Toledot & Vayishlach: Face to Face

(This week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), the beginning of Joseph’s story. But before I write about Jacob’s favorite son, I have more to say about Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, and who he wrestles with–face to face and alone in last week’s portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43).)

Jacob spends the first sixty years of his life wrestling—with his brother, with his uncle, with God, and with himself—always maneuvering to steal the privileges he feels unentitled to due to birth or guilt.

Wrestling over a birthright

Twins wrestle in Rebecca’s womb at the beginning of the Torah portion Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:10). Esau is born first, so in the world of the ancient Israelites he is entitled to inherit twice as much of their father Isaac’s wealth as his brother. He is also slated to become the head of the extended family and to serve as its priest.

And after that his brother came out and his hand was hanging on to Esau’s akeiv, so they called his name Ya-akov. And Isaac was sixty years old when they were born. (Genesis 25:26)

akeiv (עָקֵב) = heel.

Ya-akov (יַעֲק‎ב) = “Jacob” in English. (From ya-ekov, יַעְקֺב  = he grasps by the heel, he cheats; from the same root as akeiv.)

The Birth of Esau and Jacob, by Master of Jean de Mandeville,
Bible Historiale, 1360’s

Even at birth, Jacob did not want to be left behind. Judging by his later attempts to cheat Esau out of his firstborn rights, this detail about his birth might even mean that Jacob was trying to pull Esau back so he could come out first.

Jacob gets his foolish brother to agree to swap his rights for a bowl of lentil stew.1 But there are no witnesses to that transaction, so he is still insecure. When their blind father, Isaac, summons Esau to receive a deathbed blessing, Jacob follows instructions from their mother, Rebecca, to impersonate Esau and appropriate the blessing.2 Then he flees to his uncle’s house in Charan so Esau will not murder him.

Wrestling with an uncle and a guilty conscience

Jacob spends twenty years in Charan in the Torah portion Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), wrestling verbally with his uncle Lavan, who also becomes his employer and father-in-law. Jacob’s first goal is to marry Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, but he arrives without any goods he can offer as a bride-price, and instead of bargaining with Lavan he generously offers to work for him as a shepherd for seven years. I believe Jacob handicaps himself because he feels guilty about impersonating Esau and lying to his father. (See my post Vayishlach: Message Failure.)

Lavan turns out to be no more honorable than Jacob was when he stole Esau’s blessing. In a surprise move, he switches brides on Jacob’s first wedding day, then gets him to agree to serve another seven years of unpaid labor so he can marry the daughter he wanted in the first place.3 Jacob’s guilt still prevents him from trying to make a better bargain.

But after fourteen years of service, Jacob wins the next round of bargaining by claiming the black sheep and spotted goats as his wages henceforth. Lavan agrees, then tries to cheat him by removing all the animals of that description from the flock ahead of time. But Jacob breeds more of them, and in six years he is richer than his uncle.4 Lavan and his kinsmen simmer with resentment.

Once again Jacob has to flee, this time heading back to Canaan with his large household and his flocks. His route skirts the land of Edom, where Esau has become the chieftain. In the Torah portion Vayishlach, he sends a propitiating message to his twin brother, and his messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Hastily Jacob assigns some of flocks to his servants to bring to Esau as gifts. Then he transports his whole family and the rest of his servants and flocks across the Yabok River, and returns to the other side alone.5

Wrestling the wrestler

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, by James J.J. Tissot, ca. 1900

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose. (Genesis 32:25)

At night this “man” apparently looks and feels like a human being, and even injures Jacob’s hip.6 But at dawn it becomes apparent that the wrestler is not human.

Then he [the “man”]said: “Let me go, because the dawn is rising.” And he [Jacob] said: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:27)

Desperate to protect himself and his family from Esau, Jacob has already sent his brother lavish gifts, and reminded God of their deal twenty years before.7 Now he tries to extract a blessing from the mysterious wrestler. What he gets is a second name.

