In Parshat Vayishlach, we encounter the epic wrestling match between Jacob and a mysterious man. The Midrash1 tells us that Jacob wrestled with a spiritual being that appeared human. Jacob overcomes his adversary but not without sustaining a physical injury. This unidentified man beseeches Jacob to release him, but Jacob demands a blessing in exchange for doing so.

Such an odd request to what appears to be an attacking stranger. The blessing that Jacob receives will impact him and his descendants for all time. “No longer will your name be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have contended with G‑d and man and have prevailed.”2

Thus, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel. The narrative proceeds to state that Jacob saw G‑d, face to face.

What does all of this mean?

1. Struggling With Conflicting Traits in Ourselves

In the case of Jacob, we can see the connection between his wrestling with a man who is also a spiritual being. The Torah states that we are created in “the image of G‑d” since human beings possess spiritual attributes. The dichotomy of the physical and the spiritual drives of man is an ongoing source of inner struggle. Being human is being at odds with one’s competing higher and lower wills. Try as we may, we don’t always succeed in taking the higher road.

Likewise, our sages3 tell us that Jacob’s wrestling match represented an inner struggle with his own identity. He wrestled with self-doubt and conflicting traits within himself. Was he ready and able to assume his role as the spiritual heir to his father, Isaac?

We also wrestle with spiritual doubts and conflicts. Do you ever struggle with your Jewish identity? Are you ready and able to assume a role in shaping the Jewish future? If not, could it be due to a lack of accurate information or of a better understanding of what it means to be a Jew? Do you face conflict with your innate sense of what is right? How do you react when struggling with your own competing wills? How often have you prevailed?

Anyone who can relate to these questions can, likewise, identify with Jacob’s experience. Jacob’s struggle mirrors our own.

2. Wrestling With the Forces of Esau: Extermination and Assimilation

Rashi explains that the angel Jacob tackled was an angel that represents his brother, Esau. The commentaries4 explain that this would foreshadow the future exiles of the Jewish people. Throughout the unfolding of Jewish history, we have been oppressed by the hand of Esau, which symbolizes the gentile nations that oppose the people of Israel. This struggle will finally come to an end with the “break of dawn,” the era of the final Redemption.

Esau’s destructive role has taken on two approaches. The first has been physical extermination through oppression and war. Even more insidious is the second approach when Esau appears to reconcile with his brother and reaches out his hand in friendship. This tactic strives to attack and to decimate the Jewish people through assimilation and intermarriage.

Both methods have left the Jewish people wounded and limping, much in the same way that Jacob was after encountering his opponent: Esau’s angel.

Assimilation threatens Jewish continuity. Challenging questions may emerge. Powerful, knowledgeable, honest answers to these questions become crucial to Jewish survival. How would you respond to these frequently asked, heartfelt, questions: Why must I marry a Jew? What’s wrong with falling in love with a non-Jew who shares my interests, values and is a good person?

3. The Struggle Between Self and G‑d

During the struggle, Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel.” This is the Torah’s first reference to the name by which our people would be referred for all of time. What is the significance of this struggle and the emerging name, Israel?

As noted earlier, the name Israel means “one who has contended with G‑d and man, and has prevailed.” The name expresses his spiritual essence and potential. The Zohar5 teaches that the struggle with the angel would come to express Jacob’s and every Jew’s ongoing struggle between self and G‑d, between one’s ego and spirit. It symbolizes the victorious struggle to sublimate our will to that of our Creator’s will.

Contending with G‑d and man often initiates a personal search. Every great quest starts with a great question. What is G‑d, and what is G‑d not? It continues with refining and redefining one’s perception. Just as you’ve outgrown your childhood clothing, so, too, has your mind expanded its capacity for understanding. With greater maturity it becomes necessary to re-examine beliefs that have not been developed or clarified. What does the contemporary Jew need to know and believe in so as to live and thrive Jewishly?

To reach or to exceed his personal and spiritual potential, a Jew needs answers to fundamental questions. Why am I here and what is my purpose? How do I achieve it? What makes me different?

4. Communicating With G‑d Through Our Daily Challenges

“Seeing G‑d face to face” can be understood, both literally and figuratively. Our sages teach us that G‑d communicates to us directly through our daily challenges. Life’s tests can help to refine our ability to actualize our inner potential. Adversity can be viewed as the vehicle through which we come to expand ourselves and, thereby, overcome our self-perceived limitations. The tough times can ultimately come to reveal our inner greatness. They serve to elevate us beyond what we thought we were capable of being. Conversely, we are equally tested through times of happiness and success. When things are going well, do we recognize the source of our abundance, or do we arrogantly attribute our good fortunes solely to our own efforts and skill?

