Shabbat Forshpeis

A Taste of Torah in honor of Shabbat
from Rabbi Avi Weiss


Parshat Vayishlach
DECEMBER 15-16, 2000 / 19 KISLEV 5761

YA'AKOV'S STRUGGLE: A MODEL OF TESHUVAH

Could Ya'akov's (Jacob) altercation with a mysterious man have been the beginning of a process of repentance for having taken the blessings of his brother Esau?

Maimonides notes that an essential element of repentance is acknowledgment of the wrongdoing and a deep sense of regret. (hakarat ha-het, haratah).  The mysterious man may have been Ya'akov himself, his inner conscience.  He may have asked himself, "What is my name?"  (Genesis 32:28)  In declaring that his true identity was Ya'akov, which means deception, he was acknowledging that he had blundered in tricking his brother and taking the blessings misleadingly. 

As the narrative unfolds, Ya'akov is told he would be given another name - Yisrael (Israel).  Nachum Sarna points out that the name Yisrael contains the root y-sh-r, meaning straight.  Ya'akov, the deceiver, has transformed to Yisrael, one who resolved to be straight and up front with those around him.

Interestingly, Ya'akov calls the name of the place where the struggle occurred Peniel, literally meaning the face of God.  (Genesis 32:31)  In calling the name Peniel, Ya'akov may be resolving to openly face others much as he openly saw God.  Here, Ya'akov becomes resolute to change his ways from deception to openness and honesty.

In this way, Ya'akov was fulfilling yet another step in the teshuvah process; the step of resolving not to make the same mistake again (kabbalah).  Never again would he be deceptive (Ya'akov); he would forever change his ways by being up front (Yisrael) and open (Peniel).

Nechama Leibovitz clinches the idea that this altercation had something to do with Ya'akov's repentance.  She notes that the angel, at this point, merely announced that Ya'akov would eventually be given another name.  The name wasn't changed right there.  This is because, before full teshuva takes place, sins committed against one's fellow person require asking forgiveness of the aggrieved party.

Before Ya'akov could be given an additional name he had to ask forgiveness of his brother.  In the words of Nechama Leibovitz;" Only after he had said to Esau: 'Take I pray thee my blessing' (Genesis 33:11) and after his brother had accepted the blessing could the Almighty reveal Himself to him and announce the fulfillment of the promise (of his new name) made by the angel." (Genesis 35:10)

In recent years, much has been said about the Vatican's attempt to do teshuvah for its sins during the Shoah.  While such steps are certainly laudable the teshuvah is not complete.  It lacks the steps taken by Ya'akov as ultimately codified by Rambam.  Acknowledgment and regret for the past requires a detailed description of what one had done wrong.  Like when Ya'akov declared emphatically that he was Ya'akov--a deceiver.  It is also difficult to accept the Vatican's words since the Pope is ready to meet in  just a few days with Jorge Haider, the Nazi from Austria.  That too is a violation of the principle that one must resolve to do better in the future. 
Most important, there can be no real teshuvah concerning the Shoah since the Vatican's sins were committed against other human beings and only they can forgive. The victims of the Shoah are no longer here to offer that forgiveness. 

All of us have made plenty of mistakes and teshuvah is a divine gift from God, allowing us to right our wrongs.  It is a complex psychological process and Ya'akov shows the way it is done.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Rabbi Avi Weiss, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale
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