Ready to go home twenty years after fleeing, Jacob has to reconcile with his brother Esau. He has a dream on the way and encounters a divine messenger. Jacob is renamed Israel, meaning "struggles with God." Our narrative leaps forward in time to the moment when Jacob's children are now adults and his daughter, Dina is raped. Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi avenge the crime.
In the second aliyah, Jacob wrestles with the figure. The third aliyah begins with Jacob naming the site of this event:
For I have seen God face-to-face, yet my life has been spared. (32:31)
Jacob's astonishment is reasonable, given the general understanding conveyed by God to Moses when the later seeks a direct personal revelation:You cannot see My face, for a human being may not see Me and live. (Exodus 33:20) However, this idea is not conveyed consistently: The Eternal would speak to Moses face to face, as one person speaks to another. (Exodus 33:11) Again in the final verses of Deuteronomy (33:10), we learn that Moses is the one person who know God intimately, whom the Eternal singled out, face to face, contributing mightily to the claim that Moses was unique in his prophetic status. Our story may be confusing because the text tells us that a man wrestled with him (Genesis 32:25), but when Jacob asks the figure to bless him, he is told, You have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailedas an explanation for his new name. Jacob draws the reasonable conclusion that he has confronted God. This ambiguity is purposeful and significant, blurring the distinction between humanity and divinity.
The word translated above as "God" is Elohim in Hebrew. The second century translation Targum Onkelos renders "angel of God." Alter explains, "The Hebrew term elohim is a high concentration point of lexical ambiguity that serves the enigmatic character of the story very well. It is not the term that means 'divine messenger' but it can refer to divine beings…. It can also mean simply 'God,' and in some contexts-could this be the one?-it means 'gods.'" (The Five Books of Moses, 181) Jacob himself could not identify the being with which he struggled. In the verse preceding the one translated above, Jacob asked, " Pray tell me now your name." But he [the being] said, "Why do you ask my name?" And then he took his leave of him. (Genesis 32:30) Even Jacob was confounded. If he had indeed seen God, he did not recognize him at the time of the struggle. If this nighttime incident is to remain covered in darkness, it is nonetheless important for us to consider how and why Jacob was changed as a result of it.
Commentators can interpret face to face symbolically, since God has no physical form. But Jacob's encounter was intensely physical. He is injured and leaves the scene limping. The figure tells Jacob/Israel that he has prevailed, yet he is weakened and scarred. The struggle has its rewards but also leaves us radically diminished. Jacob says that although he has seen God, his life has been spared. The Hebrew word nefesh translated as life can also be translated as spirit, soul or life-breath. Perhaps we can understand that his body is changed but his essence is in tact. "Matter is never destroyed,/only transformed./So, too, can the soul evolve/higher and higher" (Maller in Mishkan T'filah, 197).
Rashi's commentary on the verse in which Jacob's name is changed (32:30) teaches that none of us has only one fixed name. Our names keep changing depending on the command of the mission we are sent to fulfill. Many people change their names when they marry, add titles or evolve nicknames. Even our names for God change depending on the quality on which we are focused: Eternal, Ruler, Protector, Parent, Creator. The name is used to recall a moment that defined an aspect of character. It is interesting to note that Jacob is not exclusively called Israel in the Biblical narrative from here on; rather, Israel and Jacob are both his names and are used at different times.
Like Jacob, we may only realize the significance of the impact on our character in retrospect. Our story portrays a physical and visible change in Jacob, but that pain can heal. The mark that intense experiences leave on us is often hidden and much more permanent than a physical alteration. What Jacob saw and struggled with forever changed his personality. As uncertain as he may have been about who was the being, he left the meeting with a new name and a new role. None of us is Jacob who became Israel and it would be reductionist to suggest otherwise, but we can nevertheless consider applications of his experience to our own as a people and as people. How many times have we had a life altering experience, when we did not become an entirely different person, but we knew that we somehow were not the same even as the result of a chance encounter? Our encounters with the divine, be it God or the divine image in each of us, change us, as long as we are open to the struggle.
- Jacob's new name, Israel, is the collective name of our people. How are we a people who struggle with God?
- What names of God have the most resonance for you? That is, with what qualities of God do you most identify God? How does the name you choose mirror your relationship with God and your own understanding of your mission in life?
- There is a Jewish mystical tradition of the Lamed Vavnik (Hebrew for 36), a name referring to any one of the 36 righteous people who sustain the world and will, ultimately, bring about their redemption. The tradition teaches that the identities of these 36 are unknown, so we must treat everyone as if they were one of them and therefore hasten the redemption of the world. How would the way you treat people, even those whose names you don't know, change if you thought they were one of the 36?
For Further Learning
The question of whether Jacob saw God's face is a complex one. In the priestly benediction, God's face is also referenced: May the Eternal lift up God's face to you, and grant you peace. (Numbers 6:26) Parents recite this blessing to their children every Shabbat while placing a hand on the child's head. Try incorporating it into your family Shabbat ritual. Since God has no physical face, what does it mean to have God's face lifted to you?
Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 217–237; Revised Edition, pp. 218–240;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 183–208