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Parshat Vayishlach: Growing Pains

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, & Yeshiva University Press; Edited by Stuart W. Halpern


Derashot Ledorot front cover

In one chapter of our sidra, the Torah mentions no less than four times the relationship between Esau and Edom (“Esav hu Edom” – “Esau is Edom”) – either describing their mutual identity, or pointing out that Esau is the ancestor of Edom. The commentators seem not to have noticed this repetition.

Is there any special significance to it? I believe there is, and that it lies in the fact that these references follow the chapter in which God affirms that Jacob’s name shall be changed to “Israel.” In this juxtaposition of Esau = Edom to Jacob = Israel, I believe we find a most important Jewish insight. Esau was born precociously mature: “Full of hair” (Genesis 25:25), and, as Rashi points out, the newborn infant was, in his covering of hair, as mature as a young man. Rashbam indicates that this is the significance of the name Esav (Esau): “adam asuy [from the same root as Esav, meaning, “made” or “done”] venigmar.” He was mature, developed, complete. And what does “Edom” mean? According to the Torah, the name was given to Esau when he approached Jacob, who was preparing a meal of red lentils, and said to him, “Haliteini na min ha’adom ha’adom hazeh,” let me have some of this adom, red, food. The food was processed, cooked, done. Edom thus implies the same idea: completion, maturity, finished development. Therefore the equation of Esau and Edom is symbolic of the static, of one who has arrived, who experiences no development or growth, who has no place further to go.

The exact opposite is true of Jacob. He is born as a straggler: “And afterwards his brother came out” (Genesis 25:26). He follows Esau out of the womb and into life. He hangs on to his brother’s coattails, or, to use the original biblical idiom, his hand holds the akeiv, the heel, of Esau: hence his name Yaakov (Jacob). He is hesitant, diffident, backward. His insecurity and weakness plague him all his life. And therefore he must always struggle. And struggle he does! We read of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, a crucial incident in his life. As a result of this encounter, his name is changed to “Israel,” as we read: “Ki sarita im elohim ve’im anashim vatukhal,” “Because you fought with angels and men and you prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Notice that the name Yisrael does not incorporate the word “vatukhal,” the concept of triumph and victory, important as it is, but rather “sarita,” the concept of struggle. The identification of Jacob and Israel symbolizes development, growth, progress, the good fight to grow and transcend oneself.

Hence, the proximity of the two portions (i.e. the identification of Esau with Edom and the renaming of Jacob after his fight with the angel) presents the student of Torah with a study in contrasts between the one brother who arrives on the scene already finished, and leaves it in the same manner, experiencing no change or growth; and the other brother, who begins very low indeed and then, by sheer will, resolve, and determination, struggles to superiority and triumph.

I mention this not only as the explanation of a number of biblical verses, but because it incorporates a major insight of Judaism. Judaism is predicated on man’s self-transformation. The concept of teshuva or repentance does not merely mean to experience regret and mend one’s ways, as much as it implies the concept of spiritual movement, of growing, of changing for the better. Scholars have already pointed out that whereas Judaism emphasizes becoming, the Greek philosophers, from Parmenides to Plato and beyond, have idealized the concept of being, the perfect state in which no change occurs.

In the Jewish tradition, angels are referred to as omdim, as those who stand, or are static; whereas man is called a mehalekh, one who goes and progresses. Thus, in the vision of the prophet Zechariah, God promises Joshua the high priest that if he obeys the will of the Lord, “Venatati lekha mahlekhim bein ha’omdim ha’eleh,” I will give you the capacity for going, for moving, walking, progressing among these (angels) who stay in one place (3:7).

There is an interesting if quaint controversy among great Jewish authorities about the relationship between angels and humans. Maimonides and Ibn Ezra maintain that angels are at a higher level than man, because angels are purely spiritual whereas man is subject to all the weaknesses of the flesh. Sa’adia Gaon maintains, on the contrary, that man is superior because he is possessed of freedom of the will. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin offers a compromise in an attempt to resolve this controversy. Angels, he maintains, are initially on a higher level than man. But man, if he properly exercises his free will, can grow from a much lower station to a much higher one. By virtue of spiritual struggle he can achieve an eminence that is greater than that of the angels.

This capacity for growth, for emerging from “Jacob” to “Israel,” should be the source of great encouragement for parents. As one who often listens to parents unburden themselves of worries concerning their children, I strongly recommend the biblical figure of Jacob to your attention. Parents sometimes are concerned that children show no motivation, that they seem to be limited in their talents and in their will. Certainly we must do whatever we can to help them. But there is often a danger of over-intervention, with the resultant resistance and conflict that it engenders. But, after having done all we can and should, parents also should have a measure of confidence that as human beings, and especially Jewish human beings, it is possible and even probable that our young people will eventually struggle, transform themselves, and grow. They will reenact the adventure of Jacob-Israel.

Of all the things we must give thanks for in this great country, it is that growth has been characteristic of America as well. It is true that in recent years the counterculture has vigorously objected to this country’s lack of sufficiently rapid growth. Of course, in its violence and its extremism, this counterculture often was destructive rather than constructive. But now that the movement seems to have spent itself, and America is getting back on an even keel, it is well to remember that if we stop growing and changing and moving in the right direction, we will be false to our own heritage.

The same principle reminds us of the Jewish community that we must not be satisfied with what we have. Any organization or institution that refuses to look upon itself critically and to experience change, thereby condemns itself to paralysis, and dooms itself to enshrine its faults and failings as a permanent part of its constitution. The survival of the Jewish community can take place only if there is viability, if there is the capability and the will for institutional change.

Of course, all this is not simple, not effortless, and not painless. Spiritual growth is always accompanied by anguish. That is why the Torah in this portion tells us that Jews are not permitted to eat the gid hanasheh, the thigh-vein or sciatic nerve which is situated on the “hollow of the thigh,” because the angel struck Jacob on the hollow of the thigh in the thigh-vein. In other words, because in their struggle Jacob was wounded by the angel and suffered a dislocated hip, therefore we are not permitted to eat the sciatic nerve of animals.

Now, that sounds more redundant than explanatory. So what if the angel struck Jacob? Is it out of sympathy with Jacob as a victim that we refrain from eating the gid hanasheh? Is it out of a sense of celebration of his triumph?

I believe it is neither. Rather, we are commanded this halakha out of admiration for Jacob’s struggle, because we are proud of his growing pains. It is a commitment to embrace such growing pains for ourselves as we attempt to emulate his adventure of growth from Jacob to Israel. Similarly, the Netziv in his commentary tells us that the gid hanasheh is associated with the hip – it is situated at the top of the organ which moves as man walks. What he means to say, I believe, is that the thigh-vein is related to motion, going, progress, growth. It is a symbol of dynamism and the price one must pay for such struggle. Judaism has taught us through Jacob to be a mehalekh, even if it hurts, unlike Esau.


Nov. 25, 1972