The iconic comic strip “Family Circus” has told the story of the Keane family (two exasperated parents with four exasperating children) for the last 53 years. My favorite character has always been the invisible, gremlin-like character named “Not Me.” Whenever anything is broken or messy, the child confronted with the question,”Who did this?” is likely to answer, “Not me!” Of course, in real life, there is no invisible gremlin running around making the messes we seek to disown.
While “Family Circus” has been telling this story for more than 50 years, the Torah presents a much older version of this response in this week’s portion, Vayishlach. Jacob is returning to the land of Canaan, having fled after stealing the birthright from Esau. Now a man with a large family, the successful shepherd is coming home with abundant blessing and wealth. However, he is also coming home to confront his past.
Until this point, Jacob has been in the habit of disowning responsibility for his actions. Trading the birthright for a bowl of soup? Tricking his father into giving him the firstborn blessing? In his dealings with his father-in-law, Laban, he has not always been honest or transparent. He’s been holding to the “Not me!” defense.
Now, returning to the land of Canaan, encountering his brother, Esau, he must answer for past behavior. He is now alone on the banks of the Yabbok River, having secured his wives and children on the other side. There, in the darkest of nights, “someone wrestled with him until the break of day.” In every generation, commentators have contended with this provocative statement. How can he be both “alone” and wrestle with “someone/a man?”
Among the most meaningful interpretations is that Jacob wrestles with himself through that long night. Stricken with anxiety at the prospect of coming face-to-face with his brother, at returning to the place where he is reminded of his past deceptions, Jacob has to answer an internal question: Who am I? In childhood and adolescence, it was easy for Jacob to deny responsibility for his actions. But now, having grown into an adult (a husband, a father), he is confronted with the reality of his past. Filled with guilt and regret, he must now find a way forward — a better, more honest way.
As the sun rises on Jacob, his name is changed, and he discovers that better, more honest truth — the name Israel. To struggle … to demand honesty … to prevail. Jacob wrestles with himself in order to become the adult he needs to be, the responsible and responsive adult. He is left after the encounter with a limp, torn at the thigh, wounded. However, the physical wound is a reminder of a spiritual victory. In transforming from Jacob into Israel, he has moved forward into adulthood. It is Jacob’s embrace of responsibility that makes him Israel. This kind of a victory does not come free, and he will continue to bear the wound of the struggle.
While the rest of the Torah will bounce between calling him both Jacob and Israel, it is of note to remember the encounter that makes us B’nei Yisrael, the descendants of that struggle that led from childhood to maturity.
Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader at Temple Isaiah in Fulton.