The Torah portion, or parasha, this week is Vayishlach and is found in Genesis 32:4-36:43. In this parasha, Jacob and his family continue their journey away from Laban’s home to return to Canaan. After 20 years away, Jacob nervously prepares for a reunion with his brother, Esau, whom he fears still remembers him as the one who stole the birthright. The messengers he sends return with the report that Esau is coming to meet Jacob with 400 men. Jacob divides his family and flocks into two camps, hoping that one will survive if the other is attacked. Jacob sends his brother a lavish gift of animals. That night, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious individual who injures his thigh and blesses him with the new name – Israel, which means to strive or wrestle (and prevail). Jacob and Esau meet without incident and then go their separate ways. God tells Jacob to go to Bethel and build an altar. There, God appears to Jacob, confirms his new name, and once again reaffirms the covenant. Rachel dies in childbirth and is buried on the road to Ephrat. Jacob finally returns to his father’s house. Isaac dies at the age of 180 and is buried by Esau and Jacob.
This parasha focuses on the story of Jacob’s name being changed to Israel. This is not the first time a patriarch has had his or her name changed. Both Abraham and Sarah had their names changed as well to reflect their growing understanding of their covenant with God. In Jacob’s story, his birth name refers to “heel” referring to the one who was born grabbing his twin brother’s heel. Yet, even from birth, Jacob was a wrestler, always striving to become something more, something better. Over time, in his dealings with Laban and his growing family, we see that he strove to be true to his word even if Laban did not. His wrestling and striving matured from the use of bribery over his brother to negotiations with both Laban and finally, with Esau at their reunion. The name Israel, then, reflected this maturity in Jacob’s striving. Like Jacob, each of us has a birth name. We also pick up other names throughout our lives, names that reflect our relationships to family members (e.g. mother, uncle), others in the community (e.g. friend, neighbor), and in our careers (e.g. teacher, electrician). But we are also known by our qualities that become part of our name–kind, caring, supportive, thoughtful, persevering– and it is these qualities that people remember most about us and shape our legacy. Let us remember the value of the names we receive and live so that we may be remembered by the qualities which matter most.