Saturday, November 20, 2021

Parshas Vayishlach - Jacob Wrestles an Angel for his Name

One of the most mystifying, perhaps the most mystifying incident, in the Torah comes at the start of Parshas Vayislach. 

Yaakov, preparing for a potentially fatal confrontation with his brother and rival Esav, issues a heartfelt plea for salvation to G-d. And, seemingly in response, an angel shows up to fight not Esav, but Yaakov.

The prolonged wrestling match ends with Yaakov (Jacob) limping and the angel beaten to a stalemate. 

Yaakov demands a blessing from the angel in exchange for releasing him, and the angel blesses or foretells his new name, not Yaakov but Yisrael (Israel), and yet the new name is hardly used.

What in the world is going on here?

Let's start by considering what a name, especially in the biblical sense, is. It's a description of someone's fundamental quality. Yaakov's name, literally heel, is uniquely derogatory and emerges from his birth clutching at Esav's heel. The new name, Yisrael, is a triumphant warrior name, For You Have Contended With Powers and Men and Triumphed, that is as far away from Yaakov as you could possibly get.

But what does it actually take to change a name? 

It does no good to change a name by going to court and filling out some paperwork. Changing your name doesn't change who you are. To change your name, you have to first change yourself.

For Yaakov to earn a name, he had to undergo a particular trial.

Yaakov starts out as Ish Tam Yoishev Oholim, a mild-mannered man who dwells in tents, in contrast to his rough and tumble older brother Esav. He receives multiple blessings, but all of them through subterfuge. He convinces Esav to sell his birthright and then his mother convinces him to impersonate Esav to receive his blessing from his father Yitzchak (Isaac). The second time Yitzchak blesses him, it's under the pretext of going to find a wife with his uncle Lavan, rather than the truth that he's escaping Esav's wrath.

And now, for the first time, when wrestling an angel, Yaakov doesn't trick his way to a blessing, but demands it straightforwardly of the angel. He doesn't pretend to be someone he's not or pretend to be doing something he's not doing, instead he demands it after earning it in a night of combat.

And the blessing he receives is a new name. And a new identity. That of a warrior. A man who can actually have the strength to carry the dominant blessing that had been meant for Esav.

But Yaakov has not truly changed overnight. It's why despite the declaration that his name will no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael, both names are used and most often he remains Yaakov.

It is some of his sons who will embody the strength and become Bnei Yisrael: the children of Israel.

Instead of responding with imminent miracles to Yaakov's plea, G-d instead dispatches an angel to subject him to a physical trial of combat to show him the hidden potential he has suppressed.

So too the Jewish people in exile, often forced into inferior roles, into living as minorities and practicing subterfuge to survive, as children of Jacob often forget that they are also the children of Israel. And then, as with the rebirth of the State of Israel, they remember that they are capable of being mighty warriors.

The trials that sometimes force them to fight may seem horrible, and the despair at seemingly not having G-d answer a prayer can be dispiriting, but sometimes, like the angel that wrestles with Jacob, the answer is that sometimes the trials are sent by G-d to test us and to force us to remember what it is to be warriors and to fight.

People are fond of quoting Yeshayah 2:4, "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more", and they are less likely to quote Yoel 4:10  "Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears; let the weak say: 'I am a mighty warrior.'"

There is a place for both, a time for war and for peace. 

This is a lesson that Yaakov struggles to learn with difficulty. The battle with the angel shows his potential, but he still bows to Esav. And in the next crisis, the rape of Dinah, it's his older sons who turn to violence while he remains mute. Their resort to violence becomes endemic and leads to the crisis of Yosef. 

The decision, when to choose violence and when to choose negotiation and even appeasement, is a difficult one, and there are no easy answers. No one answer fits every scenario. That too is the lesson.

But it is important to remember that the one blessing that Yaakov earns straightforwardly, that he demands and through which he receives the name Yisrael, comes when he is given no choice but to fight, and the most reluctant of warriors, the original "quiet man", triumphs and earns his name.

We all wrestle our inner demons. For some they're evil inclinations, but for Jews in particular, the test of violence is an incomprehensible moral crisis. Out of this crisis emerges, Israel.