Vayishlach: Why Do You Ask?

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

And Yaakov asked and said, “Now tell me your name,” and he said, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there. (Bereshit/ Genesis 32:30)

Happy Thanksgiving!

The first story of this week’s Torah portion is Yaakov’s “God-wrestling” and name change. As he awaits the morning when he will finally have to confront the brother he despoiled decades earlier, he wrestles with a mysterious figure, who changes his name from Yaakov, the “heel” or deceiver, to “Yisrael,” the one who has struggled and prevailed. I’ve written about this story before- here and here– but as we consider the meaning of Yaakov’s name change, we should note that Yaakov also wants to know the name of the being who announced Yaakov’s new identity.

It’s not entirely clear to me whether Yaakov’s wrestling was meant to be understood as an external experience (he physically wrestled with some sort of embodied aspect of the Divine) with symbolic significance or whether the whole episode was a kind of dream or vision. Yaakov ends up limping afterwards, but this could be seen as an outer manifestation of his inner frailties. In any event, when Yaakov turns the tables and asks the being for a name, the angel or apparition responds with a question (how Jewish!): why do you ask?

This response is interpreted by some traditional commentaries as teaching that angels don’t have “fixed names,” as Rashi put it, but change their names according to each particular mission and circumstance. The commentaries assume this mysterious “man” with whom Yaakov wrestled was an angel or messenger from God, and therefore had no “name” as Yaakov would understand it- only a purpose. This is comparable to the story of the angel who announced the birth of Samson in Judges 13. When Samson’s father asked him for his name, he gave a similar answer: why do you ask, it is wondrous. (Meaning, I think, beyond intellectual comprehension.)

So what’s the point of Yaakov’s question and the question in lieu of an answer? It seems to me that Yaakov wants to intellectually grasp what is essentially a spiritual experience, that of shedding the dead weight of his moral past and embracing a renewed life in his homeland. The angel’s non-answer forces Yaakov’s question back onto Yaakov, as if he’s saying: “Yaakov, this isn’t about me, it’s about you and your brother and your family and your future.” Putting a question to Yaakov could be the very blessing referred to in the latter half of the verse: by turning the question around, the messenger subtly encourages Yaakov to fully inhabit this transformation of consciousness and conscience.

Yaakov’s desire to comprehend the nature of his experience is entirely understandable, but sometimes we have to do and to be before we can know. I say this as someone whose typical response to a new challenge is to find as many books as I can about whatever is in front of me! The apparition or angel or messenger had no “fixed name,” but only a purpose: to help Yaakov become the person he was destined to be. That required asking him hard questions and pinning him to the ground, as it were, with Yaakov’s own struggles. The angel needed no name, as its orientation was to serve others; it is precious indeed when we encounter such angels of wisdom to help us wrestle with our own life-changing questions.

Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom,

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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