“Yisrael: The People Who Wrestle with G-d”
(updated and revised from Vayishlach 5762-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, after having lived twenty years with his very dishonest father-in-law, Laban, we find Jacob on his way to confront his brother, Esau, who has threatened to kill Jacob. Fearful Jacob, sends messengers and a vast array of gifts as a tribute, in the hope of placating his brother’s murderous intentions.

In Genesis 32:25, the Torah describes the dramatic scene, וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ, וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר, Jacob was left alone, and a “man” wrestled with him until the break of dawn. According to tradition, Rashi Genesis 32:25, citing Midrash Genesis Rabbah 77:3 the “man” was the archangel 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, records the conversation: וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ, כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל, the man said, “No longer will your name be called Jacob, you will be called Israel,” כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱ־לֹקִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל, “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, literally, the children of Israel, and the nation is called, “the nation of Israel.”

“Israel” 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 because 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 deeply with me, is that a “Jew” is a person who is in constant tension with him/her self and with society, always looking to improve him/her self 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 the Divine, 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 the ancient scholars, 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, דַּעֲלָךְ סְנֵי לְחַבְרָךְ לָא תַּעֲבֵיד,“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, זִיל גְּמוֹר, go and study.”

There is however a second story that is germane in this context. The potential proselyte first comes to Shamai and asks to be converted despite the fact that he does not believe in the Oral Torah (the Talmud and rabbinic tradition). 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 ABCs. 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, “When you first 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 lead us.”

In his book, Faith and Doubt, Rabbi Norman Lamm, z”l, 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.

This is why our tradition often uses the expression, אֲנִי מַאֲמִין“Ani Ma’amin,” I believe with full faith, and we generally do not declare, “I know” with full faith. Belief implies doubt. It means that we have to make a leap of faith, to leap over a lacuna, the imponderable facts that we are unable to comprehend. There will always be a “black hole” about G-d that human beings can never fathom or master. That is why the medieval philosopher, Rabbi Joseph Albo, in Sefer ha’Ikarim Section 2, Chapter 30, wrote, אִלּוּ יְדַעְתִּיו הֲיִיתִיו, “If I knew Him, I would be Him!” It is ultimately futile for the finite being to attempt to comprehend the essence of 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 ensures that we keep forging ahead religiously and spiritually.

May you be blessed.