This week’s Torah Portion is a special one for me. Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43, contains the story of Jacob’s struggle with G-d as he comes back home to face the brother he wronged many years before. Jacob “wins” that wrestling match with G-d and receives a new name, Israel. To the location of his over-night struggle with G-d, Jacob gives the name “Peniel,” which is a reference to seeing the face of G-d.
When I converted to Judaism, I chose to make “Peniel” part of my Hebrew name because I had spent so much of my life arguing with G-d that it was as if I was carrying “the place of the struggle” inside me. At that time, I viewed my incessant struggle with G-d as a burden … as a character flaw that I hoped could be eliminated with sufficient study and prayer.
Now, after years of study and prayer, I remain “the place of struggle,” but I no longer see that trait as a flaw. Rather, I believe “carrying Peniel” is my greatest strength. Why the change? What did I learn that turned my struggle with G-d from a burden to a blessing?? I learned struggle is affiliated with change, and our ability to change might well be our holiest attribute as humans …
When Moses met G-d at the burning bush, G-d told Moses that G-d’s name is eheyeh asher eheyeh – which translates as “I will become what I will become.” And Jacob’s story is a beautiful example of how we humans are made in the image of G-d, of how we can take advantage of our holy ability to “become what we will become.”
Yes, Jacob begins as a man whose unethical and deceptive acts “miss the mark.” But he was also a man who honored his mother’s directive, who dreamt of a ladder that allowed angels to travel from and to heaven, who fell in love, who was deceived by another man, who worked hard, and who listened to G-d’s instruction that he go back home to his family despite his fear of the brother he deceived. Jacob’s story is a story of growth, of change, and of becoming … different and (I would like to believe) better.
And, just like Jacob, none of us is a static being frozen in space or time. The present is only the place where we stepped from our past and from which we will step into the immediate future. Every brief moment of life is a new “present,” a new opportunity to change the course of the future, such that, really, our lifetimes are composed almost entirely of what we were and, more importantly, what we choose to become.
Our very existence as humans is inseparable from our ability to become, and there is no shame to be found in the fact that we still need to grow, change, or improve. After all, if our G-d is not yet “done” becoming what G-d will be, then why would we ever expect a human to be finished???
We ought not expect to be finished, because such an expectation can only set us up for heartbreak or, worse yet, prevent us from growing. Our tasks are: (1) to remain aware of our deficiencies, (2) to trust that G-d will help us improve in the future, and (3) to keep learning, striving, and growing. For example, not long before his wrestling match with G-d, Jacob prayed saying,
G-d of my father . . . I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth, which you have shown to your servant, [but] Save me, I beseech you, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he will come and strike me, and the mother with the children.
Genesis 32: 10-12. Jacob realized he still had faults, he admitted his fear, and he asked for help … but Jacob did not run away. He stayed, and he struggled all night, and when the darkness lifted to reveal a new day, Jacob was a new man with a new name.
This is how it can be for us, if we are willing to admit our imperfections, to humbly ask for help, and to keep struggling to learn and grow. Our “night” of struggle may actually be a week, month, or even years; we may be injured (as was Jacob); and we may find ourselves facing seemingly insurmountable fear, which will repeatedly urge us to deny fault and to resist change. But if we can muster the courage to remain at Peniel and stay in the struggle, we can harness the holiness inside us and become a better version of ourselves. Baruch Hashem.