There is where he faces an angel by himself and wrestles till day break. There we read:

Vayivater Yakov Livado vaYe’avek Ish imo ad  olot haShachar. And Yakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. (Genesis 32:25)

Rashi explains that the verb vaYe’avek is connected to the word avak– dust. As to say that they wrestled and got all dusty.

As well as we know the story of Yakov wrestling with the angel, we often forget where it all happened. As we learned in VaYetzei, last week’s Torah portion, this happened in  Machanaim. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov resolved to return home. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov split his family into two Machanot– camps. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov realized the value of small things (See Rashi ad loc). It was there in Machanaim that Yakov wrestled with the angel. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov stopped running or could not run any more ( see hip injury). It was there in Machanaim that Yakov realized who he was. It was there in Machanaim his name was changed from Yakov to Yisrael.

We are so focused on his name and our name being Yisrael that we overlook the plain meaning of the text. This story of Yakov’s  travel to Machanaim  is in the context of his reconciliation with his estranged brother Esav. Before the Rabbis get to him, Esav seems like a really good guy who got manipulated out of his role as eldest and chosen child. While we repaint Esav as bad,  we forget that it was Yakov who was in the wrong. Is it possible that the name of this place being duel encampment has nothing to do with his strategic splitting of his wives and children in preparation for dealing with a hostile sybling, but instead of rift that existed between Yakov and his brother Esav? It was there is Machanaim that Yakov realized the work he needed to do to make peace with his brother. It was here that he stopped running from his own role in hurting his brother. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov did the work he needed to do to reconcile his relationship with Esav.

I was thinking about this moment of reconciliation between two brothers recently while reading The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In this memoir he explores his relationship with his father and his own process of becoming a conscious black man in America. Reading how Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up made we realize how  unconscious I was to my own privilege growing up white in the suburbs. There is just so much that I have taken for granted. Reading this book I got the sense of how deep our history of racism is in this country. The cataclysmic impact of the evils of one people being enslaving another is not born out of the course of a lifetime, but generations.What will it take for white people to show up, own the wrong that has been done, stop running away from our history,  and start to work toward reconciliation?

When we figure out how to include the marginalized elements of our family who we have wronged we too become Yisrael at Machanaim . There is much work to be donw, but the place of inclusion is surely Machaneh Elokim– God’s camp.




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