Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43, Parshat Ha Shavua for Shabbat, Saturday, November 20, 2021

In the climactic scene in the 1992 film, “Scent Of A Woman,” Al Pacino who plays a cynical, retired Army colonel, speaks in defense of a young man about to be expelled from a private school and says, “Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard. Now here’s Charlie. He’s come to the crossroads. He has chosen a path. It’s the right path. It’s a path made of principle — that leads to character.” 

Our patriarch Jacob has been a trickster his whole life. Whenever he faced a challenge, he took a shortcut. He deceived his father and stole his brother’s blessing. He fled from his brother’s wrath, rather than face it. He fled from his father-in-law Lavan, rather than confront him. Now, he is returning to the Land of Israel and to a meeting with his brother, who he has not seen in twenty years. 

Alone, camped by the river Yabok, he wrestles with a being for the entire night. Our Torah does not make clear who or what this mysterious being is. It could be an angel, it could be a demon, it could be Jacob’s shadow self or his guilt. We don’t know. 

The fight is close but Jacob prevails and the mysterious blessing gives him a new name,  “Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) 

Rashi (11th Century Germany) says that Jacob means “to supplant,” but Israel means “to struggle with.” After this night of wrestling, Jacob is a different man. He is no longer the trickster who takes the easy way. He is a person of character, who faces his struggles head on and grapples with them until they are resolved. 

We are not called b’nai Yaakov, the Children of Jacob. We are called b’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel. Our name challenges us to make the right choice, the hard choice, the choice of character. When we next stand at the crossroads, let us remember our ancestor Israel and do the right thing. So that we may be a blessing by our behavior.


~Rabbi Dean Kertesz