We are Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. This week’s Torah portion teaches us of the origin of our name and, therefore, teaches us something about who we are. The scene: Jacob is filled with fear as he prepares to meet his brother, Esau, for the first time in decades. They haven’t seen each other since Jacob fled from Esau, who wanted to kill him for taking his birthright and his blessing. The night before their reunion, a man wrestles with Jacob until dawn.
This mysterious man is understood in a variety of ways. The rabbis suggest that it is the angel of Esau; before meeting his brother in person, he must struggle with that demon from his past. Perhaps the assailant is Jacob’s own conscience, as he wrestles with his guilt for deceiving his father and stealing from his brother. Or perhaps it’s God; after all, when the wrestling match is over, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face.” The mysterious being who wrestles with Jacob is really all of these, as the Torah tells us that Jacob was indeed all alone (32:25); in this dark night, it is his soul that is embattled.
As dawn approaches, the assailant wrenches Jacob’s hip, but also gives him a blessing and a change of name. The man says, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But Jacob answers, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Says the other, “What is your name?” He replies, “Jacob.” Says the man, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:27-29).
This is a moment of transformation. As Rashi explains in his commentary, the name Jacob in Hebrew connotes “treachery and deceit,” whereas the name Israel connotes “authority and openness.” Jacob goes from being a manipulator who runs away from difficult situations to being a man of integrity who faces God directly and his brother openly.
The next day, when he and Esau reunite in a tearful embrace, Jacob tells him, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me” (Gen. 33:10). He echoes his earlier words about seeing God face to face, reinforcing the notion that his adversary represented both God and Esau.
From this story, we learn that we, the children of Israel, carry this name and this legacy of struggling with God and prevailing. Interestingly, even with his new name, the Torah continues to use the name Jacob — unlike Abraham and Sarah, who receive new names from God and are never again called by their old names, Avram and Sarai. Like our ancestor, we are never finished with our internal struggles; we have expansive moments of being Israel, but we continue to wrestle like Jacob as well. In fact, every time Jews pray the Amidah, we pray to the “God of Jacob,” not to the “God of Israel.” In other words, our truest prayers come from that state of wrestling.
The Torah teaches us that the name Israel means “struggling with God,” but we also learn that the struggle does not defeat us. We prevail in the end, although we might walk away wounded, limping like Jacob. Certainly that has been true for the people of Israel; throughout our long history of struggling, through numerous persecutions and exiles, we have prevailed. In our individual lives as well, we struggle with God, but how do we prevail the way Jacob did when he became Israel?
The Torah offers us an answer. In his struggling, Jacob asks for a blessing. He won’t let go of his opponent until he finds meaning in his struggle. Through this, he finds God. Jacob names the place of this encounter Peniel, meaning “the face of God,” as he says “I have seen God face to face, yet my life was spared” (Gen. 32:31). Like Jacob becoming Israel, our struggles can transform us when we meet our assailant face to face and know that, even in the darkness, we are seeing the face of God.
Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.