Parshat Vayishlach: “For you have struggled… and you have prevailed”

Parashat Vayishlach: “For you have struggled with God and with men, and you have prevailed”

As Jacob returns to Beit El, a dramatic change occurs. Jacob undergoes a transformation and recognizes that it was G-d who was revealed to him ­– not angels. It is important for us to recognize this process today as well.

by Yinon Ahiman, Director General
Ohr Torah Stone

Jacob’s name was changed twice into the name “Israel”. The first time was after Jacob wrestled with the “man” that remained alone when he crossed the ford of Jabbok, and the second time was when G-d Himself changed Jacob’s name after he had built Him an altar at Beit El. Jacob isn’t the only one whose name was changed in the Tanach; this happened to many other Biblical protagonists, like Sarah, Abraham, Joshua. Yet Jacob is the only one whose name was changed twice. To what end? Why is his name changed twice?

The clue to the answer lies in what the “man” says, the “man” who changes Jacob’s name the first time. When he explains to Jacob what had driven him to change Jacob’s name, he answers: “for you have commanding power with God and with men, and you have prevailed.” When we try deciphering this cryptic message, we easily discern Jacob’s struggles against other people, such as his struggle against Laban and Esau, and perhaps, Jacob’s physical struggle against the “man”. Where, though, had Jacob struggled against G-d?

To answer this question, we need to take a closer look at Jacob’s connections with G-d throughout his life, from the time he fled Haran, until the second time his name is changed. The theological journey Jacob takes, which lasts his entire life, is essentially a struggle against himself over his faith.

At the very outset, when he fled his father’s house in Haran, Jacob dreams of something wonderful – Jacob’s ladder. His response to the dream seems a bit surprising. He is indeed awestruck by the profound spiritual experience, but he conditions his posture towards G-d on the fulfillment of a vow he takes. If we read the text of Jacob’s vow carefully, we’ll discover that Jacob is essentially setting terms for G-d: only if G-d helps him in his future journey will he recognize Him and accept His sole divinity.

As Jacob’s stay with Laban draws to a close, G-d reveals Himself to Jacob and tells him explicitly that he must leave Laban’s house and return to the land of his birth – the land of Canaan. When Jacob describes this revelation to his wives, he doesn’t associate it directly with G-d. Rather, he portrays the event as the revelation of one of G-d angels. Jacob simply can’t accept that G-d had been speaking to him directly.

Furthermore, when Jacob creates a pact with Laban, he builds a heap of stones, called a Gal-Ed, where he offers up sacrifices. To our astonishment, the heap of stones wasn’t built just for the G-d of Abraham, but also for the G-d of Nahor: “May the god of Abraham and the god of Nahor judge between us, the god of their father.” Ostensibly, there wasn’t just one god involved – there was the god of Abraham, along with another god who was his equal counterpart, the god of Nahor. Yet on his return trip to Beit El, a dramatic change occurs. Jacob undergoes a transformation, recognizing having experienced a direct revelation of G-d, not just a revelation of angels. Before reaching the Jabbok ford, Jacob was still struggling with G-d, and as we see from the verses, he hadn’t attained the level of absolute faith. He still had “many questions” and was still seeking his path. Now, after returning to Israel, he receives a signal, in the form of a name change, that this stage is now over. Apparently, Jacob himself recognizes that this change has occurred, naming the location “Peni’el”, out of an understanding that he had seen G-d face to face. Jacob didn’t really intend that he had seen G-d’s face at that very spot. Actually, it was there that he realized that all of the previous revelations were direct revelations of G-d.

Jacob understood that he had previously met G-d face to face. Thus when Jacob returns to the very spot he had made his vow to leave Haran, he does something to reaffirm that change. Jacob orders his entire household to rid themselves of the false deities they were carrying (Genesis 31:53). At this point, there was no longer any room for two gods, the god of Abraham and the god of Nahor, anywhere in Jacob’s vicinity. There was only room for one. Jacob changes the name of that location from Luz to Beit El to publicly demonstrate that shift. Only after Jacob’s transformation will Hashem Himself change Jacob’s name to Israel. This time, though, he doesn’t explain the name change using the word sarah, which implies a struggle. Although the text doesn’t disclose the meaning of the new name, it is safe to assume that it should be interpreted plainly. Israel means yisar – el. From that point on, Jacob’s faith has already become complete and righteous, and now, he once again receives the blessing of the forefathers – the blessing of the Land of Israel: “And the land that I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, I will give to you and to your seed after you will I give the land.”

Similarly, it behooves us, those of today’s generation, to recognize this process and to keep in mind how Jacob became Israel. We must understand that faith is a dynamic process with numerous developments. To head down this path, we mustn’t shy away from the difficult questions or from struggling against ourselves, or even from struggling against our Creator, understanding that this was Jacob’s way. This was how we can continue developing the domain of absolute faith – only if we let our students ask their questions bravely and reassess their paths can they become Israel – and be righteous with Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom 

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