"And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn" Genesis 32:25

By Rina Wolfson, December 8, 2011

The theme of division runs through this week's sidrah, which opens in a place named Machana'im (literally, two camps), where Jacob prepares to meet his estranged brother Esau. Jacob divides his entourage into two groups. Although there is resolution of sorts between the brothers, they cannot live together and go their separate ways.

Division and separation are not new to Jacob. He is the product of overtly discordant parenting. He lives apart from his family for decades. Even his fortune is derived from a system of animal husbandry that involves separating livestock into discrete groups.

And yet, nestled among these scenes of division and separation is the curious episode of Jacob's wrestling with the mysterious man. The identity of the man is unclear, but whoever/whatever he is, Jacob fights with him all night, and in the morning the man blesses him. It is a truly transforming moment for Jacob, culminating not only in a blessing, but a new name, Israel.

What distinguishes this episode from other scenes in the parashah, and indeed the rest of Jacob's life, is that this is a moment of engagement, and not of separation. Jacob wrestles the mysterious man all night but refuses to let go. Indeed Rashi explains the verb "struggled" to imply "intertwined". Jacob does not attempt to escape. He looks at his assailant "face to face" and prevails.

It is in reward for this perseverance that Jacob receives the name Israel. It is when he stops separating himself and engages with those around him that Jacob earns the name that will signify his descendants. The essence of "Israel" is its willingness to engage, with God and with humanity. Perhaps the message is that we are a people who should struggle and wrestle with each other, and with God, but not divide and separate?

Last updated: 11:46am, December 8 2011