In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob travels with his family back to the Land of Israel, away from his uncle Laban’s house, where he had worked as a shepherd for many years. After sending his family ahead, Jacob wanders alone:
"A man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day... and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him ... And he said, I will not let you go, unless you bless me ... what is your name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with G-d and with men, and have prevailed. And [Jacob] blessed him there ... and called the name of the place Peniel (The Face of G-d); for I have seen G-d face to face, and my life is preserved."
Many years earlier — running away from his home and from his brother, Esau, who wanted to kill him — going toward Laban’s house, Jacob had the following dream:
"And he dreamed, and behold a ladder on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of G-d ascending and descending on it. And, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord G-d of Abraham ... and the G-d of Isaac; the land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed ... and you shall spread abroad ... and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed ... And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it ... This is no other but the house of G-d, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning ... And he called the name of that place Beth-El (House of G-d)."
The Midrash suggests that both episodes were dream sequences, bookends to his experience in exile. The tonality of the two dreams is very different. The dream of the ladder seems bright, filled with angels going up and down, a dream of promise in which G-d makes a covenant of protection with Jacob. After waking, he names the place, “The House of G-d.”
In contrast, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel seems anything but bright and angelic. Jacob is hurt and limps and it is dark. Yet, in the end he names the place “The Face of G-d.”
Based on the names he gives, Jacob seems to find greater Divine intimacy not in the angelic dream reminiscent of a bright, beatific, medieval painting, but in the darkness of confusion and injury. This in fact becomes his namesake Israel, which means, “to struggle.”
For humans, is struggle perhaps a necessary part of being in touch with the Divine?
By Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Rabbi Hyim Shafner is the rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. Previously, he served as rabbi of Bais Abraham Congregation and as campus rabbi of St. Louis Hillel at Washington University, both in St. Louis, Missouri. He is the author of the Everything Jewish Wedding Book (2nd edition), as well as many articles in the area of Talmudic narrative, Jewish law and thought, and community building and vision.