וַיִּֽהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַעוַיֵּצֵא יַֽעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַעוַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵֽאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּֽי־שָׂרִיתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָֽל:…
Va’yomer, “Lo Ya’akov yei’ameir od shimkha, ki im Yisrael, ki sarita im Elohim v’im anashim va’tukhal.”
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” (Genesis 32:29).
I love this story.
It’s time for Jacob to go home and face his past. It has been 20 years since he stole his brother Esau’s blessing and then had to run for his life. Jacob fled with nothing, and now, 20 years later, he returns with a family, 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 that 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 to protect at least some of them. Jacob is left alone at night by the riverbank.
All night long an unnamed man (we assume he is an angel, a Divine messenger, even though the biblical text never confirms the man’s identity) 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, יִשְׂרָאֵל Yisrael, Israel, meaning, as the angel says, “you have wrestled with God and with men and you have overcome.”
Now the sun climbs over the horizon and shines on Jacob (now Israel) as he limps towards 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 Esau and accept the consequences of his past actions, even if that means his own death.
Jacob’s transformation is reflected in his change of names. In the womb, he and Esau wrestle for predominance. The Torah tells us that Jacob emerged second, holding on to his brother’s עֵקֶב eikev, his heel, and so they name him יַעֲקֹב Ya’akov, “heel-holder,” perhaps. But עֵקֶב eikev in Hebrew bears multiple associations, very similar to the word “heel” in English. As verbs, both “heel” and eikev mean to follow closely; since Jacob emerged right behind Esau, holding his heel, that meaning is probably implied as well. And when we call someone a “heel,” we mean that person is devious and untrustworthy. The same in Hebrew: Eikev can also mean “crooked.” In Jacob’s early life, all of his actions were devious, as he was consumed by his desire to supplant Esau as the firstborn.
All those formative years, he wrestled with his brother. Only now is he ready to encounter him face to face. After 20 years away, יַעֲקֹב Ya’akov the heel is finally ready to wrestle with his own past actions, his inner nature and his fear. He merits the new name יָשָׂראֵל Yisrael, God-wrestler. But Yisrael also echoes the multiple meanings of Ya’akov; Jacob’s new name can also be read as יָשָׁר אֵל Yashar El — “God is the straight path (meaning honorable, or upright).” I think this is an intentional echo of a famous saying of Isaiah: וְהָיָה הֶֽעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר V’haya ha’akov l’mishor — “and the crooked shall be made straight … [and the glory of YHVH will be revealed, and all people will see it together]” (Isaiah 40:4-5).
Jacob’s new awareness — let’s call it Yisrael-consciousness — will falter many times during his long life, but at this moment, Jacob truly is Yisrael. As the sunlight supplants the long night and pours down on the transformed Jacob, Esau runs to meet him, embraces and kisses him, and they weep together.
As they speak, Jacob appeals to Esau to accept the blessing that Jacob had stolen from him so long ago. Esau demurs, “I have plenty, my brother, you keep it.” But Jacob insists, “Please accept my blessing, for God has been gracious to me, and I have everything.” For the first time, Jacob 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 never did. Jacob gazes wondrously at Esau 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. His going out to meet Esau is a heroic moment, in which the hero knows that 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, now upright and no longer crooked — merits a new name: Israel. And 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 episodes in our Torah because it recounts the story of “How We Received Our Name.” 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, which tells us “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 all the crooked paths of old habits and defenses and justifications die, so that we can face life and one another directly, humbly and courageously.