We are currently in the midst of sequence of splendid Torah portions, rich in complexity, action, and misdeed, all blended together with some serious family
dysfunction. This week’s sedrah of Vayishlach in Genesis continues the tale of Jacob, the most intriguing of the patriarchs, a man who rises above his own duplicitous nature to become the father of almost all of the tribes of Israel.
As our story begins this week Jacob is returning home to Canaan, having made good in the old country of Sumeria—today’s Iraq. He has four wives, 12 children—including 11 sons—flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, great wealth in that day. As he is about to cross into Canaan he learns that his brother Esau, whom he wronged so seriously just before leaving home in a rush twenty years before, is coming to meet him with an army of 400 men. Jacob is panicked by this news, deducing that Esau is not heading his way with 400 men with spears just to welcome him home.
To try to preserve at least half of his household, Jacob divides his family and possessions into two camps, carefully arranges a large gift for Esau, and that night goes out onto a small island in the midst of a tributary of the Jordan River to contemplate his options. While he is there a stranger comes to him—the Torah is unclear as to whether this nocturnal visitor is a man, an angel, a representative of God in some other way, or even a character in a dream. Jacob wrestles with the visitor the rest of the night, and finally as dawn is breaking he prevails. The stranger cannot break away, and before he can escape Jacob insists that the stranger give him a blessing.
It is at this moment that Jacob is blessed with a new name—Yisra’el, Israel, the first time that famous name is used in the Bible. It means either “prince of God” or, more likely, “one who wrestles with God”, and we children of Israel (aka Jacob) have been wrestling with God in one way or another ever since. As the angel tells Jacob “your name shall be called Israel, for you have contended with gods and men and have prevailed.”
Jacob survives, and the reunion with Esau proves anticlimactic. Esau comes up to Jacob with all his armed men, but instead of attacking him he gives his brother a big hug and a kiss, and if all is not forgiven at least no blood is shed.
The dramatic narrative of Jacob’s struggle and triumph have become a metaphor for our own struggles with belief, and with family baggage. We are all descendants of Yisrael, the one who wrestled with God, and if we engage in that process for the sake of sacredness and belief we, too, may triumph and reach our own promised land.
Even during a season of merciless commercialism, holiness can still be created and found. In fact, it is that very search and struggle that make us the people of Israel, and give us a land engaged in that same pursuit.
When we truly are children of the one who wrestled with God, when we choose to wrestle with God, we elevate our lives and our experiences. May it be so in this holiday season—and in all seasons.