Wednesday, 29 November 2017 | 11 Kislev, 5778
As Jacob prepared to encounter his brother Esau after a separation of twenty years, he has one of the strangest encounters recorded in the Torah.
Leaving his family on one side of the river, he crosses it, remaining alone on the other shore in the dark of the night.
Out of the shadows a figure emerges who wrestles with Jacob all night. Jacob prevails, wrests a blessing and the promise of a change of name (he will become known as Israel). He emerges from the encounter a changed man, wounded but triumphant.
As the dawn colours the sky, Jacob calls the place ‘Peniel’ for there, he asserts, he had seen Penay-El the very face of God.
As Elie Wiesel has suggested, this strange scene provides more questions than answers; ‘One constantly gets the feeling of being shut out, of watching an event through an almost opaque screen: What was it all about? Was the encounter accidental or deliberate? And this change of name – what exactly is a name?’
One way of unclouding the screen or unpacking the dense symbolism of this piece, is to focus on its key words or motifs. The key concepts are encapsulated in the words “levado” (alone) “vayeavek” (he wrestled) and the name Jacob is given – “Yisrael”.
To be alone is to be vulnerable but, it is also a source of strength and creativity. Thus, the word “levado” (alone) appears once before in the Torah at the creation of Adam where the Torah tells us “It is not good for man to be alone”.
Being alone and solitary can be an unbearable burden; loneliness ravages the human spirit. Nonetheless as Soloveitchik has suggested Adam finds a strength of identity and resoluteness in his solitariness. And so God intended it, otherwise he would not have created him alone.
Jacob needs to be alone at this point in his life, so that he can encounter his deepest fears and re-shape his identity.
Like Adam, he needs to face himself and his darkest impulses. As he waits for Esau, he must contemplate the purpose of his life, how he has deceived his sibling, and in turn, been beguiled by his father-in-law, manipulated by his wives.
He must ask himself the most frightening of all questions: “What have I achieved with my life?” Such questions are only asked in the alone-ness of the night and the stillness of the heart.
And so, he faces the dark questions and wrestles with himself. The stranger he struggles with is none other than the other half of his own split self; he is attacked by his own guardian angel.
He also wrestles with his brother’s angel, facing the accusations of the betrayed Esau, (and so, one Midrash portrays the stranger as Esau’s protective angel).
The struggle is, in a wider sense, a metaphor for Jacob’s struggle with God. It is a uniquely Jewish approach. We grapple with God, sparing no iota of our being human.
Jacob needs to struggle with God to forge his own relationship – one distinct from his grandfather and father.
We should all struggle with God – it is what makes our Judaism vital and relevant. We should also ask ourselves “Who in your life or what in your life are you wrestling with today? Wrestle towards a blessing…”
And so the blessing, the name-change the birth of Israel is about a people who will always have to fight for their survival, but who will always emerge triumphant (Yisrael means to struggle with God).
We may come out limping and wounded from our bruising encounters with self, with God and with others, but we will also be stronger for the struggle, be more vital and rich human beings. Dawn will break. Israel will persevere!