There is a remarkable scene in this week's Torah portion that calls our attention. Alone in the dark, anticipating a reunion with his brother after a multi-decade rift, Jacob spends the night wrestling with another man, stopping only as dawn was breaking. Who exactly he is wrestling with - a man, an angel, himself - is understood in unique ways by different commentators. Regardless of who it is, however, at the end of this long night of wrestling, Jacob tells him: "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So, what happens next?
He [the man] said 'What is your name?' He said, 'Jacob.' He said, 'Your name shall no longer be called Jacob rather Israel, for you have struggled with God and with man and you have been victorious.' Jacob asked, and said, 'Please tell me your name.' He said, 'Why are you asking for my name?' And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the place Pniel [God's face], 'for I have seen God face to face and my soul was saved.' The sun rose as he left Pniel. And he was limping because of his thigh. Therefore the children of Israel do not eat the hip tendon until this very day, for Jacob's thigh joint was afflicted at the hip tendon. [Genesis 32:25-32]
Though the text eventually tells us that he blessed Jacob, what he says doesn't sound like a blessing at all. It is not clear that he is invoking God's favor or expressing a hope, a dream, a desire, the things we are used to associating with blessings. He doesn't make articulate a request for what he wishes for Jacob, or a prayer that Jacob aspire to become something. Rather, in saying 'your name shall be...', his words read more as a statement of reality as if to say 'this is how things will be....': Yet, the text tells us 'he blessed him there' and through that Jacob is able to see the place as God's face.
As I re-read the parashah this year and look at the comments of Rashi, I think the real blessing comes in one word, and in a word from Jacob himself. Jacob asks for a blessing, the man asks his name. And, Jacob tells him I am 'Jacob'.
The last time Jacob sought a blessing, the blessing of birthright, he used trickery by answering falsely to his own father whose vision was dimmed by blindness. When Isaac asked him who he was then, he lied. Moreover, after that episode, he worries with Rebecca that he will get caught. He doesn't worry that he did something wrong, he worries that he might have to answer for it. But, this was not the only occasion on which Jacob uses underhanded means in his attempts to get what he wants. When he departs from his father-in-law, Laban, he tricks Laban into giving him the choicest parts of the flock. He even tries to use underhanded measures to tip God's hand, when, in an earlier narrative, he pledges his allegiance only so long as God provides for him.
So, after years of wandering and years of fighting with his brother, Jacob is about to see Esau again. Like anyone who comes face to face with their past, he faces a moment of truth. Will he stay the course he has followed, continuing his pattern of self-destructive, entitled trickery? Or, will he look at himself, see his past, and realize that he has power over his own transformation by admitting his actions, participating in self-reflection and changing his pattern of behavior to forge a new path of truth into the future?
But, it is not simply a question of mindset. For Jacob, it is truly a question of his name. The name Jacob comes from the Hebrew root meaning heel or supplanting. So, as the commentator Rashi teaches us in telling Jacob that his name will no longer be Israel, he is acknowledging that Jacob will no longer be known as the one who gets what he wants by supplanting, tricking or deceiving others. And, unlike in the earlier encounters when Jacob was unable to receive the blessings as they were meant to be, here he will achieve his blessings through nobility and openness, through truth: truth about himself and about God. From this, as the Torah tells us, his soul is saved, and he is ultimately changed as marked by the limp he carries with him from that night.
Each of us is b'nei Israel - a child of Israel. And, as we enter this Shabbat, may we remember that this too is our legacy. Like our forbearer Jacob, we face moments in our lives that our own moments of truth, moments when also have to decide whether we will continue to live defined by who we have been and the limits of our past behavior, OR if we will move forward to receive the blessing in saying our own names in openness, recognizing our own mistakes, and confronting our past with a willingness to grow. So, may we have someone who will bless us to become Israel.