23/24 Nov : Vayishlach: Shabbat comes in 3:47pm, ends 4:53 pm
In Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob/Ya’akov faces the most fateful river crossing of his life, at the river Yabbok. Crossing it, he leaves behind his exile in the household of Lavan, his uncle and father-in-law. But he is not yet ready to re-enter the covenantal Land to which he is the heir. To pass through the no-man’s-land between the rivers and enter into his covenantal heritage, he must first transform himself.
In Judaism, water is a powerful transformative agent. Immersing in it can make the forbidden permitted, and purify the ritually impure. Crossing the Sea of Reeds began the transformation of the Israelite slave society into a free nation. Crossing the Jordan transformed Israel from a group of landless wanderers into a nation that possessed a Land of its own, able to begin the process of taking physical possession of it.
As Ya’akov crosses and re-crosses the Yabbok (with family and possessions), he must transform himself from a wily trickster into a man of emunah, faithfulness. It is at the river bank that “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Gen. 32:25). The identity of this “ish,” as he is called in the Torah, is the topic of much debate – was he an angel, or perhaps a representation or guardian of Esav, or even some part of Ya’akov’s own spirit?
In the end, the mysterious entity with whom Ya’akov struggles gives him a new name, Yisrael, perhaps showing the renewal of spirit and identity that Ya’akov must undergo. Radak (R. David Kimhi, Provence 12th-13th C.) notes a debate over whether Yisrael replaced or is just an additional name, since the Torah actually continues to refer to him as Ya’akov. No transformation happens overnight; although given a new name, Ya’akov must still earn his way to it.
Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman