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Under the Sheep Skin: Vayishlach

Vayishlach: Genesis 32:4-36:43


This week’s Torah portion marks the end of a major chapter in Jacob’s life, culminating in his night-long tussle with a fierce angelic apparition. He has been struggling with a relentless scourge in his life since birth; and so it is only fitting that he finally is able to overcome what had been ailing him at the end of an epic wrestling match through the proverbial “night of his soul.” Then and there he triumphs over his inner demon — replaced by the fierce angel in our story — and God bestows upon him a new name: Israel – God-wrestler.

Names, in Jewish tradition, are not merely labels, rather they are seen as that which defines both a person’s identity and his/her life-purpose. Recall that Jacob emerged at birth grasping his twin brother’s heel. Jacob’s name literally means: “The one at the heel.” Looser interpretive translations include: “the one who follows,” “the one behind,” or, derogatorily: “the second string.” Up to that fateful night of wrestling, Jacob’s whole life had been an ongoing crisis of identity; an attempt to break the spell of his name and carve a new path for himself and, with that, his place in the world.

He first desperately tries to remake himself into his brother Esau; the first-born and his father’s favorite. He begins by donning Esau’s clothing. But that’s not enough. He then wraps his smooth body in pungent sheep skin in order to mimic Esau’s hairy physique and wild character. Still, Jacob needs further affirmation to cement his new identity. He approaches his blind father, Isaac, in order to trick him into giving him the inheritance blessing of the first born; rightfully Esau’s. In a telling moment, as he is about to mistakenly bless Jacob, Isaac asks: “Are you really my son Esau?” And Jacob chillingly answers: “I am.”

But neither the outer pretense of identity nor the theft of the first-born title do anything to resolve Jacob’s inner conflict. Fearing his brother’s wrath, Jacob runs away to his uncle Laban. Through the next twenty years of his life, Jacob tries time and again to reinvent himself. He becomes Jacob the husband. Twice. Jacob the head of the clan. Jacob the wealthy entrepreneur. But nothing suffices. After two decades, of running away, evasion, sublimation and denial, his unresolved past continues to have a stranglehold over him. There is nothing left to do but return home and face it. Along the way he finds himself spending a night alone in the fields and is assailed by God’s angel. As the light of a new dawn rises — having wrestled all night — Jacob awakens, seeing “God face-to-face.” [Gen. 32:31] And God gives him a new name: Israel or YasharEl — Straight to God; as the Rabash (R. Baruch Shalom HaLevy Ashlag) and other Kabbalists have read it. Not really a name it turns out, but a description of a state of being, YasharEl: the awakened one; a state transcendent of any particular name-bound identity.

Jacob’s mythical journey offers us a roadmap for our own journey of awakening. It points to the traps of false identification with the many roles we play in the various circumstances of our lives. Try though we may, we are not the titles we take on, neither in the workplace nor within our family structures. Jacob’s odyssey warns us against our manufacturing a false sense of identity by molding our self unto some external ideal. At a deeper level, it shows us that, like Jacob, we, too, wrap our True Self in layers of the sheepskins of personhood, born of our deluded self-perpetuating belief in the separate nature of our being. So much so that, in the end, who we truly are becomes buried under the mantle of our identification with the many false labels that we have taken on as our own. Finally, it offers us a challenging teaching that we receive in numerous contexts and in many ways, but have such a hard time heeding. It is this: the only way out is through. In order to awaken — to know Truth (if Truth is what we want) — we will need to expose all these falsities for what they are, to wrestle with who we take ourselves to be and transcend even our personal name, the name that encompasses all these mistaken self-beliefs. Then we will truly be the B’nai Israel, the B’nai YasharEl: the followers of the Enlightened One.