That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip. –Genesis 32:23-32 (JPS Tanakh)
As he prepared to face Esau, Jacob experienced a strange mystical encounter with God. He had sent his family, his servants and his possessions across a river ahead of him. He was about to follow when he was suddenly attacked by an assailant. Jacob wrestled the man through the night. The attacker turned out to be none other than the angel of the LORD.
“A Life-Changing Encounter”
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) commentary on
Torah Portion Vayishlah
I know. Everybody teaches and writes on Jacob wrestling with the angel. It gets a little cliche’ after awhile. Who was the angel? Was it Jesus? Was it God? Was it Jacob’s “evil inclination?” Was it the angel embodying the spirit of Esau? All of the above, some of the above, none of the above? Who knows?
And what does it have to do with us?
The FFOZ commentary goes on to say that the name change of Jacob to Israel, as a result of the patriarch’s encounter with the Divine, altered the course of his life, changing his nature from “trickery and deceit” to one who is “authorized to receive the blessing.” The commentary concludes with this:
A genuine encounter with God is life-changing. It is a sort of wrestling match. The apostles teach us that, through faith in Yeshua, we are born again as new creations. In Messiah we have a whole new identity. Paul speaks of our old identity as the “old self.” He declares that, for the believer, the “old self was crucified with [Messiah], in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). “Therefore if anyone is in Messiah, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The commentary assumes, like Abraham before him (Genesis 17:5), that Jacob’s name was changed immediately and permanently and that “Israel” would never be referred to as “Jacob” again.
So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.” And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”
So Jacob set out from Beer-sheba. The sons of Israel put their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to transport him; and they took along their livestock and the wealth that they had amassed in the land of Canaan. Thus Jacob and all his offspring with him came to Egypt: he brought with him to Egypt his sons and grandsons, his daughters and granddaughters — all his offspring.
These are the names of the Israelites, Jacob and his descendants, who came to Egypt. –Genesis 46:1-8
As you can see here, the names “Jacob” and “Israel” seem to be used interchangeably. Unlike Abraham who was never called “Abram” again after his name was changed, Jacob seemed to exist as both “Jacob” and “Israel” depending on the situation or the role he was playing. Someone once told me that the patriarch was called “Jacob” when he was being referred to as an ordinary person and “Israel” when he was fulfilling his prophetic and “national” role. I have no idea if this is correct or not, but it seems to fit what we read in the Torah.
But what does this have to do with us and encountering God as if we were meeting a stranger along our path? How are we changed by that meeting and what is the nature of the change?
From a personal point of view, I feel the “aftermath” of my personal encounter with God (coming to faith) is more like Jacob’s than Abraham’s. I feel like my “name change” isn’t quite permanent, and that I toggle back and forth between one nature and the other. I know you probably think that’s a terrible thing to say. After all, who can deny that once we come to faith in Jesus, that we are changed to a “new man” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and that we’ve left our old sin nature completely behind us. Of course, my struggle could be an indication that I’m “double-minded” (James 1:8) which is certainly not a good thing.
But do we abruptly change? Really?
Poof! All at once, you came to faith and transformed into a completely new human being that has absolutely no resemblance to the person you were ten seconds before? Really?
It didn’t happen that way for me. Not by a long shot.
After I came to faith and even after I was baptized in the Boise River, I didn’t suddenly feel like an emotional and spiritual stranger to my “former self”. In fact, I was disappointed to discover that I felt and thought in exactly the same way as I did the day before. What a let down. I was expecting this mystical transformative experience, but it didn’t happen that way.
In fact, over many, many years, my life has gone through various twists and turns, some of which were extremely unpleasant, and looking back, I can see that my way of looking at things and reacting to my surroundings and to people has very gradually begun to change. In fact, the process is still going on today, although at a pace that would make a glacier’s movement seem like the electric speed of “Lightning McQueen” in the Pixar film Cars (2006).
There are times when I experience my life as truly different than it was before I came to faith. Sadly, there are times when I still feel like that flawed and limited human being I was before I even considered the idea that there is a God. In fact, I don’t ever think I’ve felt “perfect” in anything (Matthew 5:48).
I don’t think “perfection” is something we achieve and then rest on our laurels but rather, I think a life of faith and unity in God is a goal was always strive for. Some days are better than others. Some days can be just lousy. Occasionally, we are magnificent, but I think for most of us (especially me), those days are rare.
There are times when I just want to know it all and to be it all but it’s sort of like my goals at the gym. No matter how much I psych myself up for a workout, when I actually hit the machines, I can only lift so much weight so many times, and then I run out of gas. Sometimes I exceed my expectations, sometimes I fail miserably, and most of the time, I break even. Kind of disappointing to shoot for the stars and to land in the mud.
Tear off a piece of your bread before you eat. You cannot fit it all into your mouth.
Do the same with wisdom. For Truth does not begin with Mind.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Wisdom and Bread”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. –1 Corinthians 9:24
I’ve always been such a terrible runner. I don’t know if that means I’m not really “in Christ” and thus I never transformed into that mystical, magical “new creature,” or if this is what most believers experience (or would admit to if it is their experience) most of the time. From where I sit in the mud, having fallen down in my race in the rain for the ten-thousandth time, a life of faith is lived one day at a time and the bread is eaten one chunk at a time. In the end, God will make the judgment about whether or not I’m good enough for what comes next. All I can do is drag my sweaty, out-of-shape body out of the mud hole one more time, and try to force my dead, lead-heavy legs to run for one more mile. As I rise to run the race again, I strain to see if the sages understand this puzzle.
As we apply ourselves to our mission, we also internalize it. Not only do we effect changes in the world, we ourselves change. Just as an agent must be identified with his principal, we must give ourselves over to G-d’s will and identify with it.
There are tzaddikim, righteous men, whose commitment to G-dliness dominates their personality; every aspect of their being is permeated with G-dliness. Their thoughts and even their will and their pleasure reflect G-d’s.
This, however, is a rung which most people cannot attain. But the second level in which each person remains an independent entity although his deeds are not his own is within the reach of more individuals. For the mitzvos we perform are not human acts; they are G-dly, so a person who performs them selflessly expresses their inner G-dly power.
There are individuals at an even lower level; they are not concerned with the G-dly nature of the mitzvos they perform. Nevertheless, they perform mitzvos for even “the sinners of Israel are filled with mitzvos as a pomegranate is filled with seeds” and the consequences of the deeds they perform represent an expression of G-d’s will. Thus they also contribute toward the transformation of the world.
Regardless of the differences between individuals, all mankind possesses a fundamental commonalty: we are all G-d’s agents, charged with various dimensions of a shared mission. The setting in which each individual functions, the task he is given, and the intent with which he performs it may differ, but the goal is the same.
This is the message of Parshas Vayishlach : that every one of us is a shliach, an agent of G-d.
-Rabbi Eli Touger
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayishlach
“Changing Ourselves as We Change the World”
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IX, pgs. 323-324;
Sefer HaSichos 5748, p. 138ff;
Sichos Simchas Torah, 5748
We are each an agent of God. We are sent. We run. We fall. We get up and run again.
Addendum: Rabbi Joshua posts a more conventional interpretation of this Torah reading at Yinon Blog.