Many pivotal biblical encounters with the Divine take place during the darkness of night, when dreams, blessings and visions are imparted. and one of the most important is when our forefather Jacob wrestles with a mysterious stranger.
Jacob (Ya’akov) was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that his hip socket was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel (Yisrael), for you have struggled (sarita) with the divine and with humans, and have proven yourself able.”Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why then do you ask about my name?” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.
Jacob is the father of a large clan, but in this episode, he finds himself alone in the dark night. The rest of the family has gone ahead and he has gone back (possibly to retrieve a few items from the campsite), before making his way to see his estranged brother, Esau. The identity of the “man” with whom he wrestled is mysterious. His actions and words suggest that he is an angel, perhaps the guardian angel of Esau or another divine messenger. Or perhaps Jacob wrestles in the dark with his own conscience, his own shadow side, his past actions of deceiving his elderly father to take his brother’s blessing. When asked his name, Jacob tells the truth, unlike many years ago when he deceived his blind father by claiming to be Esau in order to receive a special blessing. Jacob emerges from his nocturnal struggle with the gift of a new name, Israel, the “Godwrestler” in the felicitous translation of Rabbi Arthur Waskow.
Some call an experience like Jacob’s the paradigm a “dark night of the soul” (a term that originated with a 16th Century Catholic mystic). It is a time of solitary existential struggle, of wrestling with the divine, with our own nature, with our belief system. Gaining his new name does not mean that everything is perfect from there on. Jacob is still sometimes Jacob, the ordinary self, and other times recognized as Israel, his greater self, a name given to all his descendants, the people of Israel.
We, too, face times of struggle. Sometimes we wrestle day or night with our personal struggles and shadows, which are unavoidable parts of life. Sometimes we emerge feeling wounded, like Jacob. Facing our inner struggles (as Jacob names the place for seeing the divine “face to face”) can help us to grow, even gaining new dimensions to our identity as symbolized by Jacob’s new name. (Important Disclaimer: These spiritual struggles are not to be equated with Clinical Depression. It is a mitzvah to get appropriate health care if you or a loved one suffers from persistent sadness or despair. This site does not provide psychological diagnosis or therapy.)
Consider and comment: Has your personal spiritual growth come from times of struggle as well as times of joy and light? Have you ever felt a new meaning or a new name arising from times of struggle?
Featured Image: Napali Coast, Kauai, Elisheva Danan