Each of our patriarchs has an iconic moment which has become a key element of his personality and his spiritual legacy: Avram responds with unquestioning alacrity to God's call to leave all that is familiar and embark on an uncharted spiritual and physical journey. God renames him "Avraham" -- father of multitudes.
Isaac, never re-named, never journeyed beyond the borders of his homeland Canaan, married his "love at first sight" match Rebekkah, and faithfully received and transmitted the covenant to his son, Jacob. God named Isaac before his birth: Yitzhak -- he will laugh.
In this week's Torah reading, Jacob is also re-named, mid-life, like his grandfather Abraham.
The event around Jacob's renaming is also centered around an iconic moment: Jacob has packed up his extensive extended family of wives and concubines and children and servants and flocks and is on his way back to Canaan to re-settle in the land of his birth. His reunion with his twin, Esau, looms large in his consciousness. Jacob has prepared for this reunion carefully. He does not know if Esau will meet him with aggression or affection. So Jacob divides up his travelling estate into two camps so that, worst case scenario, Esau will only be able to attack half of Jacob's family and belongings.
Perhaps out of anxiety, Jacob separates himself from all the rest of his convoy and sleeps isolated out in the wilderness. The Torah relates: And Jacob was left by himself. And a man wrestled with him until the dawn's rising. And he saw that he was not able against him, and he touched the inside of his thigh, and the inside of Jacob's thigh was dislocated during his wrestling with him. And he said: "Let me go, because the dawn has risen." And he said, "I won't let you go unless you bless me." And he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." And he said, "Your name won't be said 'Jacob' anymore but 'Israel,' because you've struggled with God and with people and were able." (Breishit/Genesis 32:25-29). Jacob receives the new name "Yisrael" -- who struggled with God.
Each divinely-named patriarch adds another layer to the legacy of our tradition: the eternal generations of the progeny of Abraham; the laughter of Isaac who partnered with one woman in one place; and, most fascinating, Jacob's emergence whole and blessed from his struggle with God.
How extraordinary: one who struggles with God emerges blessed. Our legacy from Jacob/Israel is encouragement to question God, explore God's strength and balance our own against it. Our legacy from Jacob/Israel is not just permission, but a challenge to forgo passivity and find our own best grasp of God in our lives. Like Jacob, who failed to elicit the name of his Adversary, we will never know God completely, but it is clear that we will emerge from struggle blessed.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.