Jacob’s Right of Passage: Celebrating the New, Remembering the Old

Parashat Vayishlach / פרשת וישלח

Torah Portion: Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

When last we saw Esau, he had just left home after having spent much of his life a victim of his younger brother’s antics. In utero, Jacob had tried to pull his twin brother back into the womb so that Jacob could be born as the older child. Later on, he took advantage of a tired, hungry Esau and convinced him to sell Jacob his birthright for a bowl of lentils. Finally, Jacob stole from Esau the most precious thing of all, their father’s blessing. Imagine the animosity with which Esau parted his brother. Imagine the fear of encountering Esau that Jacob must have carried for years. This week, though, against all odds, we witness the brothers’ reunion, a reunion that is peaceful and full of contrition and forgiveness.

Before Jacob embarks on his journey to meet Esau, something incredible happens. Jacob wrestles all night long with a mysterious being the Jabbok River. Depending on whose commentary or scholarship you read, the being is either an angel of God, Esau’s guardian angel, or a river spirit, the latter reflecting a belief common in the ancient Near East. Regardless of who or what the being is, however, Jacob emerges remarkably from the experience with a limp, a blessing, and a new name. It is as if he becomes a new man overnight.

This scene follows 20 years during which Jacob labored for his father-in-law, Laban, and got a good dose of his own bitter medicine. Just as Jacob had fooled and stolen from his brother, Laban does the same to Jacob, switching out one bride for another, changing the terms of his servitude, and cheating him of earnings rightfully accrued over his years of servitude. When Jacob manages to extricate himself from his indenture from Laban, leaving with two wives, eleven sons, a daughter, and a sizable flock of sheep and goats that he somehow genetically engineered to be strong and healthy, he is a smaller, more humble person than he was as a youth. Thus, the scene at the Jabbok marks Jacob’s maturation, emboldens him for his fateful reunion with Esau and establishes him as the worthy father of a great nation. Life begins anew the day after that struggle not only for Jacob/Israel but for us, the Children of Israel, as well. For us, we can now rest assured that our patriarch is more than the suspect trickster we had known earlier in the Torah.

For Jacob, what happened at the Jabbok is a rite of passage celebrated by taking on a new name, Israel. Jacob is not the only patriarch to undergo such a rite. Recall that Abraham had been Abram prior to entering into a covenant with God. Notably, the circumstances in each case are quite different. God had known Abraham to be righteous and just before singling him out for the covenant. Thus, the name Abraham — containing the Hebrew letter “hei,” part of the name of the God whom Abraham has vowed to serve — indicates a change in status. In Jacob’s case, though, the name Israel indicates a change of heart. The name Jacob derives from words connoting stealth and cunning among men. Israel, on the other hand, means “one who wrestles/struggles/strives with God.” Jacob began life as an unlikely role model for his descendents, but ends life as one who accounts for his actions and answers to God.

We do not today refer to Abraham as Abram unless we are referring to those verses in the Torah where his name is actually Abram. Yet, with Jacob, sometimes he is Jacob and sometimes he is Israel. Why not only “Israel,” just as Abram is now only “Abraham”? In the case of Abraham, there was nothing especially compelling to remember about his earlier life. Not so with Jacob, for he changed dramatically over time and for the better. We can’t celebrate who Jacob becomes unless we remember who he once was. Moreover, Jacob’s earlier traits of ingenuity and craftiness may serve humanity well when used for higher purposes. It is quite possible that without those traits, Jacob wouldn’t have been able to become Israel. For the Children of Israel, we, too, have needed to employ ingenuity and craftiness throughout our history just to survive. Were there no “Jacob” inside of us, there could be no “Israel.”

As we look back on that night by the Jabbok River, let us identify with that Jacob who wrestles with God, angels and spirits and emerges stronger and nobler. At the same time, as the Children of Israel, let use the skills and wisdom we have gained over time to forge a vital, stable, peaceful future for us and our world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

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