Monday, November 15, 2021

Vayishlach: Heels and Godwrestlers

In Torah, a change of name usually indicates an irreversible change of fate. Avram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of the Jewish people.  Hoshea ben Nun becomes Joshua, who will deliver us into the Promised Land.  Upon his rise to power, Joseph assumes the Egyptian name of Zaphenat-Paneah, by which he will always be known to the Pharaoh who makes him his right-hand man.  

In this week’s portion, Vayishlach, Jacob follows in this line.  After he prevails in a night-long struggle with a divine being, he is blessed with the new name Israel—the “Godwrestler.”  The patriarch whose original moniker means “heel” or “supplanter” becomes the rightful heir of the covenant and assumes his place as a mighty spiritual forefather.

Except. . . just a few lines after he becomes Israel, Torah again refers to him as Jacob—and continues to do so for the rest of his life. 

Unlike Abraham and Sarah, who change their identity and never look back, Jacob/Israel vacillates between his two selves until his dying day.  He is both the man transformed into a heroic Godwrestler and the unreconstructed Heel/Deceiver, a deeply human mix of hope and failure, sacred and profane.

As such, Jacob is us.   Our Jewish tradition affirms the possibility of teshuvah—of real change—but also recognizes this sort of conversion is incremental and imperfect.  We take two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes we embody Israel, fulfilling our higher destiny.  And sometimes, even many years after undertaking personal transformation, we lapse back into Jacob, the old self that we had hoped to leave behind.

So we bear our two names—bayt Ya’akov, the house of Jacob, and b’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel.  We are earthly connivers and wrestlers with the divine, fallen and angelic, striving for holiness and sometimes settling for a great deal less. In other words, we are humans, doing our best to grow.

Conversation Question:
Who is your inner “Jacob” that you seek to grow beyond?  The “Israel” that you hope to become?  And how do you navigate between those two senses of self, between the vision toward which you aspire and the current human reality?

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