Ramban, one of our great medieval scholars, famously argues that the book of Genesis should be read as a template for Jewish history. Maaseh avot siman li banim – the action of our ancestors presage the lives of their descendants. How does this week’s Torah portion inform our generation’s experience of Jewish history?
To answer this question, we must recall the saga that is Jacob’s life until this moment. Jacob left the land of Canaan under fear of death from his brother Esau after “stealing” his brother’s blessing. Jacob finds refuge in his uncle’s house where he works for the right to marry his cousin Rachel. But in this safe haven, we see Laban take advantage of his nephew Jacob. He exploits Jacob, changing his wages time and again, and finally tries to prevent his nephew’s departure. Jacob survives these travails miraculously and leaves with a fortune in money and property.
Jacob returns home to face his brother Esau. Hearing that Esau has assembled 400 armed men to join him for their reunion, Jacob has every reason to believe that Esau will now make good on his threat to kill his brother. But just before the encounter with Esau, we find a bizarre, enigmatic passage in our Torah portion. Jacob is alone at the Yabok river and is accosted by a man with no name. They wrestle until dawn. Jacob never gives in, and on account of his determination, the man blesses Jacob, telling him his name will now be Israel, meaning “one who wrestles with God.” The man, we come to learn, is an angel.
This is not the first time someone in Genesis has a divine encounter that results in a name change. Abraham was originally called Abram (exalted father), but had his name changed to Abraham, “the father of many nations.” Never again do we hear Abraham called by his former name. Indeed, the Talmud says it is forbidden to do so. Jacob, on the other hand, is referred to as either Jacob or Israel for the rest of the Torah.
As a name, Jacob is less than noble. The Torah gives two different etymologies for the name Jacob. Either it comes from ekev, the word heel, because Jacob grabbed Esau’s heel at birth. Or it comes from yavkeini, Esau’s exclamation, “I have been tricked!” when Jacob “buys” Esau’s birthright. A heel grabber denotes the vulgar ambition of a usurper. A trickster is one who uses his smarts not to enlighten, but to deceive. Israel, on the other hand is a more dignified name. It denotes one who struggles with God and never gives up.
Quoting the Talmud, Rabbi Isaac Hutner argues in his work Pachad Yiztchak, that this name change is a metaphor for the experience of Jews today. It is Jacob who is full of ambition and a drive to succeed. It is Jacob who seeks prestige in the eyes of his parents and history. It is Jacob who amasses a fortune. Israel, alternatively, is one who looks beyond prestige, financial and societal success measures and asks the big questions: What really makes for a meaningful life? How do I serve God? These are not easy questions, and there is not a single, monolithic answer. They are an ongoing work in progress, questions that must be continually revisited. They are a struggle through the long night of history and life, and we must never give in, and put these questions to rest. Each of us starts out a Jacob, but we try to become an Israel.
College is a time of extraordinary self-focus. We find ourselves, consciously or not, asking the big questions: “who am I?” “What should I do with my life?” “Who do I want to become?” “How will I succeed in relation to others?” It is tempting to settle for the answers of Jacob. It is tempting to imagine that prestige, success in a career, or financial security is the only answer to these eternal, human questions. But getting an education in college is more than an instrumental task. In addition to getting a job, it is about learning how to live a meaningful life. This is the task of becoming Israel. It is a task we must continually challenge ourselves to engage. This can be the task of Hillel.
At the end of all his struggles, we find Jacob arriving at the city of Shechem. The Torah says he arrived “shalem” – whole, or complete. The Talmud asks about this adjective. What constitutes “completeness” or fulfillment for Jacob. The Talmud, in the name of Rav, comments “He arrived complete – physically intact, financially intact, and with all of his Torah.” An arrival at our destination in the journey in life means we must prepare our bodies and careers, but we must also prepare spiritually.
Written by Rabbi Dan Smokler, senior Jewish educator for the Schusterman International Center.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Vayishlach at MyJewishLearning.com.