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Who Is Your Esau? Or Finding Better Angels

This week Jacob becomes Israel.

First he prepares to meet his brother Esau after years of separation, anger and distrust. Jacob is nervous about the impending reunion. When the brothers parted years ago Esau was filled with rage over Jacob’s stealing of the birthright. Esau even threatened to kill his brother. Then Jacob was young man, unmarried with no children. Now he is the father to many (and husband to Rachel and Leah). He is a wealthy man. Before the meeting between brothers, Jacob sends his family across a river.

He remains alone for the night.

Jacob was alone as well when he dreamed last week of a stairway leading to heaven with angels ascending and descending the steps. This time, however, he chooses solitude. Was it to contemplate the meeting? Would Esau forgive him? Would the brothers be reconciled?

He wrestles with an angel. Now it is not a dream. This struggle continues through the evening’s darkness. Dawn arrives. The divine being wrenches his hip and renames him, Israel. The name Israel means to wrestle with God.

The identity of the angel remains mysterious. Is it his brother Esau? That is a strong possibility given the day’s next meeting. The Torah offers little clarification: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29)

Who is this being? Is it again an angel?

We join the Talmud’s debate. Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani argued: The being appeared to him as a heathen. Rabbi Samuel ben Aha (in the name of Rabba ben Ulla) countered: He appeared to him as one of the wise. (Babylonian Talmud Hullin 91a) One rabbi argues that the being is an idolater. This is in keeping with a common rabbinic theme that Esau is synonymous with Israel’s later enemies, most particularly the Romans. Another argues that he is a hacham, one of the wise. Do these two views stand in opposition?

What does this say about our identities? We are of course the descendants of Israel.

In realizing our true identity we struggle with two facets. On the one hand we wrestle with the other, the foreigner. Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani argues that Jacob struggles against his enemies. We too battle enemies. We struggle as well to name our enemies. Is it our brother Esau?

On the other hand we fight with what we hope to be. Rabbi Samuel ben Aha sees Jacob as wrestling with a rabbinic scholar. He views the angel in his own image. Is the struggle internal or external?

A truth emerges. We can achieve a new name for ourselves by pointing at others. Or we can find our name by looking within at ourselves. Is the being our enemy? Is it instead the enemy within?

Who are our angels?

With what do we struggle?

Who are our demons?

The struggle continues. We are Israel.