Each story in our Torah tells in some measure the story of our lives: a memory that is built from our very protoplasm, a consciousness that surfaces when we find a story that touches us, explains our being, informs our present and portends our future. Torah contains many such stories, and the one I speak about tonight is one that has touched me deeply, troubled me, changed me and continues to tell me who I am, where I come from, and where I am going: The eternal questions, the answer to why I study Torah, why Jews study Torah.
Jacob becomes Israel: I concentrate on only a few verses: Genesis 32:25-32. This cryptic tale takes place during the night after Jacob attempts to mollify his brother Esau - you remember this story, Jacob's mother Rebecca conceived when her husband Isaac asked the Lord to give her a child and she bore twins, Esau the red, the hairy, the hunter, and Jacob. Pay attention! Names are important in the Bible and to our own lives. Jacob, Ja-a-kov. The name evokes laughter, Ja-a-kov. It means the heel in Hebrew. Jacob emerges from the womb holding his brother Esau's heel. It also means to overreach - and to be deceitful. Jacob the overreacher, Jacob the deceitful, who lived, like all overreachers, like all deceiver, in anxiety and confusion.
You remember Jacob took Esau's birthright for a mess of pottage. And Rebecca insisted Jacob steal Esau's blessing. She disguised Jacob when Isaac was old and his eyes too dim to see, by putting hairy animal skins over Jacob's smooth skin. So Isaac gave Jacob Esau's blessing "May God give you the dew of heavens and the fat of the fields the Lord has blessed. Abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you. Be master over your brothers and let your mother's sons bow to you. Cursed be those who curse you and blessed they who bless you."
Esau cried for his own blessing and hated Jacob, harbored a grudge against Jacob and swore to kill him. Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to Haran, to his uncle Laban. There Jacob sees Rachel by the well and falls in love at first sight. There he is deceived by his uncle Laban and marries Leah instead of Rachel. Anxiety and confusion? Jacob often seemed not understand what was happening around him. He fell in love with Rachel but marries Leah of the weak eyes, the elder, tricked by Laban. How did that happen? Jacob didn't know, or did he?? - in this story of intrigue, he may indeed at some level have known, how could he not?? Whatever the motive, whatever the knowledge, Jacob indentures himself to Laban for 14 years to pay for this confusion. He has six sons during those years with Leah. He cohabits with Leah's maid Zilphah and fathers two more and then with Rachel's maid Bilhah and fathers two more after that. People have served him. Finally, after many years of barrenness, Rachel is blessed by God and bears Joseph, and then his last born son, Benjamin - 12 sons, the 12 Tribes of Israel. "Nations shall serve you." No, not quite yet. It is still Jacob. His sons give him nothing but trouble. He bears the blessing of Esau - he has carried out the prophesy of his mother's late conception. He has lived in deceit and with the burden of the blessing.
Twenty years pass - Jacob has become rich. He fears God. He has changed greatly. He now must return home to fulfill the prophesy: to meet his future, he must confront his past. Jacob is still greatly afraid Esau will kill him but he starts his journey and sends a message ahead to Esau. And he sends ahead the rich gifts, the munificent bounty of his 14 years of subjugation, across the stream so that perhaps his brother will forgive him. There is something to be said about these 14 years of indenturehood. What does he learns from those years: can we assume patience? kindness? tolerance? At least we know that he has become financially independent - some call his methods of obtaining that security trickery. Can we be kinder? Maybe those years signify a metaphor of toil, subjugation and ultimately of survival, even prevailing, that brings Jacob to the point where he can give away what he once had to steal. Esau, by now himself rich, does not need the gifts but Jacob remains frightened of confronting his past, and he needs to give the gifts even if Esau does not need to receive them. Jacob stays behind by himself, does not cross the stream, his gifts are sent on but he waits on the other shore by himself. Perhaps he cannot bring himself to confront Esau. He does not know how Esau will be changed after twenty years. Perhaps Jacob is, as Jacob is wont to be, anxious and confused. And not exactly ready to see Esau.
And so to the verses. I use the text from the Jewish Bible according to the Masoretic Text from Sinai Publishing: And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day/And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him./And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me./And he said unto him. What is thy name? And he said, Jacob./And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel, for as a prince has thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed./And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there./And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel; for I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved./And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him and he halted upon his thigh.
There are various translations from the Hebrew of the creature with whom Jacob wrestles. It may even be that Jacob thinks he is wrestling a demon from the stream that he has been afraid to cross. Or it may simply be a man, or a messenger from God, or an angel, or God Himself. Or could it be, as some say, a dream, so that Jacob wrestles with his own unconscious, personified as a man who asks his name?
Emily Dickinson, in "A little east of Jordan," calls Jacob the "bewildered Gymnast" who "found he had worsted God" and "sublimely inverts" the blessing and takes it for herself: "I will not let thee go except I bless thee." She takes the act upon herself and blesses the man, the angel, the messenger of God, God Himself. But Jacob in our story does not bless the other. He wrests a blessing from the man, and gets permanently damaged in the struggle. If we think of this as a dream, the injury may be metaphor - expressed as injury to the thigh muscle, or the hip joint. Whatever it is, Jacob limps, or walks haltingly in the morning to met his brother Esau after twenty years. Jacob is humbled.
