By Rabbi Andy Gordon
Our ancestor Jacob, after decades away, has returned home. He learns that his brother Esau is about to meet him accompanied by over 400 men. The last time the two met, Jacob had stolen his blessing. Esau wasn’t too happy with his younger brother!
And so, Jacob prepares for the reunion. He brings his two wives, eleven children and all his animals across the Jabbok river. Jacob returns to the other side to fetch the last of his things just as the sun sets. He decides to stay the night all alone when he is attacked by a stranger who wrestles him. All evening the two wrestle. Just as the dawn is breaking, the stranger says to Jacob, “Let me go!” Jacob replies, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” The stranger says to him, “No longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God, and with human beings, and you have prevailed.”
It’s a beautiful origin story. Why are we called the people of Israel? For like our ancestor, we wrestle with divine and human. Our rabbis debate the individual with whom Jacob wrestled. Was it Esau? Was it Esau’s angel? Was it God? I personally love the rabbinic belief that Jacob was wrestling with himself.
Most interesting is that Jacob doesn’t magically transform into a new person. Yes, he now has a new name, Israel. But he is also called Jacob throughout the rest of the Torah. Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches, “Even after moments of profound awakening we oftentimes slip back into the habitual manipulations of ego. Even as we awaken the power of soul, we find ourselves tangled in the web that our ego has woven.”
It’s a reminder that even with profound moments of clarity, it’s often easy to go back to our old ways. Jacob becomes a better person. He matures and grows and takes care of his family. Yet, he still is challenged by his past (such as his encounter with his brother) as well as his future (his interactions with his children).
We follow in Jacob’s footsteps as wrestlers with God, our fellow human beings and with ourselves. We aren’t asked to be perfect; none of our ancestors were truly perfect. But we are asked to always continue to work toward self-improvement and self-betterment. May we continue to wrestle and to take up the mantle of our name, Israel.
Rabbi Andy Gordon serves as the spiritual leader of Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore.