“Together We Will Prevail?” | Parashat Vayishlach
December 2023 – Kislev 5784
Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg
Two weeks ago, here in BINA’s column on the weekly Torah portion, Ayala Deckel, Head of the BINA Secular Yeshiva, offered a commentary on what has become a sort of national motto in Israel since October 7 – “together we will prevail – beyachad nenatzeach – יחד ננצח”. In Israel these days, this mantra can be seen and heard almost everywhere – on billboards, on buses, and even tv commercials. For those of you who haven’t read Ayala’s moving piece, I encourage you to read it. In her piece, Ayala shared her thoughts on the word “together”. This week, as we read Parashat Vayishlach, I would like to add my own comments on this mantra, though I prefer to focus on the remainder of the phrase: “we will prevail.”
I’ll be honest. I’m having a really hard time seeing “together we will prevail” everywhere. What is supposed to be a unifying and motivating mantra is rubbing me the wrong way. Just two simple words in Hebrew: (1) יחד – yachad – together; and (2) ננצח – nenatzeach – we will prevail (or alternately translated as: we will be victorious, or we will win). I think it’s the “we will prevail” part in particular that troubles me.
I mean, what exactly do we mean by “prevail”? Over who or what exactly will we prevail? What would that look like? How will we know that we have indeed “prevailed”? When will we know? And is war even something in which anyone can truly “prevail” or “win” or “be victorious”?
Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Vayishlach, begins with preparations for a battle. Jacob, the forefather of the People of Israel, is returning to the land of Canaan after twenty years in Padan Aram and on his way home he must go through his brother Esau. Esau, you may recall, was the very reason Jacob fled Canaan in the first place. After Jacob had taken Esau’s firstborn blessing, Jacob was told that Esau was seeking to kill him, so Jacob ran away. And now Jacob is returning and must face his greatest fear: his brother. Jacob sends messengers with a message to Esau but they return reporting that Esau is actually advancing toward Jacob with 400 men! Greatly frightened, Jacob divides all of his people and his property into two camps, with the hope that if Esau attacks, at least one camp may survive. That night, after all of the preparations are completed, and before the fateful encounter, Jacob is left alone. It is then that Jacob finds himself in a most unexpected and extraordinary battle:
Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel [ישראל – yisra-el], for you have striven [שרית – sarita] with beings divine [אלוהים – el-ohim] and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel [lit. face of God] meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved [or: saved].” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.
(Genesis 32:25-32, JPS Translation)
Jacob wrestles with someone all night – apparently some kind of angel or divine being. And then, toward morning, as the angel sees he has still not prevailed against Jacob, he wrenches Jacob’s hip socket and asks Jacob to let him go. Jacob demands a blessing and the angel gives him a new name: Israel, which, according to the story, means one who strives/wrestles/fights with the Divine, and – at least in this case – prevails. Henceforth Jacob’s children will be known as the Children of Israel – the children of the one who wrestles with the Divine. The angel leaves. Jacob names the place Peniel [face of God] out of gratitude for having survived an encounter with a divine being. As the sun rises, Jacob continues on his way, but now limping as a result of the fight.
So who prevailed in this fight? It would seem to be that Jacob prevailed. After all, he was the one who overpowered his adversary. He survived the battle and continued on his way. But he is not the same person he was before. He now has a new name – one that will be a reminder forever of his battles. And he no longer walks the same way he walked before – as a physical reminder of the battle he has survived. So did he in fact prevail over the angel? In the end, it seems that he ultimately let the angel go and received what he wanted: a blessing. But did he really? Is his new name truly a blessing? At the end of this story, we are left with more questions than answers.
So what about our current battle? Is it one in which it is truly possible to “prevail”? And if so, what would such “victory” look like? Militarily? Spiritually? I am certain that I do not have all the answers and most likely there is no single person who does. Yet these are questions that must be asked. Even if they come with great internal struggle. Yet perhaps only by struggling through them together we may be able to come to some sort of satisfactory answers.
And another question: how will we be after this war – as a country, as a society, as a people? How do we want to be? We will surely not be the same, physically or spiritually. The scars, seen and unseen, will be with us forever. Perhaps this too is a part of “prevailing”: changing, both on the inside and out. And perhaps this is the only kind of “prevailing” that we can hope for. Not a perfect, absolute “victory” of vanquishing and of redemption. But an imperfect “prevailing” of survival, of change and of resolution, of bearing a new name and walking in a new path.
Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg is a Senior Educator at BINA.