Vayishlach 5772 – Jacob wrestles, and becomes himself

What’s in a name? Jacob wrestling at Yabok (Gen 32:23-33)

Today’s story can say something, I think, to everyone, because it is about an ish tam, a simple, normal man, an average person, Jacob, in a normal family, that is to say, a dysfunctional one. If there’s anybody here who isn’t from a dysfunctional family, please feel free to leave now, unless you don’t want to show up the rest of us, or you want to learn something about what makes us normal human beings tick!

So, the story. Jacob’s father Isaac is estranged from his brother Ishmael. Jacob’s mother encourages him to deceive his father and steal the blessing intended for his brother Esau. Esau finds out and threatens to kill Jacob, who flees for his life. The sun sets at Bethel where Jacob dreams of the ladder, and so begins his ‘dark night of the soul’1. The family rift lasts 20 years. During his time away, Jacob receives some of his own medicine, and is tricked in the same way he has tricked others. He works hard, marries, and builds a good life for himself. But he is incomplete – in his heart, he knows that there is damage in his past, and he wants to do what he can to repair it. To do this, he must overcome his own resistance to changing his own ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. He must wrestle in the darkness of his own psyche, face his demons, face God, face himself, face his estranged family.

Today’s reading is when, overnight at Yabok, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious man, with his fears and his conscience. Will Jacob run from Esau again, or face his past? Will he try to downplay the less evolved part of his character, or the role that he has played in the ruptured relationship? Jacob has to go against his instincts of self-preservation. We are told more than once that he is terrified of meeting Esau again; he prepares for the possibility of open hostility and annihilation.

Intriguingly, when dawn arrives, the outcome of the wrestling match with the stranger is inconclusive. Nobody wins. We cannot ultimately win against God, or the truth with which conscience faces us. Neither do we necessarily do what God or conscience suggest. Why doesn’t the wrestling match continue beyond dawn? Because something else happens, something really important. Yes, Jacob is wounded in his encounter, as we are all wounded when we fight with ourselves, with others, life, with God, and if we are wise, we learn from that wounding. But it is the detail of the names that I want to focus on here. Remember, in the Bible, a person’s name always indicates something of their core personality, their essence.

Why does the man ask Jacob’s name? It is clear to us, the readers, that this is either God or an angel, who would know Jacob’s name already. This question is a key moment for Jacob; he is being given an opportunity. Will Jacob deceive again, make himself out to be something other than who or what he actually is? He doesn’t know who the stranger is, and could just make up a good story designed to impress. But he doesn’t. He admits his name is Ya’akov – the usurper, the deceiver, the struggler. This is integral to his own healing and evolution – that he can admit to himself, and another, who he really is, and by implication, what he has done. Only then can he move on. And the story makes this clear. It is now that Jacob concludes that wrestling with the man overnight has been some kind of God-encounter, and he gives the place of wrestling, Yabok, a new name: Peniel, the face of God. It is now that Jacob is given a new name, Yisrael, the one who struggles with God, and will become father to a nation; only now, when he is honest about himself, does he receive a true blessing; and it is only now, after 20 years, the text tells us the sun rises – meaning that this particular dark night of the soul has ended.

As long as we engage with our conscience, with God, there is hope for us. Jacob is called Jacob whenever his vision is limited to his own personal horizons and what he thinks affects only him. But after his self-revelation, Jacob makes a unilateral move of reconciliation. He does not say, “I stayed away because of what Esau said or how he might behave towards me.” If that were the case, there may still be no good reason to return. The truth is, Jacob stays away until he is ready to return. Once he has changed, and is ready, he takes the step, regardless of how Esau might behave towards him. Then, he is able to see the Divine even in someone who does not trust him – as he says, when he meets Esau, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God”. What does it mean, metaphorically, to look into the face of God? It is when we run out of escape routes, places to hide, insurance policies, and we have to experience the raw, transformative impact of truth, most of all, truth about ourselves.

The Jewish people are not called the children of Abraham, because, I suspect, Abraham had more faith than the average person. We are not called the children of Isaac, because Isaac lived too much in the shadow of his father and had a tendency to leave responsibility to others. We are called the children of Israel, because, although we have feet of clay, and are averagely – perhaps more than averagely – mixed up, like Jacob at his lowest points and darkest moments, we dream; we dream of being something more, and we wrestle – both with questions of faith, and of responsibility. At the heart of Judaism are ethics, the primacy of building, maintaining and restoring relationships, and the commitment to tikkun olam, repairing whatever needs fixing, even in the most unfavourable circumstances. That is the teaching that Jacob, the man who became Israel, gives us. And integral to that teaching is to look into the face of the other for as long as it takes until we see the face of God.

  1. 16th century poem by Spanish Catholic mystic, St John of the Cross.

© Alexander Massey, Oxford, 10 Dec 2011