From Jacob to Israel: On conflicts and inner growth

When we think about conflict and peacemaking, we usually focus on the parties’ interactions. Why aren’t they talking to one another? Is there a way that we can get them talking? Is there an agreement that they both might accept? We hope that the parties will explore interests rather than remaining entrenched in positions, that they will both express their own concerns and listen to the other side’s, that they will explore creative possible solutions, and so forth, but throughout we are thinking in essence about the parties’ inter-actions. Here, I want to address a different aspect of conflict resolution concerning what might be called the parties’ intra-actions. What do I mean by this? Briefly, some conflicts hold within them opportunities for significant inner growth. Be the conflicts microscopic ones between individuals or macroscopic ones between ethnic groups, attempting to reconcile with the other party may help us grow in our understanding of the world, including our understanding of ourselves. I know of no story more suggestive of this idea than the Jacob and Esau narrative.

Of all the Biblical characters, the two who seem most predestined for conflict are Jacob and Esau. From the time of their conception, the twin brothers struggle in Rebecca’s womb, and while they are still in utero, God informs Rebecca that two competing nations reside within her. As they emerge from her body, their rivalry is evident: Jacob (Ya’akov) the younger is so named for grabbing the heel (aikev) of Esau the older. All of this, and they are not even a day old! When they are youths, their parents play favorites, Isaac preferring Esau and Rebecca preferring Jacob. In the ensuing years, the brothers’ relationship only gets worse. Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s hunger to extract from him an extraordinary deal, the right to Esau’s firstborn blessing in exchange for a bowl of pottage. Later, to obtain that blessing, Jacob masquerades as Esau before their elderly, blind father Isaac. Esau learns of his brother’s guile, and, unable to obtain a second blessing from their father, vows in his heart to kill Jacob one day. Fearing that Esau will do just that, Rebecca counsels Jacob to flee their home, and soon he heads to her brother Laban’s home in the distant Paddan Aram.

In the Biblical narrative, some twenty years pass from the time Jacob flees his home until he re-encounters Esau. In that time, he serves his uncle Laban seven years for Rachel’s hand, only to be deceived himself by Leah’s masquerading. What goes around, comes around, as it were. Yet during those years, the deepest tension of his life, that with his brother Esau, remains unresolved, and he remains “Jacob”, the one born clutching his brother’s heel.

The story of Jacob’s re-encounter with Esau is well known. Fearing a bloody confrontation with Esau (who, it turns out, is approaching with four hundred men), Jacob sends messengers in advance to announce his peaceful intentions but also divides his camp in two as a defensive strategy – if some die, at least some might live. Anticipating that the next day he will once more meet his brother and unsure of what will ensue, Jacob lies down alone that night to sleep. It is during that night that he wrestles alone with a mysterious ish, after which he is renamed “Israel”.

Who was this ish? Ish literally means “man”, but clearly this ish is not an ordinary person. Was the ish God? Was the ish an angel from God? The medieval commentator Rashi suggests, following Breshit Rabbah, that the ish was Esau’s guardian angel. Esther Spitzer, interpreting the narrative through the lens of contemporary psychology, sees the ish as Jacob’s own Jungian shadow, the dark and selfish side of himself. Whatever one’s specific interpretation of the ish, what is most salient to me is the timing. As he finally faces rather than runs from the greatest conflict of his life – the conflict which has literally defined him as Jacob-the-grabber-of-Esau’s-heel since birth – Jacob is blessed by the ish with the new name “Israel” (literally, “God-wrestler”) because, as the ish explains, Jacob had “wrestled with God and with men and prevailed.”

Few conflicts, of course, result in parties literally being renamed, but many conflicts do hold within them the potential for significant inner growth. Indeed, the more deeply entrenched the conflict, the more likely are those opportunities. Sometimes that inner growth comes from expanding our understanding of things. As we listen to our adversary’s words, we may learn information that we had not previously recognized, information that leads us to see our world, and even ourselves, differently. Sometimes that inner growth comes through our moral choices (e.g., “Is this a time when I need to forgive, or is this a time when I need to stand firm?”). Sometimes that inner growth comes through things as “small” as learning new communication skills (e.g., “Can I find ways both to voice my own concerns and to listen to theirs?”).

Though not every conflict holds within it the potential for significant inner growth, some do. Conflicts are times when we naturally look for external solutions, but they are also times when we should be open to the possibility of inner change. Only through facing rather than running from the central conflict of his life did Jacob become “Israel”.

9AdarLOGOfullThis post is part of the 9 Adar project, an initiative of the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, part of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

Click for more 9 Adar posts about Constructive Conflict.

About the Author
Jonathan R. Cohen is a Professor of Law and Associate Director of the Institute for Dispute Resolution at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. This year he is on sabbatical studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
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