In the 1975 book “Shogun” by James Clavell, an English sailor finds himself a prisoner in Japan in 1600. The sailor becomes a soldier to one of the warlords vying for the position of Shogun, the commander in chief of the country. On the eve of the decisive battle which will determine whether this contender becomes shogun or dies – he goes to sleep early and sleeps like a baby. The English soldier asks an adviser, How can he sleep so soundly the night before such a decisive day? The answer is: He has done everything in his power to make sure the battle goes his way. The rest is Karma.
A similar situation opens this week’s parsha. Esau, who 20 years earlier had sworn to kill Yaacov, is marching towards the returning Yaacov with 400 men. Yaacov is frightened. So he does what he can – he sends seven sets of extravagant gifts to his brother and he divides his camp into two so that at least one will survive in case of attack. Then he goes off to spend the night by himself.
But unlike the Japanese warlord, he cannot sleep. He meets a – person, angel, imaginary foe – with whom he battles the whole night long. His hip bone is injured but he comes out victorious. And as daylight seeps in, Yaacov demands that his adversary bless him.
“What is your name?” asks the apparition-person-angel. “Yaacov,” he answers. “No longer shall you be called Yaacov, but rather Israel, because you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.”
Yaacov goes forth the next day, grovels before Esau, calling him “my lord” seven times, and basically returns the blessing he received to the originally intended recipient, Esau. Esau is appeased, the two make up and go their separate ways.
A few questions about the new name. Why did Yaacov need a new name? Is this connected to the deterministic belief that a name reflects one’s personality? And if so, why does the Torah continue to call him Yaacov much more often than Israel?
Commentators old and new have addressed this question.
Until this point, the figure of Yaacov has been that of a usurper. He held onto Esau’s heel at birth and he sought to hold Esau’s position through all the early years. He yearned to be Esau, to be what his father loved in Esau. And when he appeared before Yitzhak, his father, to receive the blessing, Yaacov was as close to Esau as he could possibly be. He was clothed in hairy skins to give the feel and smell of the open fields that characterized Esau. When Yitzhak asked, “Who are you, my son?” he answered, “I am your firstborn son Esau.” And a second time he affirmed that he was indeed Esau.
Yet Yitzhak was not really convinced. For our purposes, his famous statement, “The voice is the voice of Yaacov and the hands are the hands of Esau,” may reflect the inner turmoil that Yaacov was undergoing. He wanted to be Esau but – he really couldn’t. His hands could feel like Esau’s, but his voice, his soul, could never be that of Esau.
This nighttime battle perhaps reflected Yaacov’s inner turmoil as he fought to determine who he was or who he wanted to be. Yaacov won. He succeeded in freeing himself of Esau, of the desire to be Esau and all that Esau represented and had. This success had to be marked by a new name. Israel. One who strives and succeeds.
So why does God, and the Torah, continue to call him Yaacov? Perhaps because no metamorphosis is complete. You fight (yourself) to become a different person, and you do. But the base is still there. You can’t flush out every element of your old being just because you decorate yourself with a new name or don a new personality. The old one is still there.
Changing yourself is a never-ending process, one that continues long after a successful transition has been
“declared.” We will see this later, in the story of Yosef, that conceited, self-absorbed young narcissist-dreamer. Yet by the time he becomes viceroy of Egypt, he has changed. Or has he?
Here we see Yaacov-Israel taking a new direction, and then alternating between his old and his new selves. Perhaps to remind us that no matter what façade we assume today, it is composed of elements of everything we have been before.