Life’s tests are multidimensional; they elevate us and can heighten our vantage point to access the latent inner resources we all possess. The best criteria for evaluating an epiphany, however, are its long term effects. How much of the initial impact endures? Does it help you develop yourself to become more than you were?

Thus, “seeing G‑d face to face” is also a metaphor6 that illustrates how G‑d’s presence is revealed throughout life’s details. Just as if we were to recognize and identify someone by seeing his face, likewise should we recognize and be aware of G‑d’s presence and involvement within our daily affairs and encounters.

5. Uniting With Fellow Jews

As previously stated, the Jewish struggle includes contending with one’s fellow Jew. Many of us have been wounded by others—either emotionally, through hateful, insulting words or as a result of their improper behavior. Divisiveness alienates our people. By estranging one another, we turn against ourselves.

Unity is expressed through love of one’s fellow; it is the barometer of our people’s physical and spiritual health. It may seem nearly impossible to genuinely love every Jew, especially one who is very different from you. Perhaps the place to start is simply trying to relate to one another. When we despise—or worse yet, not even care about—another Jew, it is we who inflict pain and injury.

As Jacob was wounded by Esau’s angel, we, too, can wound ourselves through acts of callous indignation.

6. Your Moment of Truth: What Role Will You Play?

Regardless of our many differences, the name Israel expresses our common heritage and identity. Whoever you are, regardless of your religious practice or background, at some point you may find yourself immersed in an existential struggle. Whether or not you choose to acknowledge it, the G‑d of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob, Leah and Rachel has made an eternal covenant with the Jewish people. Collectively known as Israel, their unfolding destiny includes you. What role will you play? Regardless of upbringing or quality of Jewish education, we all have to make the choice as to whether or not to develop ourselves into optimally functioning Jews. An optimally functioning Jew will continually strive to develop a deeper relationship with G‑d.

We are not meant to all be alike. It is within our diversity that the greatest unity can be achieved. Every Jew possesses the potential to make a unique contribution. The name b’nai Yisrael, the “children of Israel,” continues to describe a nation that has come to embody disparate beliefs. Yet no matter what kind of Jew you are and whatever you profess, the name of Israel describes your essence—that intangible inner sanctum where Jacob’s struggle resounds. It awaits you to activate the spark that will ignite your inner yearning to prevail. You may struggle with yourself—with your thoughts and what others expect you to believe.

You may not yet have experienced your own “moment of truth.” And then it comes—that defining moment in which, as if by surprise, you encounter something or someone with whom you are compelled to wrestle. You might find yourself grappling with a moral dilemma, a test of character, commitment or identity. The time has arrived. As you engage in what will become a struggle for your very survival, you will also wrestle with yourself.

You will wrestle with your belief in G‑d, or lack thereof, and you will struggle with the doctrines and the philosophies of men. All the while you will question if you have the strength within yourself to actualize your spiritual potential. Just when you suffer what appears to be a crippling blow, you’ll gather all the inner fortitude you’ve got. You will transcend yourself and your limitations to overcome this attacker. Then you will control him … and yourself.

For what initially appeared to be an “actual man” has revealed to you its mission to spiritually overcome you. But instead, you’ve prevailed, not allowing him to succeed in infiltrating your sanctified core beliefs. Through this defeat, you have generated your own blessing—a blessing that you have earned by virtue of this very struggle.

The angel has tested your brawn and your brain, the very mettle of which you are made. In the struggle, you were wounded; yet you have emerged intact, victorious and strengthened by your newly found resolve. You’ve transformed the struggles and the beliefs of your Jewish forbearers into your own, through virtue of your own will. For you have wrestled with G‑d and with man, and have prevailed.

Like your forefather Jacob, you, too, are an integral link in an eternal chain of spiritual warriors. Their spiritual DNA has been passed on to you. Never alone, you need only activate your inner will, and you’ll discover the collective strength of generations. The very birthright that once appeared to you as a mere accident of birth has ultimately come to define you.

Making It Relevant

  1. The name Yisrael means “one who has struggled with G‑d and man, and prevailed.” Recall your own personal struggles with others and/or with your inner belief in G‑d.
  2. How can you overcome negativity and doubts while going through difficult life experiences? What should you keep in mind?
  3. What can you take away from the Torah’s teachings about individuals who did not become bitter, but better, as the result of struggles?