The French Revolution was inspired by our own revolution with Britain; by the time that both revolutions had ended, the similarity between them ended as well. Once in power, the French revolutionaries turned their instruments of war against their own people in the Reign of Terror and the creation of an emperor, whereas the United States government was able to cobble together our Constitution and a working republic. It is not easy for leaders to shift from a revolutionary mindset to that of a politician, from a divider to a unifier.
This week’s Torah portion describes a similar struggle for our patriarch, Jacob. We learn early in the Torah that God creates by separating: first dark from light, upper waters from lower waters, oceans from dry land, and woman from man. In their own way, revolutionaries often create new countries by splitting a territory or separating from a former government. In our story, Jacob has parted from Esau 20 years ago after having separated Esau from his blessing and birthright. Jacob also separated from Laban after tricking Laban to fairly pay Jacob for twenty years of work. Laban pursued Jacob, presumably to attack him. After tense negotiations, they separated again, this time setting a pile of rocks to distinguish between Laban’s territory and Jacob’s. Separation and division created wealth for Jacob. He was born without blessing or birthright, but he returns to the Land of Canaan with bounty and enemies. As Jacob left that border created between himself and Laban, he entered unfamiliar territory. Rather than distancing himself from his problems or enemies, he was being directed by God to move toward them. Jacob’s well-honed skills of chicanery were not going to help him as he approached an enemy he had created.
As the Torah portion opens, Jacob is back to his old strategy of separation. As he nears his meeting with Esau, Jacob sends servants ahead with herds of goats, sheep, camels and cows as gifts, which he separates into three groups. This way Jacob can send several presents to Esau in wave after mollifying wave. His ploy seems futile as he receives reports that Esau is approaching with 400 men. Once again, Jacob resorts to separation, dividing his own camp into two smaller camps so that if Esau’s men attack, the other camp might escape.
It is often difficult for revolutionaries like Jacob to shift from opposition and separation to reconciliation and unification. Many, like the French Revolution’s Robespierre, never successfully transition. (It is an interesting accident of history that Robespierre, who separated the heads of noblemen from their necks, was a member of the Jacobin party.) Jacob’s shift, although never fully complete, was dramatic and painful, nevertheless. Only when Jacob was separated from his family and possessions could he realize the consequences of achieving his goals by destroying his relationships. He is left utterly alone.
Soon an unnamed man enters Jacob’s empty camp. We say that they “wrestled,” but according to Rashi, the word connotes intertwining, like wrapping the strings of a tzitzit. After spending his life separating, dividing, and fleeing, Jacob was struggling with the idea of coming together to solve conflicts. After a night of this so-called fighting, the text says that Jacob could not “prevail” against him, Yechal lo. But, without changing any of the letters, we can imagine that the word should read Yechalelo, meaning “include,” rather than “prevail.” Jacob was great at dividing and using trickery to grow his wealth, but he was never great at including people by convincing others to follow his lead. Nonetheless, we do see why his name deserves to change from Jacob — “heel grabber” to Israel — ”God wrestler.” While his usual connivances were unsuccessful, Jacob was able to see this man “face to face,” panim el panim. At some point during their fight, most probably when Jacob was struck by the man, he shifts from viewing this man exclusively as a tool for his own goals, to viewing him as a human being in and of himself. At that moment, he could see divine ideals reflected in his face and his name was changed to Israel.
Despite the name change, Jacob never fully becomes Israel. At times he continues to divide, but at other times, he becomes Israel and overcomes the barriers that divide. We, too, have a bit of Jacob inside ourselves, sometimes dividing people in order to achieve something important. But we should always aspire to our collective name of Israel, seeing the divine in one another and bringing people together in peace.