Parashat Vayishlah – The Past is Never Behind You

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlah, is the last act of the story of Yaakov. His

transformation from trickster to prince, as the 11th century French interpreter Rashi puts

it, is central to this parshah. Is it really a transformation, though? Is true transformation

even really possible for us fickle human beings? Yaakov’s story gives a guide to the ways

in which we do and do not change, and most importantly, how we can never truly be free

of our past.

 

Vayishlah begins with Yaakov being confronted with the possibility of seeing his brother

Esav again after many years apart. The last time they met, Yaakov tricked him out of his

birthright and fled in the face of Esav’s death threats. Now, Yaakov is returning to the

land of his father with wealth and a family, and sends gifts to attempt to appease Esav

as still he fears his brother’s wrath. In spite of the many years spent away, marrying two

women, and building a family and a fortune, Yaakov is forced to face his past, embodied

in his brother.

 

Right before Yaakov finally meets with Esav again, a being comes and wrestles with

him through the night. As dawn breaks, and Yaakov is winning, the being tells Yaakov

to let him go. Yaakov refuses to until the being, often thought of in tradition as an angel,

blesses him. The being then renames him Yisrael, proclaiming that it is a symbol of his

successful struggles with men and with the divine.

 

Rashi interprets this name change from Yaakov, with a Hebrew root that is related to

trickery and deceit, to Yisrael, with a Hebrew root related to nobility, as an integral shift

in Yaakov’s character. Furthermore, he interprets the next line, when Yaakov asks the

angel its name and the angel responds, “Why do you ask me my name?” as telling us that

angels, in fact, have no fixed names and that they change according to the mission that

they are on.

 

Angels, then, are bereft of past and future: Their names unfixed, their short-term purposes

defining their very existence. In Jewish tradition humans and angels are often compared

to each other with angels tending to complain about the humans silly choices. Here we

may get a look into why our tradition would hold us up and against the angels. They help

define our relationship to our world and to God by showing us what we aren’t.

If angels are defined specifically for one purpose, with their very identities erased and

changed at their purpose’s completion, we are the exact opposite. The rest of this week’s

Torah portion displays this as Yaakov’s past as a trickster catches up to him in many

different ways. In spite of his attempt to put the past behind him, and to even tell Esav

that stealing the birthright wasn’t particularly beneficial to him anyway, Yaakov’s

children reflect his trickster roots through multiples acts of deceit and trickery.

Looking at Vayishlah from this perspective gives us a peek at our own relationship to our

past and our future. Even if we make changes as drastic as those that Yaakov made, we

can never escape our past. We can even confront our past and attempt to grow beyond the

things we feel are holding us back, but still, we can never truly get rid of them. Unlike

angels, our names don’t change based on our given objective at any individual time. Our

past tails us, ever connected to our present, ever coloring our future. We can strive, and

progress and improve so much that we may warrant a change of name like Yaakov, but

even then we cannot simply detach from our past.

 

Although this may sound like we are trapped the other option is much less attractive.

Without this continual growth and building of history attached to our names our lives

would cease to have the deep meaning we can now derive from them. Without a past to

regard and move forward from we too, like the angels, would be without identity, stuck in

an ever-present now that changed our very essence every time we completed a task. But

this is not the world assigned to us – this is the world, according to the Jewish tradition,

assigned to angels.

 

We are instead gifted with the ability for growth in a long stream of acts and deeds that

define us well after their completion. Interestingly enough, this Torah portion displays

that through Yaakov’s name being changed. But is his name changed? Throughout the

rest of Genesis, the character is still consistently referred to as Yaakov, alongside his new

name Yisrael.

 

As I have grown older, and collected all the more experience and baggage, I’ve found

that the past re-emerges in ways one would never expect. People you believed you would

never see again reappear when least expected, words you let loose into the world come

back to haunt you, and actions you thought would never have any consequence can

return to shift your life’s path entirely. We are not independent agents, floating in an

ever-present now like the angels, defined only by a singular task which upon completion

will wipe out our very identities. Unlike an angel, Yaakov never transformed fully into

Yisrael, but added an extra layer on to his person as he grew and changed. Just like

Yaakov we are growing, evolving, and changing individuals, allowed to experience the

shift from the past to the present to the future, all the while never leaving our past behind

us, but instead continuing to learn and grow from these experiences.

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