“Jacob called the name of the place P’niel: ‘for I have seen
God face to face and my life is preserved’.” (Genesis 32:31)
Parashat Vayishlach is filled with suspense. Jacob is returning home to Canaan from Charan. Along the way, he encounters an anonymous man who turns out to be an angel. Jacob wrestles with the angel all night long and forces the angel to bless him. The angel concedes and proclaims him Yisrael, or Israel.
Rabbi Sheldon Dorph (American rabbi, leader in the Conservative Movement, and JELI mentor) observes every name change in the Torah is a manifestation of a personality change. Vayishlach uses clever word play to emphasize the point. Ya-akov (Jacob, in Hebrew) meets the stranger by the river Yabok (Gen. 32:23), which marks the border of the land of Canaan. The river, which evokes Jacob’s name, also marks the boundary of his old identity. The Jacob who returns home after twenty years is no longer the Jacob who left. The angel engages Ya-akov in a struggle (vayei-avek; Gen. 32:25), again echoing Jacob’s name. Personal change is not easy. The key to Jacob’s personality change is the protracted struggle that has been his life experience.
The angel predicts God will grant Jacob the name Yisrael, explaining, “He struggled with God and men and prevailed.” (Gen. 32:29). But Yisrael can also be read Yasharel, meaning Jacob is now “straight” with God. Jacob learns from experience trickery is not the way to achieve his goals and so he dedicates himself fully to God. It takes a long time for Jacob’s identity as Yisrael to emerge, but it illustrates creating a Jewish identity is a unique and individual life-long process.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom