And Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until dawn.
In Torah this week, Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob becomes Israel: a new name, the One who wrestles with God. And that is our name too as Jews. This scene of the struggle is profoundly comforting to me every time I read it. As we know from our own lives, growing into one’s full identity is complicated.
It was never meant to be one dimensional. It is so interesting to observe that despite being given the new name of Israel, he is referred to as Jacob again and again in the book of Genesis and later throughout Tanakh. He carries it all with him. And so do we – the Jew who is brave and open and the one who retreats at times; the one who reaches for community and the one who holds back; the times one finds meaning and the periods one doesn’t; the times our mezuzah feels a welcome symbol on our doors and the times it evokes fear and questions. I imagine we are all of that and Jacob’s physical wrestling match is echoed in our life choices. Especially now.
Sitting at home with covid, it was powerful to watch last Sunday’s march through photos and clips sent by friends and many of you. We were told over 100,000 gathered – more than at Cable Street. But even some of those who attended enthusiastically described the experience as complex for them: the streets were quiet, no-one else was witnessing, the palpable and understandable support for Israel at times complicating the desire for clear and unwavering Jewish presence here in the UK. It called on so many feelings of solidarity, pride, fear and desire to be seen and, like Jacob, it carried the hope of being blessed in our lives and of finding blessing in all of this for us and our children.
The portion ends with the much-anticipated reunion between Jacob and Esau, each now definitively suspicious of the other. Esau embraces and kisses Jacob and they both weep. In a demonstration of gracious and generous love, Jacob responds. It is a beautiful moment in Torah and one that challenges us, as we read it, to find contemporary meaning for ourselves.
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