And he [the “man”] said: “It will no longer be said [that] Ya-akov is your name, but instead Yisrael, because sarita with gods and with men and you have hung on.” (Genesis 32:29)

Yisrael (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = “Israel” in English. (Possibly yisar, יִשַׂר = he will strive with (a form of the verb sarah, שׂרָה = strive; prevail) + Eil, אֵל = God, a god. On the other hand, a subject usually follows a verb in Biblical Hebrew, so Yisrael could mean “Godwill strive” or “God will prevail”.)

sarita (שָׂרִיתָ) = you have striven with, prevailed over. (Another form of the verb sarah.)

The wrestler knows that Jacob has already striven with humans; he was born hanging onto his brother’s heel, and he maneuvered against Esau in Canaan, and Lavan in Charan. Now he has striven with a being that might be God, or at least one of God’s messengers.

And Jacob inquired and said: “Please tell me your name.” But he [the “man”] said: “Why do you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:30)

Perhaps the mysterious wrestler says “Why do you ask for my name?” because God’s angelic messengers have no names.8

Blessings are usually spelled out verbally in the book of Genesis,9 like prophecies and promises. But the statement that someone blessed someone else may follow or precede the actual blessing; the text does not bother about the exact chronological order. In this case, the unnamed messenger’s blessing is: “It will no longer be said [that] Ya-akov is your name, but instead Yisrael”.

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniyeil, “Because I have seen God panim to panim yet my life was saved.” (Genesis 32:31)

Peniyeil (פְּנִיאֵל) = Face of God (penei,פְּמֵי= face of + Eil).

panim (פָּנִים) = face, faces.

Jacob is now convinced that he wrestled until dawn with a manifestation of God.

But it also makes sense to say that Jacob wrestled with himself, as one aspect (or face, or camp10) of his psyche strove against another. Among the many commentators who have reached this conclusion are Shmuel Klitsner, who wrote that Jacob’s conscious mind wrestles with his unconscious;11 Jonathan Sacks, who wrote that the person he wants to be wrestles with the person he really is;12 and David Kasher, who wrote that his instinct to use guile in order to achieve control wrestles with his underdeveloped faith in God.13

Perhaps the question “Why do you ask for my name?” arises because one side of Jacob already knows he is wrestling with himself.

Ya-akov and Yisrael meet face to face at dawn. Neither side wins the wrestling match. The stalemate at dawn could be a triumphant integration. But it does not last. After Jacob/Israel settles at Shekhem in the land of Canaan, his sons begin taking control over the family away from him.

For the rest of his life, he alternates between complaining about being cheated by his sons, and calmly doing what he must while leaving outcome to God.

It is hard to walk your own path in life instead of trying to get what someone else has. And it is hard to find peace and clarity when you have a pair of camps facing one another inside you.

I spent the first sixty years of my own life wrestling with myself. On one side, I want to do all the right things for other people; on the other side, I want to succeed at my calling. Age has refined my ethics and softened my desire for public success. I am still a pair of camps confronting one another. But now when I face my other self, I smile in recognition.

  1. Genesis 25:29-34. See my 2011 post Bereishit & Toledot: Seeing Red.
  2. Genesis 27:1-30. See my 2012 post Toledot: Rebecca Gets It Wrong.
  3. Genesis 29:15-30. See my post Toledot: Unrequited Love.
  4. Genesis 30:25-43.
  5. Genesis 32:4-24. See last week’s post, Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Pair of Camps, and my 2021 post, Vayishlach: Message Failure.
  6. Genesis 32:26 implies that the wrestler dislocates Jacob’s hip, but Genesis 32:33 implies an attack of sciatica.
  7. Genesis 32:10-13, in reference to Genesis 28:10-22.
  8. According to Judges 13:16-18 and Genesis Rabbah 78:4.
  9. See Genesis 9:1-7, 12:2-3, 14:19-20, 16:10-12, 22:15-18, 24:60, 26:2-4, 27:28-29, 27:39-40, 28:1-4, 35:9-12, 48:10-16, 48:20, and 49:1-28. Exceptions are Genesis 32:1 and 47:7.
  10. See last week’s post, Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Pair of Camps.
  11. Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 126-127.
  12. Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, “Be Thyself: Vayishlach 5781”.
  13. David Kasher, ParshaNut, “The Man in the Midrash”, Parshat Vayishlach.

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