This week’s parsha, Vayishlach, opens with the patriarch Jacob wrestling with a strange and murky figure, often described as an angel. They wrestle through the night, neither one attaining victory, until as dawn breaks Jacob pins the angel, but takes a permanent injury to his leg in so doing. The angel, as reward for his victory, gives Jacob a new name. No longer is he Ya’akov, the supplanter, the taker of things that are not rightfully his, but Yisrael, the one who struggles and wins.
This new name is more accurate than even the moment might indicate. This is the first moment in Jacob’s life that he handles challenges head-on. Jacob has tricked the birthright out of Esau, tricked the blessing out of his blind father, and tricked his wealth out of Laban. He ran away from Esau, who wanted him dead, and Laban, who certainly wasn’t happy with him. He ignores the conflict among his wives and children, and even exacerbates it at times by hiding his favored wives and children at the back of the caravan, while leaving his less favorite exposed at the front. This moment is the first time Jacob has engaged with his problems, instead of avoiding them.
The rabbis wonder about the identity of the wrestler with Jacob, who never identifies himself. Some claim this is Esau, quietly scouting ahead to test his brothers mettle. Others say this is an angel, sent for reasons known only to God. I favor the explanation that this is Jacob himself, in the form of his sitra atra – his dark negative.
We all have one of these, though we struggle to admit it. We claim to have a good work ethic, when really we are ambitious, or just workaholics. We say we are just being honest, when what we are really being is cruel. We disguise our gossip and backbiting as concern, our hypocrisy as keeping the peace. Our defensiveness becomes righteous anger, our cowardice, discretion. It is only in acknowledging our sins and struggling with them that we emerge new-named, as the person we were always meant to be.