Who was the unnamed wrestler in our Biblical text? A common man? An angel? Esau? Or Jacob’s conscience? Our commentators agree that the stranger was more than an ordinary human being: even the text gives evidence to suggest this, after all, he has the power to change Jacob’s name: Genesis 32:28
V’yomer lo Yaakov ya’amer od shimcha ki eem Israel
You shall no longer be called Yaacov; your name shall be Yisrael. Jacob himself bears witness to this name change, saying, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Jacob believes that this mysterious assailant is a divine messenger.
In order to discover more about the holy aggressor, we need to explore the context and psychological implications of the struggle. Here is the story line: in the dead of night, Jacob, having sent his wives and family, and all that he owned across the Jabbock river to insure its survival, is left alone with his thoughts and anxieties. Tomorrow, he would meet his brother Esau again after a 20-year separation. Twenty years since he stole his brother’s birthright and blessing. Twenty years since he fled his brother’s wrath. Twenty years since he was with himself in the wilderness of the darkness. His fears return. Would Esau still harbor hatred for Jacob? Would he want vengeance? Would Jacob survive the meeting? It is here, in the midst of Jacob’s pressing anxiety that the mysterious being appears in order to wrestle with him. But just who is this mysterious being? And what does the unnamed being want from Jacob?
The Midrash of Rabbi Hama bar Hanini suggests that the one who wrestled with Jacob was the heavenly angel of Esau, a messenger from God. This makes sense in the light of Jacob’s anxiety. If the emissary of Esau can embrace Jacob, then Esau will be able to do the same. Jacob says, in fact, I have seen your face Esau, and you accepted me. Rashi agrees with this explanation, and calls the unnamed aggressor the prince of Esau, the spiritual component of Esau. If this is so, then we can understand the conflict with a clearer vision. Commentator Nehemiah Lebowitz states it precisely, “Before Jacob actually encounters Esau in the flesh, and his spirit must struggle with the spirit of his brother.”
And Jacob said to him, I will not let you go until you bless me. In effect, Jacob says to Esau, accept as legitimate the blessing that Isaac, our father, granted me in your place. I did not want to hurt you, but I believed at the time that I was destined for that blessing. Esau struggled with him for a while and in the end
Yivarech oto sham, and he blessed him there.
I would like to take the Midrash a step further. If Jacob is looking for someone to assuage his guilt of 20 years, to free his trapped conscience, why can’t the nocturnal assailant be even closer to him psychologically? Why can’t it be Jacob himself? We can imagine the scene- Jacob lay thinking in the dark, a slab of rock as his pillow. The rush of the Jabbock River does not soothe his tortured soul; in fact it taunts him with his own anxieties. Sleep evades him. From the darkness he thinks he hears a voice and a question- what is your name? Vayomer alav mah shimcha?
Who are you? And Jacob realized that the voice was not from without but from within him. He realized the voice was his own. The question wasn’t clear at first and Jacob may have struggled to understand. “Jacob, how could you have tricked your brother out of his birthright and blessing?” The rationalization which he had used for the past twenty years came quickly enough, after all it was part of his psyche- Esau was the one who traded his birthright for a bowl of soup, I just happened to be there. And mom set up dad to give me the blessing. None of it was my fault. I was the victim.” In the stillness of the night, another, quiet voice answered, “be truthful, acknowledge who you are and what you have done.” Jacob sits awake, and listens to both voices, the battle waging inside of him. Jacob is a patriarch, one chosen by God to parent the Israelite people, yet, in our text; he can’t see the role that his choices have played in his destiny. He fears looking into the mirror and truly seeing himself, panim el panim, face to face, from the soul.
Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that the first step to self- knowledge is self-doubt. There in the darkness, Jacob was seized by a great fear. Who am I?
It is a question we have all asked, we have all wrestled with. We look at ourselves through the eyes of our friends, lovers, colleagues, parents, teachers, and strangers. We are named and given qualities by those near to us without asking ourselves, “Who am I?” It is easier to accept the roles assigned to us then to delve deeply under the layers of fear and insecurity to discover our own true identities. We often protect and foster what has been created for us without listening to the still small voice within ourselves. What would those around us think if they knew who we really were? What would they think if they knew that sometimes our innermost thoughts were not holy? And so we push away those parts of our identity that are too difficult to acknowledge. Rabbi Larry Kushner explains that our past evils, our unholy parts, come back to injure and name us during the night. And since it is still a part of ourselves we cannot bear to acknowledge, when we sense it coming we become frightened and angry and project it onto someone else, feeling that we have torn it from ourselves.” The question who am I truly is not easy to ask and the answer may not be what we need or want to hear. It may be more painful for us to bear. But when we listen carefully to the inner voice, we come to know our true name.