“Yisrael: the People Who Wrestle with G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, after twenty years with Laban, we find Jacob on his way to confront his brother, Esau, sending messengers and vast array of gifts as a tribute to placate him.

In Genesis 32:25, the Torah tells us, “Va’yee’va’ter Yaakov l’vah’do, va’yay’ah’vek ish ee’moh, od a’lot hashachar,” Jacob was left alone, and a “man” wrestled with him until the break of dawn. According to tradition, the man is the arch-angel of Esau. After dislocating Jacob’s hip socket, the man begs to be allowed to leave, but Jacob refuses, insisting that the man bless him. Genesis 32:29, “Va’yomer, lo Yaakov yay’omer od shim’chah, kee im Yisrael,” the man said, no longer will your name be called Jacob, you will be called Israel, “Kee sareetah im Elokim v’im anashim, vah’too’chal,” for you have striven with the Divine and with human beings and have prevailed.

From that time on, the children of Jacob are called B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel, and the nation is called, “the nation of Israel.” It is an intriguing name. We know that Jacob strives with both Esau and with Laban and ultimately prevails over them. But what does it mean to strive with the Divine, to strive with G-d? Is it only due to the fact that Jacob strove with an angel that he is renamed Israel, or does the name Israel have far deeper meaning for the Jewish people?

One definition of being a Jew that resonates with me, is that a “Jew” is a person who is in constant tension with himself and with society, always looking to improve himself and to perfect society. The name Israel, I believe, also implies that the Jew is constantly in tension with G-d, always striving to work out his or her relationship with G-d, to make it more profound and more meaningful.

In Jewish tradition, one of the most effective ways to make one’s relationship with G-d more profound is through striving. Not only in the conventional sense of religious growth, but even by expressing doubt. The Talmud in tractate Shabbat 31a records three stories of the potential proselytes who come to Shamai and to Hillel for conversion. The most famous is the case of the potential proselyte who comes and asks to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel replies, “D’alakh s’nay l’chav’rach lo ta’avid,” What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, “Zil g’mor,” go and study it.

There is however a second story that is germane to our discussion. The potential proselyte comes first to Shamai and asks to be converted despite the fact that he does not believe in the Oral Torah. Shamai dismisses him. Hillel welcomes him. The Talmud tells us that on the first day Hillel teaches the potential proselyte the Aleph Bet, the Hebrew ABC’s. When he returns the next day, Hillel asks the candidate to repeat the Aleph Bet, which he did, but Hillel tells him that he got it all wrong. The letters are Dalet, Gimmel, Bet, Aleph! The potential proselyte is very disturbed. Hillel tells him, that when you came to me you knew nothing. After all, I might have taught you the Aleph Bet incorrectly. Similarly, as you start studying Torah with me, you need to acknowledge that you know nothing about the Written code or the Oral code. So, let’s study together and see where our studies take us.

In his book, Faith and Doubt, Rabbi Norman Lamm points out that according to Shamai “doubt” is equivalent to denial, and hence Shamai dismisses the proselyte. According to Hillel, however, doubt is constructive because doubt leads to questions, and questions lead to growth. That is why in our tradition we use the expression, “Ani maamin,” I believe with full faith, and we do not say “I know” with full faith. Belief implies doubt. It means that we have to make a leap of faith, to leap over a lacuna that we are unable to comprehend. There will always be a black hole about G-d that human beings cannot fathom or master. That is why the medieval philosopher, Rabbi Joseph Albo (Spanish-Jewish philosopher and theologian c. 1380-c. 1444) wrote, “Ee’lu y’dativ, heh’yee’tiv,” If I knew Him, I would be Him. It is ultimately futile for the finite being to attempt to comprehend the Infinite.

It is in light of this blind leap of faith that we Jews follow G-d’s dictates and adhere to His Torah. We are called Yisrael, the children of Israel, because we wrestle with G-d, in fact, we sometimes wrestle with the very concept of G-d. Yet, it is this very wrestling that makes us stronger, keeps us growing, and insures that we keep forging ahead religiously and spiritually.

May you be blessed.