The Question Is The Blessing

By asking Yaakov his name, his wrestling adversary challenges him to examine himself and whether he is ready to enter a new phase of his life.

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The first example Radak offers of a rhetorical question is from story of the Garden of Eden. After the man and woman eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they become self-conscious of their nakedness, and attempt to hide from God in the Garden. God asks--knowing full well the answer!--"where are you?"

Radak's second example comes from Moses' experience at the burning bush. When Moses doubts that the people will believe that God has sent him, God turns Moses' staff into a snake, prefacing the miracle with the question "what is in your hand." Again, both Moses and God knew exactly what was in Moses' hand, just as the wrestler knew Jacob's name.

What's going on here? We might say that God was just striking up a good conversation, but Torah stories of encounters with the Divine tend to be terse and focussed. In each of the three stories Radak offers as an example of a rhetorical question, the main character is about to begin a new chapter in life--Adam is about to leave the Garden, Jacob is about to meet his long-estranged brother, and Moses is about to confront Pharaoh.

Perhaps the question is not merely a conversation-opener, but the main point of the conversation. In the case of Jacob, the messenger seems to want Jacob to think deeply about the meaning of his name, which we learned at his birth would represent the depth of his troubled relationship with his brother. (Cf. Genesis 25:25-27 and 27:35-37.)

The messenger knows not just Jacob's name, but his history--he's asking if Jacob has wrestled sufficiently with his own identity. "What is your name," in this context, can be understood as "are you still Jacob, the deceiver, or are you ready to become Yisrael, the person of conscience?"

What's so striking about our passage is that Jacob receives a question in response to his demand for a blessing--it seems to me that the question itself is the blessing he receives.

The right question, at the right time, from the right person, can change a person's life, enabling them to see and understand themselves in an entirely new light. When God asks a question, it's not for the sake of an answer, but for the sake of an inner response, a change in the person.

Who am I? What is the name I have made for myself, and what is the name I am capable of achieving? Just to ask the question can move us towards a better answer--just to ask the question, and thus demonstrate our capacity for growth and introspection, is one of the greatest blessings we have as human beings.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.