Returning across the Jabbok stream to the land of his birth, our ancestor Jacob offers a prayer to “the God of my father Abraham and the God of my father Isaac, the Eternal One who says to me, ‘Return to your land and to your birthplace and I will do good with you.’” (Genesis 32:10)
It sounds so easy. As it happens, however, returning home, to his own place, for Jacob, entails a dicey encounter with an estranged sibling, amid troubled memories and fears of violence and reprisal. And returning home involves, as well, an intense tussle with Divinity, an all-night wrestling match with the ultimate mystery that in equally real ways defies and defines us. Out of that struggle, Jacob acquires a new name – our name – Israel.
If we learn from this – and we should – that the journey of being true to oneself, in the spirit of our ancient people, often is not easy, we can also learn – and we must – how the challenging road that reveals and gives one the opportunity to refine one’s own self can be the ultimate and most worthwhile adventure. Most of all, we can learn that the path home to one’s own identity, however individual, is inevitably dialogical, conversational – with others, and with aspects of oneself.
As to oneself, I think of the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, a solitary figure if ever there was one, whose intent abhorrence of the concert hall (“I detest audiences,” he said, “not in their individual parts, but en masse I think they’re a force of evil”) led paradoxically to one of the most intensely performative lives ever lived. So much of that life was so resolvedly described, often in question-and-answer form, very often with Gould scripting not only his own part but also the interlocutor’s. That is one form of the late night wrestle, and if it was in some ways a rejection of the actually interpersonal (at least en masse), Gould’s path also illumined very sharply ways in which private personhood can and perhaps even must be an exposition, a show and tell.
As to the relational, the greatest challenge in fact may be how entering into real interaction with another disrupts one’s own performance to oneself. Suddenly the part of the audience, or interlocutor, or even the loyal opposition, is not scripted from within. “What’s your name?” asks the angel; “Jacob,” says Jacob; and “No,” says the other, “you’re going to be called Israel.” (Genesis 34:28-29). Just think for a moment of the umbrage you might take at such an exchange were you the subject of it. It may be that all real relationship has something of that aspect. True interaction requires a certain tolerance for seeing oneself not only through one’s own eyes. That kind of tumble, and certainly the nocturnal version with a partner, inevitably involves collision not only with another person, in all that person’s quiddity, but also between one’s own self-concept and the actuality of oneself as experienced from another vantage point. That’s not for the faint of heart, the courageous dare to learn.
In one vein of classical rabbinic interpretation, the angel who wrestles with Jacob is the celestial counterpart or protector of his brother Esau, the ultimate other (e.g. Genesis Rabbah 77:3). In another interpretation, the divine wrestling match teaches Jacob that his own features are reflected on high (e.g. Genesis Rabbah 78:3). Real life is composed of both kinds of confrontation.
The glory of a place like Harvard is that it cultivates both the formative contention with oneself and the refining encounter with others. If one dares to embrace both opportunities, the result can be quite wondrous.
(Artwork: Gustave Doré, "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel")