reflection by Carrie Watkins
Hananiah Harari, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1936, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Patricia and Phillip Frost, 1986.92.52
Our forefather Ya’akov, alone and afraid, wrestles all night. Come daybreak, he demands a blessing. The one he wrestled with responds, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Yisrael, for you strove with beings divine and human, and you prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Three chapters later, God appears to Jacob and offers him a second blessing, saying, “You whose name is Ya’akov, you shall no longer be called Ya’akov, but Yisrael” (35:10).
This story proved foundational to Jewish people. To this day, we are called B’nei Yisrael, the Children of Israel.
Yet, much about the unfolding of this narrative remains mysterious. Why does Ya’akov need to be re-named Yisrael twice? Even more unexpectedly, even after both namings, the Torah continues referring to him as Ya’akov. Indeed, it is not until he buries his beloved wife Rachel that the Torah first calls him Yisrael, and, even after that, it switches back and forth between Ya’akov and Yisrael.
To be human is to experience transformative moments of change and blessing such as Yisrael experienced. Sometimes, we transform slowly over time. Sometimes, change manifests in one dark night of fearful wrestling. And yet, how many of us (myself very much included) have ever gotten off a meditation retreat and triumphantly thought, “I’m healed! I’m going to be this soft, open and connected for the rest of my life!” - only to be sorely disappointed when life is still hard.
Spiritual growth is not linear. It ebbs and flows. We have moments of growth. We ask for and receive our own blessings, and shift our own narratives. These changes take time to integrate.
In these shortening Winter days on our tumultuous planet, many of us have been feeling far away from our truest moments of blessing and connection. The Torah reminds us this week that this is okay. The blessings are not lost. We carry our true names with us. Moments of connection ebb and flow. We are doing okay. Everything we need is still within us.