Let me ask you a question: do Jews believe in KARMA? I assume that everyone knows what karma is; I suppose another way of putting it is “what goes around comes around.” Is that idea part of Judaism? I may do a little sermon about the concept some day, but, for now, I just want to explore the idea in relation to this week’s parsha, Vayishlach.
I ask about karma because in Vayishlach we see that Jacob kind of gets what he deserves. Remember that he has stolen his brother’s birthright. He has tricked his father into giving him the blessing that his father had intended for Esav, the son Isaac prefers. Even his name tells us that he’s flawed—YAAKOV can mean HEEL but it can also mean CROOKED.
So, there is no question that Jacob has some growing up to do, even if this is all part of God’s divine plan. But, as we know, he does get his comeuppance. He has to flee from his home. He ends up being tricked by Laban and forced to marry the daughter he does not love. He works for more than 14 years to get the woman of his dreams. And he is finally driven to sneak away—once again—under cover of the night with all his property, his children, and his wives.
So maybe that’s karma. Payback for all the deception he used against his brother and his father. But let’s not forget that there’s another part to this powerful narrative. Remember that, before meeting up with his brother Esau, Jacob is left alone by the stream of Jabbok. There he wrestles with a man all night long. When morning comes the man asks to leave, and Jacob tells him, not until you bless me. The man says to Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” The name Israel means “wrestles with God.” Jacob has a new name, and an injury to his sciatic nerve that will cause him to limp for the rest of his life.
Maybe that’s another form of karma. But what happens when Jacob’s name is NO LONGER JACOB, but Israel? After wrestling with the man—and some say that the “man” was really GOD, or really an angel, or perhaps even Jacob wrestling with HIMSELF—what happens after this dramatic contest is that Jacob now knows that he has not been the kind of person worthy of the covenant God promised him. He has been crooked, and he needs to become a new self. He changes.
Is that KARMA? Maybe. But I think that, regardless of what you call Jacob’s transformation, this chapter of Breishit teaches us that people can change. WE CAN CHANGE. We tend to focus on that lesson during the High Holidays, but the lesson itself is right here in this week’s reading. Any one of us can wrestle with our demons and come out a better, less crooked person. That struggle is definitely painful, and Israel has the limp to prove it. The limp that reminds him—and us—of how far we have come, but also of where we have been. The limp that lets us know that change is hard and painful and leaves scars, but it is something that we survive. And, ultimately, it is worth it.
Rabbi David Grossman
Rabbi Joshua Grossman