The episode in which the Jewish people acquired its eternal name – Israel – is from one of the most enigmatic stories in the entire Bible.
It occurred as Jacob returned home after fleeing 20 years earlier after his brother’s death threat. Esau had been enraged to discover that Jacob had deceived their father Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau.
The night before their confrontation, Jacob encounters a stranger:
Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overcome him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip and the socket of Jacob’s hip became dislocated….
Then the man said, ‘”Let me go for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
Jacob then said to him, “Tell me your name?” He replied: “Why do you inquire my name?”
And that concludes this strange episode, which raises many questions. Who was the mysterious man with whom Jacob struggled and why is the text so ambiguous about his identity? Why did Jacob want a blessing from his adversary? If the man did not know Jacob’s name, why did he attack him in the first place? Why did the anonymous man not give his name? What was it about this moment that forever bestowed the name Israel on the Jewish people?
The answer to all these questions lies in one more major enigma, an apparent contradiction in the Torah. The Torah first says that Jacob remained alone, which implies that no one else was present. But then the Torah continues the narrative, “And a man struggled with him till dawn.” If Jacob was alone, who was this other man?
No less strange is the actual encounter between Jacob and Esau.
Having heard that Esau was marching with an armed force of 400 men, Jacob was “very afraid and distressed.” He made elaborate preparations for his encounter with a three-pronged approach: diplomacy (he sent lavish gifts of herds and flocks), prayer, and readiness for war.
Yet when the brothers finally met, Jacob’s fears appear to have been unfounded. Esau ran to meet Jacob, threw his arms around his neck, kissed him, and wept. There is no anger, animosity, or vengeance. Esau had once vowed to kill Jacob and even now he was approaching with 400 men of combat. Why the sudden metamorphosis?
Every episode in the Torah depicts the timeless struggles of the Jewish people, collectively and individually. Every character in the Bible embodies components within our own psyches. This story is no different; the narrative of Esau and Jacob captures one of the most poignant themes of Jewish history.
If there is one thing that stands out about Jacob’s life it is that from the very beginning he sought to become his brother Esau, to assume his identity, to take on his persona. Jacob struggled with Esau in the womb. He was born holding on to Esau’s heel. He bought Esau’s birthright. He dressed in Esau’s clothes. He took Esau’s blessings. When Isaac asked Jacob who he was, he replied, “I am Esau, your firstborn.”
This is further supported by the Torah’s explanation of the name Jacob: Jacob (“at the heel” in Hebrew) was born grasping the heel of his elder twin Esau, and years later, when Jacob disguised himself as Esau to receive the blessings, Esau proclaimed: “No wonder he is called Jacob (which also means “cunning”). Twice he has deceived me: he has taken my birthright, and now he has taken my blessings.”
The first part of Jacob’s life was consumed by his struggle with his brother Esau – a struggle that began in the womb and continued with their contest over the birthright and Isaac’s blessings.
But this approach to life was faulty.
It didn’t work for Jacob because when you try to be someone else, you live in constant turmoil and anxiety. When you believe that your failure to shine is the fault of someone else who has “stolen” your destiny, you are destined for a life of insecurity and agony.
Nor did it work for Esau. He felt threatened in Jacob’s presence; he sensed that Jacob wanted what belonged to him and tried to stabilize his insecurity by killing Jacob.
And then, in the middle of the night, just hours before he encountered his brother, Jacob faced the defining crisis of his life, a crisis we all face at some point in our lives. It is the crisis of identity and the question, “Who am I?”
“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” Yet he was still alone, because the man he wrestled with was none other than himself.
In the midst of the battle, Jacob realized he was limping. He understood that his life had been based on the life of another human being. When you feel that the only way to define yourself is by mimicking others, you will never walk straight and erect. Lacking the confidence to be yourself, you will limp through life.
The Kotzker rebbe once said, “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.”
So Jacob asked his “inner man” to bless him, to bring him closure and healing, so he could become himself.
And the man’s blessing consisted of a name change, which essentially told Jacob to stop defining himself based on Esau – holding on his heel (represented by the name Jacob), seizing his blessings. The war must end; stop limping. Start celebrating your own life and destiny.
“For you have struggled with the divine and with men, and you have prevailed.” Embrace yourself and walk the path that was destined for you, not for Esau.
This brings us to the next scene. Esau met Jacob and instead of battling him, he embraced him. When Jacob finally made peace with Jacob, Esau, too, made peace with Jacob.
Now, we can understand why this is the defining moment when we obtained our name as a people – B’nai Yisrael, Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, the children, the nation, the land of Israel. The people of the covenant are not called the children of Abraham or Isaac but “the children of Israel” for this struggle is at the core of Jewish existence.
If you were to ask me what is the greatest struggle of the Jewish people, I would say this: Jacob wants to be Esau. He wants to look like Esau, dress like Esau, feel like Esau. If only he could peel away Jacob’s “nose” and become a perfect Esau, Esau would stop hating him. Anti-Semitism would fade away.
The Jewish comedian Groucho Marx once remarked: I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member.
Our destiny has brought us in contact with myriad cultures, civilizations, and empires whose outer appeal and beauty have captured our imagination. Many Jews have made it their greatest mission to become more like Esau than Esau himself – to become the quintessential Greek (Hellenist), Spaniard, German, Frenchman, Russian, or American. Some have even outdone the “originals” in pursuit of “normalization.”
A Jew was once mistakenly directed to sleep in the same train compartment as a general in the Russian czar’s army. When the conductor awoke the Jew in the pre-dawn darkness to disembark at his destination, he mistakenly donned the general’s uniform.
When he arrived at home, his wife asked him if he was all right. He took one look in the mirror and answered, “It seems the conductor woke the general instead of me.”
This strategy of assimilation – dressing in the cultural clothes of others – has proved futile for the people of Israel. To live with inner ambivalence is to live in constant turmoil and agony. Living in someone else’s identity creates confusion, anxiety, and insecurity.
Nor has it been healthy for Esau. Assimilation never cured anti-Semitism; if anything, it has exacerbated it. The less Jewish we act, the more the non-Jew becomes deeply suspicious and uncomfortable feeling that the Jew wants to “take over” his world. The non-Jew wants and needs the Jew to take the lead and be Jewish. The world will respect Jews who respect themselves. Esau will admire Jacob when Jacob learns to admire Jacob.
We must personally learn and teach our children that the future of our people and the world lies not in hiding our identity, our faith, and our heritage. The world wants Jews to stand tall and lead, not limp.