Vayishlach: By What Name Do You Call Yourself?

We come to Genesis 32:4ff and one of the great stories of Torah. Jacob, on his way back from Haran, is informed that Esau, the brother from whom he “stole” the family birthright a generation ago, is coming to confront him. Jacob, fearful that Esau will exact revenge, divides his entourage and finds himself alone by the river Jabbok the night before the two will meet. Again, the word “l’vado” (alone) we met in Genesis 2:18. Jacob is alone, he confronts his past, his fears and in that night he “wrestled” with a “man” (angel? self?) until dawn. This “man” could not overcome Jacob and Jacob asks for a blessing. “The (man) said to him (Jacob) what is your name? And he said, Jacob. No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with humans and prevailed”.(Genesis 32:29) Jacob and Esau do meet. The hurt of the past is not forgotten, but, it is, in a sense, forgiven. Each has prospered. They go off together for a while, symbolizing perhaps, that carrying hurts of the past for a life makes no sense as you cannot revisit that past.
What message can we take from this so powerful tale? We know that as we grow older, many see the foolishness of contining to hold on to past hurts. That can be self-destructive. There are many messages in this story. The change of the name from Jacob to Israel is, I feel, very important for us. I think one of the best interpretations of this name change is the belief that no matter what age we are, we are never too old to learn, to grow and to change. Most of us have reached a stage in life when we can reflect and try to learn from our pasts. We also understand that in our life we have had many identities. We have been called by so many different names. There is a Midrash that speaks to the names we are called during our life. Names that we are given, names that people call us or by which we are known. Yet, what is the most important name? It is what we choose to call our own self. This is not easy. All of us know people whose identity is shaped by what others project on them. Judaism, however, reminds us that what we choose to call our own soul and self is really who we are and, that we need not be afraid to re-create that name and identity throughout our life. That is a powerfully liberating concept.
Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min

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