Vayishlach: What’s in a Name?

Vayomer, “Lo Ya’akov ye’amer od shimcha, ki im Yisrael, ki sarita im Elohim v’im anashim vatuchal.”
And he said, “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with men, and you have overcome. (Gen. 32:29)

I love this story:

It is time for Jacob to go home and face his past. It has been twenty years since he stole his brother Esau’s blessing and then had to run for his life. Jacob fled with nothing, and now twenty years later he returns with a family and flocks and herds. He sends messengers ahead to tell Esau that his brother Jacob has returned, and the messengers return to tell Jacob that his brother Esau is indeed coming to meet him – along with 400 men!

Jacob is terrified. He assumes Esau is coming to fulfill his old promise to kill him. Always the plotter, Jacob sends many gifts ahead to his brother in the hope of appeasing him, and he splits his family into two separate camps with the hope of protecting at least some of them. Jacob is left alone at night by the riverbank.

All night long an unnamed man – an angel? – wrestles with Jacob. Jacob’s hip is wrenched, but he will not succumb. As dawn is breaking, the angel insists on being released, but Jacob will not let him go until he bestows a blessing on Jacob. The angel blesses Jacob with a new name, Yisrael, Israel, meaning, as the angel says, “you have wrestled with God and with men and you have prevailed.”

Now the sun climbs over the horizon and shines on Jacob – now Israel – as he limps toward his brother Esau. Israel carries no weapons and no guile. For the first time in his life he is not scheming or competing with his brother, not trying to get whatever it is that his brother has. He knows that he must face his brother and accept the consequences of his actions long ago, even if that means his own death. As the sunlight – this newfound awareness – pours down on Jacob/Israel, Esau runs to meet him, embraces and kisses him, and they weep together.

As they speak, Jacob/Israel appeals to Esau to accept the blessing that Jacob/Israel had stolen so long ago. Esau demurs, “I have plenty, my brother, you keep it.” But Jacob/Israel insists, “Please accept my blessing, for God has been gracious to me, and I have everything.” Jacob/Israel now understands that he is indeed blessed, that his life is sufficient, that he has all that he needs. He doesn’t need what his brother has, and perhaps he never did. Jacob/Israel gazes wondrously at Esau his brother and says, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”

A precious moment: one could say that Jacob, in his entire life, had never looked at Esau directly. Esau had always been only an obstacle for Jacob to surmount. Jacob had never actually met his brother’s gaze and understood that Esau, too, was a child of God. But now Jacob had spent the night wrestling with his own fears, his own projections, and his own history of manipulating his brother for his own gain. Jacob faced all this and did not succumb. It is a heroic moment, in which the hero knows he must face his own death in order to become the person he was meant to be. As a result of rising to this occasion, our hero Jacob, now transformed and no longer a heel (the meaning of “Ya’akov” and the name he received when he emerged from the womb holding his brother’s heel), merits a new name: Israel. God-Wrestler. Now Jacob/Israel is able to see for the first time the Divine imprint in the face of Esau, his lifelong nemesis.

This is one of the key stories in our Torah, because it recounts How We Received Our Name. For we are the Children of Israel, and this is where we learn the meaning of our name. I compare this story in importance to the Passover story in the Book of Exodus: the story of How We Became a People. They are both origin myths, stories that tell us who we are, how we came to be, and what we are meant to become. The Exodus story teaches us that we were slaves and became a free people, and that this identity should ever inform our sensitivity to the powerless and the oppressed.

And what might the story of Jacob’s transformation into Israel teach us about what it means to be one of the “Children of Israel,” the God-Wrestler? How do we merit this transformational name? What must each of us face and wrestle with in order to be a member of this clan?

To be a descendant of Israel is to wrestle with life, to struggle with life’s deeper meaning and purpose, to not succumb to despair or confusion or fear.

To be a descendant of Israel is to understand that we are responsible for our actions, and that our past will haunt us and cripple us if we do not face and wrestle with our demons.

To be a descendant of Israel is to be willing to have old habits and defenses and justifications die, so that we can face life and one another humbly and courageously.

To be a descendant of Israel is to be able to meet others, even our competitors and enemies, face to face, remembering that they too are children of God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan