One of the reasons that our ancestors in the Torah are so compelling is that they are not perfect. Instead, they are complex and complicated people who must grapple with the human condition and their own inner demons. They are not archetypes; they are not symbols; instead, they are like us, flesh and blood human beings with frailties and flaws.
And perhaps no figure in the Torah embodies this complexity more than Jacob, whose story unfolds from the time he is in his mother’s womb until the day he dies at the age of 147. We follow Jacob’s life as he basks in his mother’s love, deceives his father, cheats his brother, finds true love and marries her, prospers and grows rich with children and possessions, only to lose his beloved Rachel in childbirth, sees his only daughter raped, sows jealousy among his sons who then sell his favorite son Joseph into slavery, spends decades in mourning believing him to be dead, to be finally reunited with Joseph in his old age and die in a foreign land.
All his life, Jacob is torn between two sides of his character, which the Kabbalah calls the Sitra D’Kedusha – the Side of Holiness; and the Sitra Achra – the Other (dark) Side which impels us towards self-serving, evil behavior. At times Jacob appears humble, generous, loving, and honest. Yet he can also be self-serving, deceitful, thoughtless, and even cruel. The Kabbalists believe that there is a constant battle between the two sides to influence and direct every person’s soul.
In this week’s Torah portion, that battle turns literal when Jacob encounters a mysterious being who forces him to fight for his life.
“Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, I will not let you go until you bless me. Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied. “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and have prevailed.
Who is this mysterious “man?” Traditional commentaries hold that this was an angel, a Divine Messenger, but many modern scholars suggest that this wrestling match is actually a struggle within Jacob himself. A struggle between his Sitra d’Kedusha (his holy side) and his Sitra Achra (his dark side). A struggle between Jacob’s human tendency to do what is expedient and easier and the divine impulse within him to do what is right and just, no matter how difficult.
The Torah describes how after a night of wrestling, during which Jacob’s hip is wrenched out of his socket, the angel and Jacob are at a standstill, with neither side willing to concede. It is at this point that the angel asks to be released, but Jacob demands a blessing first.
The angel asks Jacob, “What is your name?” What is the meaning of this question? Doesn’t the angel know his name? The last time Jacob sought a blessing – when his father, Isaac asked him, “Who are you?” – Jacob lied and stole his brother’s birthright. This time, Jacob answers truthfully, “Jacob (the one who lied and deceived. I recognize and take responsibility for this).”
It is after this honest answer that the angel bestows a new name upon Jacob - Israel, as if to say, “Now that you are prepared to be truthful and face who you are, you are ready to shed that previous identity, and take a new one: Yisra-el, one who struggles with God. Now you know that by struggling, by striving, by grappling with God and God’s commandments, by fighting to connect with your holy side in the divine and human realms, you can prevail.”
In the Torah, to change your name is to signify a change in your nature and yet we know that after this seminal event, the Torah refers to our ancestor sometimes as Israel and other times as Jacob. He did not become perfect, rather he continued the battle for the rest of his life.
Perhaps that is why we Jews don’t call ourselves the children of Abraham or the children of Isaac, but rather the children of Israel. Because we also struggle with the dual impulses within us; we also vacillate between our holy potential and our human self-interest. And we understand that striving and struggling do not always result in success, despite our best efforts. Because we are all both Jacob and Israel.
The Midrash tells us that from this moment on, Jacob/Israel walked with a limp due to the injury to his hip as if to signify that struggling can be painful, difficult, and even lonely. How do I stand up for my values in a world that seems to devalue them? How do I remain committed to justice, peace, and tolerance when I am attacked by people who are blinded by hate? How do I maintain an open heart in a climate of vitriol and polarization?
This is our challenge and like Jacob, we are called to become Israel, to never give up, never give in, and be prepared to wrestle all through the night until the dawn finally breaks and the blessing is realized. And like Israel, we must recognize the Jacob within us and that the struggle is never over and our blessing must be renewed time and again.