This week’s parasha is very eventful, but I have decided to focus on the part that really spoke to me.
Jacob was going to meet his brother Esau for the first time since he stole the birthright. The night before they meet, Jacob is alone, when suddenly a man starts fighting with him. They fought all night, until the man said, ‘Let me go, for dawn is breaking.’ Jacob replies, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’. The man then asks Jacob for his name and Jacob tells him.
The man says, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings, divine and human, and have prevailed.’ But when Jacob asks the man for his name he says, ‘You must not ask my name!’ and disappears.
This text makes me wonder a few things. Why is the story written in such a strange way? Who is this man? Is he an angel, or a manifestation of God? Is he Jacob’s guilty conscience, coming to him in a dream?
Most fascinating of all is the angel’s refusal to reveal his own name. And why does the struggle end with a name change for Jacob?
I think the story is about the power of names. In Harry Potter, the worst character – Voldemort – is referred to as ‘He who must not be named’, because the power of his evil lies in his name.His name invokes a power of its own.
In everyday life, the first thing we ask a person is ‘What’s your name?’ Names are the core of our identity. Parents spend months deciding what to call their children, often giving their children names infused with meaning, referencing places, people, and traits which they want to bestow upon their child.
It is interesting that from the moment Abraham and Sarah receive their new names they are never again called Abram and Sarai. By contrast, when Jacob is given his new name, the text refers to him as Jacob and Israel, at different times. His new name became a part of him, but didn’t dominate his identity.Parts of him were Israel, named after the struggle with the angel; parts of him remained Jacob, his birth name.
These names are central to Jewish identity today. The Jewish people are often called B’nei Yisrael, The Children of Israel. But sometimes the Torah calls them Beit Yaakov, The House of Jacob. Commentators suggest that the two names teach us that nations, just like individuals, are not exactly the same at all times. Some suggest that Bnei Yisrael refers to the physical side of the nation, while Beit Yaakov is the spiritual side. Others say that Bnei Yisrael refers to the men, and Beit Yaakov to the women.
Among all this talk about names I’ve been thinking about my own. My given name is Inbal. I always wondered why my parents thought to give me an Israeli name in a British speaking country. They said it was because they thought they were going to go back, because they wanted me to stand out, and because they wanted my name to show their love of Israel. But the name I go by is Bali. The fact that I have been called that all my life, even though my given name is Inbal, relates to my understanding of this week’s parashah. The names Bali and Inbal co-exist as parts of my identity, just as Israel did for Jacob.Different names speak to different parts of yourself, and reflect different times in your journey.
Bali Peretz is a student at JCoSS, a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue, and is celebrating her Bat Mitzvah on Parashat Vayishlach.