Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Genesis 32:4 - 36:43

At the beginning of this week's parashah, Jacob sends messengers ahead to his estranged brother Esau, who has a large assembly of men coming toward Jacob and his family. The night before he meets his brother, Jacob wrestles with the angel (perhaps one of those whom he had seen previously in a vision of the ladder to Heaven) who changes his name to Israel. The meeting with Esau goes peacefully. When Jacob and his family arrive at the town of Shechem, his daughter Dinah is sexually assaulted by the prince of the town, and Jacob's sons go on a violent rampage in retribution. Both Rachel and Isaac die and are buried. The parashah ends with a review of all Isaac’s descendants.
Early in the parashah, Jacob encounters once again an angel (messenger). The importance of this is perhaps two-fold. He not only wins an argument (receiving a blessing in return) but has his name changed (to Israel{perhaps, God-wrestler}). Hear the dialogue and feel the tension: "Then he (the angel) said, 'Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.' He [Jacob] replied: 'I will not let you go unless you bless me.' He said to him, 'What is your name?' He answered, 'Jacob.' He said 'No longer will your name be Jacob, but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.'" (Genesis 32:26-28). The giving of a name often discourages further inquiry into the nature of the one with whom one has had contact. However, Jacob holds on until he can reach some understanding of the moment; at the end of the struggle, the mystery wrestler announces that Jacob, like his grandfather Abraham, will receive a new name. By asking Jacob's name, and getting the reply "Jacob," the messenger can more dramatically announce the new name by which Jacob will be known.
Let us further pursue this “name” change, for it brings to mind other episodes in which God, or His messenger(s), appear to be casually talking with the person about whom God is preparing him for a new direction and purpose. The first example offered of a rhetorical question is from the story of the Garden of Eden----'where are you?” God asks, knowing full-well the answer.  A second example comes from Moses' experience as he is chosen to represent the people. When Moses doubts that the people will believe that God has sent him, God turns Moses' staff into a snake, prefacing the miracle with the question "what is in your hand?"  Again, as the previous question was asked of Adam and Eve both Moses and God knew exactly what was in Moses' hand, just as the wrestler knew Jacob's name and God knew where Adam and Eve were.
Torah stories of encounters with the Divine tend to be terse and focused. In each of the three stories an example of a rhetorical question is offered and the main character is about to begin a new chapter in life--Adam is about to leave the Garden, Jacob is about to meet his long-estranged brother, and Moses is about to confront Pharaoh. Perhaps the question is not merely a conversation-opener, but the main point of the conversation. In the case of Jacob, the messenger seems to want Jacob to think deeply about the meaning of his name, which we learned at his birth would represent the depth of his troubled relationship with his brother. (Cf. Genesis 25:25-27 and 27:35-37.).
The messenger knows not just Jacob's name, but his history--he's asking if Jacob has wrestled sufficiently with his own identity. "What is your name," in this context, can be understood as "are you still Jacob, the deceiver, or are you ready to become Israel, the person of conscience?" What's so striking about our passage is that Jacob receives a question in response to his demand for a blessing--it seems to me that the question itself is the blessing he receives. The right question, at the right time, from the right person, can change a person's life, enabling them to see and understand themselves in an entirely new light. When God asks a question, it's not for the sake of an answer, but for the sake of an inner response, a change in the person.
Who am I? What is the name I have made for myself, and what is the name I am capable of achieving? Just to ask the question can move us towards a better answer--just to ask the question, and thus demonstrate our capacity for growth and introspection, is one of the greatest blessings we have as human beings.

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