The Question Is The Blessing

By asking Yaakov his name, his wrestling adversary challenges him to examine himself and whether he is ready to enter a new phase of his life.

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Provided by KOLEL--The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada's Reform movement.

At the beginning of this week's parashah, Jacob sends messengers ahead to his estranged brother Esau, who has a large assembly of men coming toward Jacob and his family. The night before he meets his brother, Jacob wrestles with the angel who changes his name to Yisrael. The meeting with Esau goes peacefully. When Jacob and his family arrive at the town of Shechem, his daughter Dinah is sexually assaulted by the prince of the town, and Jacob's sons go on a violent rampage in retribution. Both Rachel and Isaac die and are buried. The parashah ends with a review of all Yitzhak's descendants.

In Focus

"Then he said, 'Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.' He [Jacob] replied: 'I will not let you go unless you bless me.' He said to him, 'What is your name?' He answered, 'Jacob.' He said 'No longer will your name be Jacob, but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.'" (Genesis 32:26-28)

Pshat

All alone the night before he is to finally meet up again with his estranged brother Esau, Jacob is approached by a mysterious stranger, who wrestles with him until the dawn. The text says this figure is a "man," but most of the commentators assume it was some kind of angel or a holy vision. Jacob holds on until he can reach some understanding of the moment; at the end of the struggle, the mystery wrestler announces that Jacob, like his grandfather Abraham, will receive a new name.

Drash

There have been many, many interpretations of Jacob's "God-wrestling." (A term coined by Arthur Waskow, I believe.) Some commentators, as noted above, understand this as an encounter with an angel, and some, especially Rambam, understand Jacob as experiencing some kind of holy vision, rather than an actual wrestling match.

While most of the commentators focus on the homiletical meaning of Jacob's change of name, they tend to gloss over the passage before it, presumably assuming that it's just a rhetorical setup for the announcing of the name Yisrael. By asking Jacob's name, and getting the reply "Jacob," the messenger can more dramatically announce the new name by which Jacob will be known.

Along these lines, Radak (R. David Kimchi, a 12th century French commentator) seems to explain the angel's question as just a formality:

This question is an opening to the conversation, like "Where are you?" (Genesis 3:9) and "What is that in your hand?" (Exodus 4:2), and other similar places, because he knew his name when he was sent to him.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.