Jacob’s Rite of Passage: Celebrating the New, Appreciating 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 he could be born first and, thus, merit the birthright and blessing of the oldest son. Later on, he took advantage of a tired, hungry Esau and convinced him to sell the birthright for a bowl of lentils. Finally, Jacob stole from Esau the most precious thing of all — their father’s blessing. Imagine Esau’s anger upon discovering he was once again a victim of Jacob’s scheming! Imagine, too, Jacob’s fear of encountering Esau years later. This week, we witness the brothers’ reunion, a reunion that against all odds is peaceful and marked by contrition and forgiveness.

Before Jacob embarks on his journey to meet Esau, something incredible happens. Jacob wrestles all night long with a mysterious being on the banks of 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 whom or what Jacob wrestled, Jacob emerges from the experience but with a limp, a blessing and a new name — Israel. 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 tricked 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 servitude to Laban and leaves 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 had been 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 (now, Israel) but for us, the Children of Israel, as well. For us, we can now rest assured that our patriarch is more than the slimy trickster we had seen earlier in the Torah.

For Jacob, what happened at the Jabbok is a rite of passage celebrated by taking on the 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. Sarai, Abraham’s wife, is equally meritorious of a name change; God adds the letter “hei” to her name, too, and she becomes Sarah. In Jacob’s case, though, the name Israel indicates more a change of heart than a change in status. The name Jacob derives from words connoting stealth and cunning. Israel, on the other hand, means “one who wrestles/struggles/strives with God.” Jacob began life as an unlikely role model for his descendants, but ends life as one who accounts for his actions and answers to God.

We do not today refer to Abraham or Sarah as Abram or Sarai unless we are referring to those verses in the Torah where their names are still Abram and Sarai. Yet, with Jacob, sometimes we call him Jacob and sometimes we call him Israel. Why not only “Israel?” 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.”

Certainly, the coronavirus has demanded that we think creatively about how to stay connected as a community and serve the physical, educational and spiritual needs of our members. Thank God, therefore, we still carry some of the younger Jacob within us, albeit a more refined and sensitive Jacob.

As we look back on that night by the Jabbok River, we can identify with our ancestor who wrestles with God, angels and spirits and emerges stronger and nobler. As the Children of Israel, let use the skills and wisdom we have gained through our own experience to get us through this moment in history and continue to build a vital, stable, peaceful future for us and our world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

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