In this week’s parasha (torah portion), Vayishlach, Jacob and Esau, brothers, are planning to meet again for the first time in decades. The night before they meet, Jacob is awakened by a stranger, an angel, with whom he wrestles the entire night. Towards the break of day, the angel requests to be let go, and Jacob replies that he will only let go if the angel blesses him. The angel asks Jacob his name and proceeds to give Jacob a new name, “Israel”, meaning “one who struggles with God and prevails.”

In this parasha, a few things strike me. The first is that in the midst of a stressful time, Jacob is confronted with an angel who wrestles with him. The second is that Jacob’s name is recognized and changed to something with deep meaning. 

When I think about the struggle with the angel, it reminds me that we all struggle with our own “angels” (maybe even demons) in our lives. In stressful times, we look inward, we reflect, we struggle with our own thoughts and actions. It is possible that Jacob, in a moment of discomfort and stress about meeting his brother again, suffered from fear and anxiety – which appeared in the form of an angel from God. 

I can’t help but think..Was Jacob ok? Did anyone check in and ask? This portion of the Torah reminds me of the work we do at Hillel every day – we check in on our students, we care for their wellbeing and we do our very best to be there for any student who is wrestling with their own angels and demons, however they may appear in day-to-day life.

Related, but separate from the issue of mental health, is that the angel asked for Jacob’s name and then went on to rename him Israel. I found this part quite meaningful. I’ve always believed that the most important thing you can do for someone as you develop a relationship is to remember their name. A person’s name (whether given or chosen by the individual) becomes part of who they are and I believe it is a sign of respect to use their name in addressing them. In this case, Jacob was asked for his name and was subsequently blessed and given a new name by the angel, a name meaning “one who struggles with God and prevails.” Given Jacob’s persistence with the angel, this is a fitting name for him. It makes me think about what name I would choose to define who I am. I think about my friends, as well as many Jewish students on campus, who have changed their given names to better describe and identify themselves. I am proud of them for knowing who they are, and giving themselves a name. 

Overall, I appreciate that this parasha deals with the themes of mental health and identity. These themes are incredibly relevant today and part of our day to day work at Hillel. My hope is that in addition to Jewish students exploring Jewish life during university, through Hillel’s initiatives, that they also find safety, comfort, and a trusting community with Hillel. I hope they develop a strong sense of self and pride in who they are.

Katie Goldig,
Director, Western Hillel