“And Yaakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Breishit, 32:24). Who was this man? The most common explanation is that it was an angel, the “Heavenly prince of Esav,” and that this wrestling represented Yaakov’s struggle against his external adversaries and anticipated the momentous encounter he would soon have with the earthly Esav.
It is possible to suggest another interpretation. While Yaakov had to struggle against many outside forces throughout his life, perhaps his greatest struggle was internal. Even for those inclined to have an idealized view of the Avot, the character of Yaakov presents major challenges. He takes advantage of Esav at a moment of weakness to buy the birthright, and he misrepresents himself to his father to take the blessing intended for Esav. He even seems to bargain with God: “If God is with me… and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear… then this stone… shall be a house of God” (28:20–21). And in his dealings with Lavan, Yaakov seems to be using every scheme and loophole to maximize his profit. In short, what we have seen up until now is that Yaakov has lived up to his name: “This is why he is called Yaakov, for he has schemed against me these two times” (27:36).
Yaakov’s greatest challenge, then, is not what is outside of him, but what is inside. He has to grapple with those qualities in himself that lead him to taking the easy way around things, to avoiding conflict and scheming to get his way rather than to tackling his problems head-on, with honesty and integrity.
This internal struggle and the resulting transformation have, in fact, already begun. By the end of his stay with Lavan, we hear that his shepherding was done with great self-sacrifice. As he tells Lavan with full confidence: “That which was torn of beasts I brought not unto you; I bore the loss of it… In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes” (31:38–40). This is a model of honesty, integrity, and work ethic that most of us could only hope to live up to.
Yaakov was thus a paragon of virtue in matters of money (itself no small feat), and perhaps he only employed his devices with the sheep to counteract Lavan’s double-dealing. But how will he react when he encounters Esav, when what is at stake is not just money but relating to Esav and owning up to his misdeeds of the past? It would be very tempting for Yaakov at this moment to convince himself that he acted correctly those many years ago, to continue thinking positively about himself, and to continue feeling entitled to his father’s blessing. Just consider how often we engage in similar self-deception, digging in our heels to convince ourselves that we are in the right so that we don’t have to confront our own past shortcomings and sins.
It is at this critical juncture that Yaakov is left alone, not just physically but existentially, alone with his own thoughts, his own character, and his own complex personality. He must grapple with the different parts within himself, his tendency to scheme and his desire for integrity and honesty. Will he be the same Yaakov, will he continue to deceive not just others but even himself? Or is he able to embrace the harshest honesty – honesty with oneself?
Significantly, at this moment of struggle Yaakov is asked – or he asks himself – who he is: “And he said to him, What is your name?” In sharp contrast to the past, he does not claim to be Esav; he does not engage in deceit, lying to himself about who he is. Instead, he answers simply and honestly: “And he said, Yaakov.” He is able to come to terms with those less-than-ideal parts of himself, the Yaakov/ekev/deceiver within. By not denying this part of himself, by accepting it and being prepared to deal with it, he is ironically now able to become someone else: “No longer will Yaakov be your name, but Israel.”
The Rabbis tell us that Yaakov went back to retrieve the pachim ketanim, the small vessels that he had left behind. These represent the small vessels that are within us, those easily ignored unpleasant pieces that are a part of us. When we want to move forward in life, it is easier to gloss over our small shortcomings. Paying attention to those will just hold us back, we say to ourselves. But we ignore them at our own peril. As the saying goes: Wherever you go, there you are. We can never escape who we are, and if we try to ignore those problematic personality traits, they will undoubtedly resurface, probably at the worst times, at times when we are under the greatest pressure. Yaakov’s greatness was his realization that in order to go forward, he first had to go back. He had to confront himself and struggle with himself, owning who he was and what his shortcomings – his pachim ketanim – were so that he could then grow and truly change.
Yaakov was victorious in his struggle in the end, but it was not a victory in the simple sense of the word. He did not destroy those vessels; he did not eradicate those parts of his personality. How could he? They were part of him. Rather – “you fought… and you were able” – he found a way to control this part of himself. He became able to dictate how these character traits would be expressed rather than letting them dictate his actions. This is the name of Yisrael, not that you conquered or destroyed your demons but sarita – from the word sar, to be a master – that you have gained mastery over them. He is now someone new, a Yisrael. And yet, as the later verses make clear, he remains a Yaakov. He is a Yaakov who now knows who he is and thus a Yaakov who has mastery, a Yaakov who is a Yisrael.
We all have our shortcomings. No matter how far we have come, if we do not engage in this Yaakovian self-grappling, if we do not go back for those pachim ketanim, we risk having these blow up on us at a later time. This, in the end, is the goal of therapy: to learn to recognize those undesirable parts of oneself, to be able to predict when they may be triggered, to moderate these traits, and most importantly, to choose to act differently. The goal is integration, not eradication.
It is true that there are some vessels that we should not go back for. Some things about us may never change, and we need to learn to make peace with those parts of ourselves. To quote the serenity prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous: “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Yaakov’s greatness was first recognizing that the vessels were there. But his second greatness was knowing that this was something that he could deal with and he could change.
Most of us, I imagine, too readily put things in the “cannot be changed” category and give ourselves a pass on doing the work that needs to be done within. Recognizing those things that can be changed, going back for those pachim ketanim, however, can be truly transformative.
Yaakov’s struggle was a heroic one, one that is crucial but that we often shirk from undertaking. It can be painful and make us feel vulnerable. Perhaps we are afraid that we, like Yaakov, will emerge from it limping, wounded, and weaker than when we started. This may indeed be a stage in the process, but it is necessary so that we, also like Yaakov, can emerge whole, can be a complete self: “And Yaakov arrived complete to the city of Shechem.” (33:18).
For religious leaders, to engage in such a process is all the more necessary. The demand to see oneself as a representative of the mesorah and a model of ethical probity often makes it hard for a religious leader to be honest about his or her own shortcomings. But such self-deception is a recipe for disaster. Such leaders risk either convincing themselves of their own infallibility or, conversely, allowing the “guilty” knowledge that they have these less-than-ideal personality traits to eat away at them until these traits seek a form of release, often in ways that are both destructive to oneself and destructive to others. Both for their own health and for the religious and spiritual health of the community, it is necessary that our religious leaders engage in the struggle of Yaakov. We will only have true leaders of Klal Yisrael, leaders entitled to the name Yisrael, when they are also able to struggle honestly with themselves and say: “My name is Yaakov.”