In my "Torah as a mirror for spiritual development" class, I was given the assignment of writing a d'var Torah for this week's portion, Vayishlach. The question posed to me was "How is God speaking to you through Torah, what is the message, and how can you incorporate this into your personal and professional life?" Here's my response.
וישלח יעקב מלאכים לפניו אל–עשו...
"And Jacob sent angels (messengers) before him to Esau..."
Jacob knew he had done poorly by his brother, and he was afraid. And he sent gifts to his brother, and he sent his family away in case Esau arrived angry. And when he was alone, having sent his family onward and his possessions toward his brother, he wrestled until dawn.
With whom did he wrestle? The text tells us that he was alone, and that he wrestled with a man. Jacob wrestled with himself: with the part of him that regretted cheating his brother, with the part of him that missed having a relationship with his twin, with the part of him that wanted a different ending to their story.
ויקרא יעקב שם המקום פניאל כי ראיתי אלהים פנים על–פנים...
"And Jacob called the name of that place Pni-El, [thinking] 'for [here] I have seen God face-to-face...'"
In facing his own family story, and his role within the dynamics of his family of origin, Jacob saw the face of God. When we are willing and able to look with clear eyes into our sometimes-tangled, sometimes-difficult family stories, God's presence looks back out at us.
This week I've brought my son to the place where I was born, to see my parents and my brothers and our extended clan. On the eve of a trip like this one, I always find myself wrestling: with my memories of my childhood, with my hopes and expectations for the trip, with my longing to reconnect with family and with the place where I come from, with my awareness that even after 18 years it's still difficult for my parents that I chose to build a life so far away.
Now that I have a child of my own, that wrestling is heightened. What will he think of south Texas as he grows old enough to be aware of the southern songbirds and the tastes of Tex-Mex, the enormous extended family he'll never know as well as I might want him to? What will he think of my decision to leave San Antonio and settle outside a small mountain college town in a place where the snow can fall as early as the first week of November and the days grow dark at 4:30 in the autumn afternoons?
Sometimes it's hard knowing that Drew won't have the experiences of my childhood. He won't grow up attending the enormous Barenblat-Epstein family seders with tons of children hunting together for the afikoman and Hebrew singing until late into the night. He won't grow up near my parents; they'll always be the visiting-grandparents, the ones he sees sometimes inside my computer in the little Skype window, not the ones who live an hour away. Sometimes I wonder whether, like Jacob, I might have hurt my family when I flew the coop.
Of course, Drew will have his own childhood to savor: autumn leaves and winter snowfalls and the first maple syrup in the spring. Long summer evenings chasing fireflies in the meadow of our back yard. Growing up with the children of our friends, with the parties where we make movies for fun, or build a little Mongolian house in the backyard for our guests to inhabit, or let the children fingerpaint on each other and on us.
Drew is a part of many tribes. I want to bless him with the most precious coat of many colors I can imagine; I want him to know that God is with him, no matter what depths he may plumb or what heights he may explore.
But we're not there yet. Not in our lives; not in the measured pace of Torah. For now, were in Vayishlach, and I'm wrestling with the angel, demanding a blessing from one part of myself to another. Can I bless myself with the deep awareness that I've made good choices? With the ability to trust that my family will meet me not with resentment but with love and compassion?
What blessing do you need to wrest from yourself this week? What will it take for you to look in a mirror and recognize that you have seen God panim el-panim, face to face?