Ethical Insight: Wrestling with our Egos

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Kari Tuling

In the Torah portion Vayishlach, Jacob is faced yet again with deception in the hours of darkness.

The first deception, back in Parashat Tol'dot, was his own doing, when he took advantage of his father's blindness to steal his brother's blessing, at his mother's prompting (Genesis 25:19-28:9).

The second deception, in Parashat Vayeitzei, was when his uncle, Laban, substituted Leah for his beloved Rachel under the wedding canopy and Jacob did not notice until morning (Genesis 28:10-32:3).

This time, he is wrestling in the dark, with someone who will not tell him their name or their reasons for being there. The angel asks for his name, and Jacob is faced with a choice: will he likewise refuse to reveal his own identity?

At the time of the first deception, Jacob did not really understand how his trickery would hurt his brother Esau; now, having been tricked several times himself, he has greater empathy. Pausing to reflect on these experiences, he finally understands the shame and humiliation that his brother felt.

Hermann Cohen, the neo-Kantian Jewish philosopher, argues that morality is born when we understand how another person feels. Up until that moment, we have no sense of why a given action - such as tricking our brother - might be wrong or unethical. It is when we realize they hurt just like we do that we can make moral choices. In fact, all of ethics can be summed up as follows: I should not hurt my fellow beings because they hurt just like I do. Ethics begin with empathy.

This time, Jacob gives his name when asked: Jacob, the supplanter.

Our tradition has it that it was an angel who wrestled with Jacob, which is implied when the angel changes Jacob's name to Israel. As the angel explains to Jacob, "Israel" means "the one who struggles with God."

For much of his life, Jacob struggles ethically to hear God's call to be his best self. It's not always clear what is being asked of him. He doesn't always understand what it means to be ethical.

In this sense, we can all understand Jacob: we all have our shadow side, the part of our personality with which we often wrestle: will we be our best, highest self, or will we be overcome? Will we hear the call to be a good person and treat others well, or will we instead fall prey to self-serving half-truths? We always feel justified, regardless of how we've acted. We are always the hero in our own story.

However, we grow out of this narcissistic self-regard into true maturity when we heed the ethical insight that others can be hurt. That's when we can restrain our own ego and see the world through God's eyes.

Like most names in the Torah, "Israel" has layers of meaning. According to the "Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language,"the root-stem for this word is made up of the Hebrew letters shin-resh-hey, which means "to fight, strive, contend." Interestingly, however, the word is also related to the root-stem shin-resh-resh, which means "to rule, reign, dominate." Thus, the word is a bit of a pun: in this case, "El" (God) would be the subject of the sentence, rather than the direct object, and so the name would mean "God-will-reign." In that reading, regardless of how Jacob may struggle, God is still in charge.

In the Jewish mystical tradition, the goal of Jewish prayer and observance is to let go of one's ego and become a vessel for enacting God's will. The question for Jacob/Israel is: which side will rule, the striving, self-involved egoistic self, or the ethical, principled, divine view?

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