The man asks Jacob his name - don't forget names. Jacob replies very simply "Jacob." And the man gives Jacob a new name: "your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and you have prevailed." From Ja-a-kov, the heel, the overreacher, the deceiver, the confused and anxious one, Ya-a-kov-el, the one whom God makes to limp, Ja-a-kov, the laughable - to Israel, the striver, Ya-shar-el, the one whom God makes straight.
Jacob becomes Israel only after he has striven with the mysterious "Beings divine and human and prevailed." Jacob insists on a blessing but the blessing is not specified. How are we to understand this story? The outlines are simple, the words are few, but the psychological impact is profound and powerful. Jacob's very sense of himself - his very self, from the moment of birth - literally hangs on his brother. And his mother. And his mother's view of him as not quite capable - a son for whom she has to lie and prevaricate and manipulate and devise schemes or he will never be able to fulfill her God given prophesy. We are never given a sense of Jacob's actual capabilities. We do not know much about Jacob. We have a physical description: he is smooth. Nor do we know if he is smart, or decisive or courageous, we do not know these things, that is, until he wrestles with the man. Until then, it is his mother who provides us all we know about Jacob - she dresses him in animal skins. She tells him to flee to Haran where Jacob promptly falls in love at first sight - a journey's time away from mom and his first action is to fall in love and then pay for it with 14 years of work.
And what of Jacob's father, Isaac? Is he really fooled by the feel of the animal skins on Jacob's arms? I think not. Isaac asks twice if this is Esau. Is this confusion of old age? Or is this, perhaps, conspiracy? In the end, Isaac bestows the blessing of founding a people on Jacob and Esau again gets a mess of pottage.
What are we to think of these, our patriarchs, our forbears? Isaac and Rebecca have taught Jacob that deceit begets family prosperity, that fulfilling a higher purpose demands conspiracy and manipulation, that the end justifies the means. It is not hard to imagine why Jacob continues to make bad mistakes, continues to be anxious and confused, that it would take divine intervention (if that is how we are to understand the wrestling in the night) to impel Jacob on his journey of change, of transformation, into adulthood.
Confronted by the man, Jacob, true to his name, hangs on. He does not quit even though he has now been broken. And not only does he hang on - he also asks for the blessing for himself. He asks. When he was younger he stole the blessing - his mother inspired, no, required him to receive the blessing - he was it seems a willing co-conspirator - after all, it appears he was some 35 years old at the time of the stolen blessing. But now, wrestling with the man, he demands the blessing, and, as Emily would have it - he blesses the wrestler. No conspiracy. No manipulation. Just straight out - "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
What is the blessing? It is not spelled out in this story. Perhaps the blessing is the new name. Jacob has been afraid to meet his brother. He does not cross the stream. He stays alone on the other side. He wrestles with the man. He is injured. He does not let go until he is blessed. He gets a new name. And in the morning, he limps toward his brother who, perhaps to Jacob's surprise, no longer seems to harbor the grudge, no longer wants to kill him. Again, we are given precious little detail. But Esau too has changed over twenty years. If the ages are right, the twins are now 55 years old. Hard to carry grudges - takes too much energy.
Can we expect that Jacob has changed overnight? Is this a miracle? No, I quote the very next chapter, 33:1: "Jacob saw." We are back to Jacob. But now Jacob is also called Israel. Perhaps two traditions, but intricately interwoven, like our own selves - intricately interwoven parts - not all of one thing or another, but caught by the heel, caught in the circle.
The rest of the Jacob story is summary. The wrestling in the night, I believe, is the denouement of Jacob's life. His son Joseph becomes the focus for the next chapters. But Jacob - Israel - moves at last from childhood to adulthood. Our tradition tells us, in so few words, what it is really like to become an adult. We can limp into our own future no matter what we have been taught, no matter how old we become, no matter how we have been damaged along the way, we continue to have the capacity to grow and change.
Some of my friends have asked me why I chose the story of a patriarch instead of one of the noble women of the Bible. They know I consider myself a feminist - why Jacob? Because I believe Jacob and the blessing he wrests from the man are interchangeable - if you read the passage for the first time it is difficult to know who is talking to whom, which line is whose - "I will not let thee go unless you bless me/I bless you." In the end, it comes to the same thing. Just as it comes to the same thing with male/female and with ends and means. Jacob's gender does not matter in this story. It is Jacob as archetype, Jacob as infant, Jacob as child, Jacob as sibling, Jacob as parent, and most of all, Jacob as striver/wrestler/prevailer, with whom I identify.
At some point in my own life barely knowing what I asked for, and not knowing the bounds of the journey, I asked for truth. And with that search for truth came a name change. I chose it myself. I shall say I chose to change my name but the rabbi can attest that did not come easily: it took several years and in the end, it was not a choice but a blessing.
Remember how important names are. My name, Baruch - it means blessed and praised. It is I who have learned to bless and praise. The promise that Jacob received, the blessing that he wrested from the man, the name change, has power in it. The power frees those of us who either seek it or are given it. Jacob, near the end of his sojourn on earth, called the days of the years of his life short and dark. I hope to be able to say near the end of my days that they have been long and light. I know that my Torah, my story, my heritage, my mess of pottage, my blessing, and my study will continue to bring me light and joy. And so may it be for you also . . .