Who are you, and who do you want to be?
Jean Valjean, the protagonist of the musical Les Miserables, experiences a moment early on in the story where he struggles to figure out who he is, and who he wants to be. An escaped former convict, he has changed his name, worked hard to redeem himself, and built a completely new identity, even becoming the Mayor of his town. Yet, one day another person is arrested for the crime that Valjean committed years before. In a song entitled, “Who Am I”, after Valjean has heard this news, he questions:
Who am I?
Can I conceal myself forevermore?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Schönberg, Claude-Michel. “Les Misérables : a Musical.” London : Milwaukee, WI :Alain Boublil Music ; Exclusively distributed by H. Leonard, 1998.
In Vayishlach, Jacob also struggles to determine his true identity, who he is, and who he wants to be. Years before, he managed to manipulate both his brother and his father in order to steal the barely-older Esau’s birthright and special first-born blessing. He fled, married, and had many children, and now the long drawn out and unresolved conflict with his brother is about to come to head as they reunite in the desert. Like Valjean, Jacob has tried to conceal himself from his past, building a new identity and staying away from Esau.
Yet, this week in Vayishlach, Jacob is done hiding. He makes a brave choice, taking a bold and important step on his journey by sending a message to his brother in order to reconcile. This is a very different Jacob from the person we saw earlier in the story. He is now ready to face his past and navigate the consequences of his actions. Like Valjean, the convict-turned-mayor, Jacob has grown as a human being, maturing from a trickster and manipulator into the leader of a family and his people. He is ready to own his identity and be straightforward about what he has done. When he hears that Esau is approaching with hundreds in his retinue, Jacob is frightened. He divides up his camp and winds up alone.
That evening, alone in the wilderness, Jacob has a moment of struggle- both physically and spiritually. A mysterious figure- perhaps God, maybe an angel, or a human-appears to him. They wrestle, and when Jacob wins, he won’t let the figure go until he gets a blessing. “Vayomer elav mah sh-mecha vayomer Ya’akov.” “The other said, ‘what is your name?’ He replied, ‘Jacob’.” Last time Jacob requested a blessing and was asked his name, he replied falsely, using his brother’s name. It is only now that he answers honestly, admitting exactly who he is, that he can be given the name Israel, fulfilling his destiny. In a moment of truth, this is his self-renewal, his way of changing his story, moving forward from all of the dishonest things he did in the past, transforming his identity. This new name is his future, and ours.
“Who am I?” Jean Valjean asks himself in his own moment of truth. “I’m Jean Valjean”, he then reveals to the court, making a brave choice and saving the wrongly accused. Valjean also boldly faces his past, by announcing who he is and no longer hiding behind what he is called. He acknowledges what he has done by using his true name, returning to the truest version of himself, even after working so hard to run away from the past.
By receiving the new name Israel, Jacob becomes the truest version of himself. He wrestled with God and man, and won, finally earning a blessing on his own merit without having to lie and steal from others. Israel means struggle. Jacob’s story this week also teaches us that Israel means facing our history. Israel means making tough decisions that ultimately can help us grow and navigate the next obstacle. Israel means being brave in the face of what scares us most.
Who are you, and who do you want to be? What prevents you from being your truest self? What do you fear that holds you back from the life that you really want to lead? It is difficult to step up, to face tough struggles, and be our most authentic selves in a world filled with many complex challenges. We could be like the Valjean who conceals himself from the world, the Jacob who manipulates to get what he wants. Or, we could own who we are and meet obstacles head on, using what we’ve learned from the past and continuing to grow as life moves forward. We could make the brave choice to wrestle with ourselves, and win, as Valjean ultimately comes forward to save another man, and Jacob initiates contact with the brother he hurt long ago, then overcomes a more physical struggle. It is natural to fear the unknown; yet each of us has the power to choose how we wrestle with the challenges that we will inevitably encounter.
Though we do not receive new names, or return to old ones, every time we face the unexpected, each step on our journeys impacts who we continue to become. May our encounters with struggle provide us with meaning and help us to grow. May we be inspired by Valjean and Jacob’s bravery to know that we are human and it’s ok to be afraid, and to also know that we are capable of making bold choices and doing the right thing. We have the power to take action and rise to the occasion, scary as it may be. We can and should be ourselves, even as we continually define and discover who we really are, and who we want to be.