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Parshat Vayishlach: Genesis 32:4-36:43; Obadiah 1:1-21.

At the outset of our weekly Torah portion, Jacob prepares to meet his brother Esau for the first time in many years. The last time they saw each other, Esau had promised retribution for Jacob’s stealing his blessing from their father Isaac.

After splitting his large family into two camps, Jacob is left alone and encounters a mysterious figure, who wrestles with him throughout the night. Before dawn, the man injures Jacob’s thigh, but Jacob emerges victorious; at which point, the antagonist proclaims that Jacob should no longer be called Jacob but rather Israel, a name that signals that he “took on man and God and prevailed.”

This enigmatic episode begs for an explanation. What does Jacob’s name change really mean and why is it through the name Israel that his descendants are known? 

Jacob’s original name carries an ambiguous meaning. The Hebrew name means heel (Jacob grabbed Esau’s heel when emerging from the womb) and it also means “to trick or deceive.” Indeed, Esau accused Jacob of tricking him twice, and Jacob also tricked his father-in-law Laban (perhaps deservedly) by tricking him into giving him extra cattle before he snuck away to return to Canaan. Until this point in our story, Jacob avoids direct encounters and prefers trickery, avoidance and deceit. 

Rabbi Josh Levisohn
Rabbi Josh Levisohn

That’s exactly the opposite of what is about to happen with Esau. Jacob is going to meet him directly, to confront the danger of his once-furious brother head on. No avoidance, no trickery. 

Before this confrontation, however, he meets the angel who fights with him. He doesn’t outfox him or deceive him, but he wrestles with him and overcomes him. It is a shift in the way that Jacob has operated; for that, the angel permanently changes his name from Jacob — the one who avoids and deceives — to Israel — one who encounters matters directly. 

Although Jews are the descendants of Jacob, we are called the people of Israel. Our charge is to leave aside the trickery and confront issues directly. 

We need to wrestle with our inclination to avoid confrontation because we are the people of Israel, the people who represent the transformed legacy of our forefather Jacob.

Throughout history, we have seen many exemplars among our Jewish ancestors who have seen injustice, who have recognized misfortune and who have taken it upon themselves to tackle these problems head on. This is our legacy as the people of Israel, and it continues to be our responsibility as a nation. 

Rabbi Josh Levisohn is head of school at Farber Hebrew Day School in Southfield.

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