Yaakov, Jacob, had run away from his brother Esau, who had threatened to kill him. He had spent some thirty years with Lavan, his uncle, and was now returning home with his wives, his children, his flocks and herds. He sent messengers ahead to tell his brother he was coming in peace and was not asking for anything (regardless of the promises of Isaac, their father). The messengers came back and told Yaakov that Esau was riding towards him with 400 men. It did not sound like a welcoming party.
That night, he takes his herds and family across to the West of the ford or river of Yabok. But then he goes back to east bank. The midrash says to make sure nothing was left behind. But there he meets a man (or angel) who engages him in a fight. They struggle till dawn. The antagonist actually fouls and knees Jacob in the thigh. Not, you might think, what an angel of God would do. Then this unknown person asks to be let go. Jacob refuses until he blesses him. Which sounds stranger still if this angel had behaved like a bad sport. He then asks his name and the aggressor blesses him by giving Jacob his new name, Israel. Which means “someone destined to struggle with man and God and survive”. Which is reminiscent of God changing Avram’s name to Avraham and Sarai to Sarah. Both using the letter of God’s short name Hey.
And that is our name, Israel, to this day, and our fate too. When we see so much hatred towards Jews and Israel our gut reaction is to want to run, to disappear, to take refuge, to give up. But our history tells us we must stand and fight.
Maimonides says we should not take this narrative literally. This event was all a dream. Albeit a momentous one which defined Jacob. And it was in this sort of nightmare that Jacob twisted his leg and started limping. I wonder, in Freudian terms. if Jacob was not in fact thinking of fleeing. And his limping was self-inflicted, psychosomatic. He was avoiding, running away. That was why he was left alone on the east bank. The angel, the dream forced him to face up to the challenge. Instead of Jacob meaning ‘Heel’ or ‘Laughing Stock’ he is now Yisrael, “Someone who can struggle with man and God and survive,” He is stronger for it. But still he limps. The struggle has taken it out of him. The limp will always remind him of how he nearly gave up. But it also illustrates how inner struggles can actually have a serious and detrimental impact on our bodies as well.
In the end, Yaakov/Yisrael prepared for two possibilities, to fight or to negotiate with his brother. Obviously, he preferred negotiation, and in the end peace talks prevailed. He and Esau came to an understanding. I hope this happens in our day too. We must try to find a peaceful settlement. But if we can’t, we have no option but to stand our ground.
But the text talks about struggling with God too. The religious battle is every bit as important as the physical one. We need to engage, to challenge, to question, to struggle towards understanding God and what happens to us in life. It is not easy. Our religion, our destiny requires fighting. We must not give up and run away.