Cartoons have a clever way of symbolizing the two inclinations that each of us has within us. They place the tiny image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Our rabbis refer to this as the yetzer hatov, the inclination to dogood, and the yetzer harah, theinclination to do evil. These are considered the primary forces that tug on our consciences each time we are faced with a decision. Of course,there’s a whole spectrum of emotions that influence our decisions.
Weare lifelong decision makers. Adam andChavah, the first people in Gan Eden,were faced with decisions. Chavah had asnake pushing her to make a bad choice, and she chose to eat the fruit of thetree. Abraham, the first monotheist, isfaced with many decisions, from the choice to listen to God and go to a newland, to deciding between his two wives and sons as Sarah, Hagar, Isaac andIshmael can no longer live together. Esau, Jacob’s older brother, also has to choose between doing what isright and what feels good at the time when he sells his birthright. Each of these biblical figures has been tornbetween right and wrong, between pleasure and pain.
This week, parshat Vayishlach shows us that Jacob is no different. Jacob ispreparing to see his brother for the first time since he was forced to run awayafter receiving the blessing of the first born. The imagery leading up to this meeting shows us Jacob torn betweenextremes both physically and mentally. And Jacob must choose between listening to his mother, lying to hisfather, and receiving the blessing as an imposter or holding true to what isright, not deceiving his father, and risk being history’s first son todisappoint his mother. In this week’s parshah, Jacob is again torn between hisphysical needs and the subconscious fight he has with God as his hip socket iswrenched. Then finally, we see Jacobhaving to divide his family in preparation for meeting his brother.
Afterhis godly encounter, Jacob’s name is changed to Yisrael, “he who wrestles with God.” This wrestling is different from thedivisions and fighting we have seen prior with Jacob. In this part of the text, Jacob makesdecisions not based on his own gain or loss, but based on what will betterserve his entire family. Jacob is nolonger forced to divide himself between doing what his mother asks and doingwhat he feels is right. Instead, hemakes his decisions based on what will bring him the most completion. As he moves his family into two separatecamps, he does this not to save one over the other but to protect themboth.
Decision making can often leave us feeling torn, with thegood inclination on one shoulder and the evil intent on the other. Our parshah teaches us that while it can be difficult to do the right thing, the wrestling that comes with making the decision is what helps keep us balanced and focused on being true to ourselves.