VaYishlach – 5779
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Words matter. Language frames, well, everything.
When we study a foreign language, we learn not only the words, but the culture of the people who speak them. For this reason, it is incredibly difficult if not impossible to translate literature from one language to another without losing something along the way.
As American Jews, we speak English. However, English is not the language of Judaism. It is a language steeped in Christianity. That’s why I prefer not to use words like “Jew” or “Judaism.” To understand who we really are, we need to turn to the language of our people, to Hebrew.
The story of how we got our Hebrew name can be found in VaYishlach. In this week’s parasha Jacob escapes with his family from the clutches of Laban only to learn that Esau is approaching with four hundred armed men. The last time Jacob saw Esau was twenty-one years before, when he fled the camp because Esau was determined to kill him. Fearing violence in the morning, Jacob splits his family into four separate camps, hoping that at least some may escape and survive. Then something really strange happens. Jacob spends the night alone on the far side of the Jabbok river, where a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. Who was this man? Where did he come from? The text says nothing. Then, as the sun began to rise, the man asks Jacob to release him because the sun was rising. Why would that matter? The weirdness continues when Jacob refuses, demanding that the man bless him first. Of all the things Jacob might say at that moment, why ask for a blessing? Yet, the man does not find the request at all strange. The dialogue continues:
“And he [the man] said to him [Jacob], ‘What is your name?’ And he said, “Jacob.” And he said, ‘Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and prevailed.’” [Gen. 32:28-9]
The interpretive tradition is clear, and Jacob admits as much a few verses later: Jacob did not struggle with a man that night, but with something else – either God or a messenger from God. The Hebrew word Yisrael means “struggle with God.” Over the course of the night, Jacob was transformed from Ya’akov, which means “heel,” to Yisrael, the one who struggled with God and prevailed. We are B’nei Yisrael, the children of the one who struggled with God. Our tradition is not one of blind faith, but of struggle, for we are Jacob’s spiritual and genetic descendants.. We encourage questioning, challenging, probing. In the Torah itself, not even God is immune for questioning or challenge!
This, I think, is a source of our resilience; our relentless questioning of ourselves, our institutions and our faith; our ability to change, adapt and evolve while staying true to our ideals and values; our drive for integrity even when the world seems a dark place.
Our spirituality, our mission, is not “touchy-feely” but to struggle for a higher cause, and to prevail.