Power – who has it, how it’s used, and what it results in, is a major theme in the Bible. In an early example of the use of power, Cain overpowers Abel and kills him. The first murder is immediately preceded, though, by a non-use of power. God warns Cain:
Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master. (Genesis 4:7)
Cain did not master sin; he let it master him. (Thanks to my student Adele Ilberman for pointing out this theme in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is in effect a midrash on the Cain and Abel story.) Two weeks ago, in Parashat Tol’dot, we heard the beginning of the Jacob and Esau story. These twin brothers arrive after their mother Rebekah has received a prophecy: the older shall serve the younger. (Genesis 25:24) What follows is a struggle for mastery between Jacob and Esau, resulting in Jacob’s flight after having tricked Esau out of the paternal blessing.
Now, in Parashat Va-yishlah, Jacob is returning home many years later. Accompanied by his wives and children, he is about to encounter his twin. First, though, he wrestles with a man (usually understood to be an angel) who tells him:
Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel (Yisrael) for you have striven (sarita) with beings divine and human and you have prevailed. (literally: you have been able; Genesis 32:29)
A midrash understands the striving with human beings to mean Esau and his chieftans (Genesis Rabbah 78:3); Rashi adds that it refers to Laban as well. It would be understandable for the angel to commemorate Jacob’s struggle with Laban; Jacob did struggle with his uncle, who was also his father-in-law, and was able to leave his domain with his family and possessions intact. But why praise Jacob for having striven with Esau when he had not yet encountered him? Perhaps the angel was referring to Jacob’s youth when he got for himself both the birthright and blessing intended for Esau.
However, perhaps the angel meant something different: Jacob had mastered himself in a way that Cain had not. This story of brothers is not like the first. The Jacob and Esau story ends peacefully; neither is killed. When Jacob re-encounters his twin, he does so not with the trickery of the past, but with extreme humility. Jacob does not master Esau in their re-encounter; he masters the situation. He does not threaten Esau, and does what he can to deflect a potential threat from him.
It is for this reason that Jacob is renamed Yisrael and that the nation that sprung from him took that name. The history of the nation of Israel is not one of mastery through conquest, but mastery of situations, including and especially adversity. It is a nation that has prevailed, not in the sense of always defeating its enemies, but continually being able–able to prevail over the forces of history that wiped out other larger and more formidable nations.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi