The ultimate identity crisis
After Jacob stole the blessings intended for Esau in Parshat Toldot, he was forced to run for his life. He flees to the home of his uncle Laban in Charan, which is a home of idol worship and deceit. Jacob, who was raised in a home of morality, ethics, monotheism has to leave his sheltered environment and goes into a home of dishonesty where they do not believe in God or moral ethics. He then has to work as a shepherd in the field where it is scorching hot during the day and freezing cold at night.
“Jacob has lived for many years at his uncle Laban’s house, where he married his four wives, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. After 20 years he decides it’s time to return home to the Land of Israel.” 20 Years have passed since he received the blessings intended for his elder brother, Esau. Yet Jacob is still worried: Does Esau still hate me? Will he take revenge on me for having “stolen” the blessings? So Jacob sends messengers to Esau, who informs him that Esau indeed intends to kill him and he is coming after him with an army of 400 men. Jacob therefore prepares himself for this encounter with a three-pronged strategy: prayer to God, being ready for war, and sending a gift to appease his brother.
Before he meets Esau, a mysterious incident occurs: Jacob is confronted by an enigmatic man who wrestles with him and attempts to prevent him from going forward. “Thus Jacob remained on his own, a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” The classic question many commentaries ask, Who was this man? Why does the the Torah not tell us who this man was? Why the mystery?
The inner struggle
Perhaps Jacob was wrestling (and struggling) with himself. Perhaps he was reflecting on his life under the darkness of night all alone. He was facing his demons all on his own. And this is what this fight was all about. Jacob is the scholarly tent dweller, not a hunter like his brother. On the contrary, when he finally gets a job in the world it’s a job as a shepherd, a protector of animals not a hunter of animals. Esau seems to be doing much better than him. Esau is cool, macho, fearless hunter; one who can gather an army of 400 men to kill Jacob; a warrior. He is wrestling with his own name his identity, “Jacob”, which means heel. “Jacob is holding onto the heel of Esau”, he living in the shadow of his brother’s identity, and the way he steals the blessing from Esau reflects it too, הכי קרא שמו יעקב ויעקבני זה פעמיים It is here, during this night when he thinks to himself, do I want to continue living in the shadow of my brother thinking he has it better than me, or am I ready to embrace myself as Jacob no matter how good or bad things seem for me. His very self confidence was at stake, either be Jacob the peaceful scholar, or be like Esau the macho hunter. Be a heel and cling onto someone else, or embrace yourself and be confident and true to who you are and with your life’s mission, your role and responsibilities in this world.
What is in a name
“And the man said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” but he (Jacob) said, “I will not let you go unless you have blessed me.” “So he said to him, “What is your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” And then the man said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with God and with men, and you have prevailed.”
The first question begging to be asked, why did Jacob want a blessing from this “man” that wrestles with him? Secondly, what kind of a strange question does the man ask Jacob “What is your name”? Lastly, what is the significance of the name change from Jacob – Yaacov, to Israel – Yisroel?
When the man says “Let me go, for dawn is breaking” he is telling Jacob, now is the time for you to face your insecurities and make up your mind, will you embrace yourself and be confident and true to who you are, or, will you choose to be like Esau and Esau will hate you for it. As the sun is coming up, you need to make that decision.
The man tells him – your name means heel, and this Identity Jacob – heel -”Eikev”, you need to change this mentality, be your own person. To be blessed and respected by everyone including your sworn enemies, change your name to Yisroel which contains the letters of “Rosh” – “Head” embrace who you are and be proud of it. Stop having such a low self esteem like the heel, the lowest part of the body and you must stand up tall and be a head, a leader, the “Rosh” and do it proudly.
The struggle ends and Jacob proclaims that this clarity he just got was as if he saw God face to face, he calls this place Pniel. “And Jacob named the place Peniel, for [he said,] “I saw God face to face, and my soul was saved.” Jacob felt inspired and strong, and ready to face his own insecurities and face his brother Esau for the first time in over 20 years.
The epic encounter
“Jacob lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men” Jacob is frightened, yet something very interesting takes place. Imagine the moment when Esau with his army of 400 men finally catch up to Jacob, you would expect that the hunter Esau who had so much rage and anger to Jacob and wishes to kill him, suddenly everything stops and time freezes. We are expecting that Esau would be seething with anger and revenge; but instead he stops and greets his brother peacefully.
Jacob’s wives and children greet Esau and then Jacob gives the gift he has prepared for him. Esau declines the gift and says keep your gifts, I have plenty. But Jacob insists, “Please, If indeed I have found favor in your eyes, then you shall take my gift from my hand, because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of an angel, and you have accepted me.
For the first time Jacob shows Esau that he is a changed man, a man of his own. He is finally embracing who he truly is, and is comfortable with himself. Esau hated the Jacob who was not true to himself and who was trying to cling onto someone else’s identity, Esau’s. Esau wants him to be his own person and wants him to be confident with his role as a Jew and dedicate his life being a Jew along with the responsibilities a Jew has in this world.
When Esau and Jacob encounter each other, Esau right away senses that Jacob is no longer trying to be Esau, he is now Israel- Yisroel, he has his own identity, and it is now that Esau accepts Jacob. He feels accepted and respected by his brother Esau.
Then “Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan aram, and he encamped before the city there he erected an altar, and he named it “God is the God of Israel.”
By Chesky Holtzberg WHP’ 14 New Haven, CT