Yisrael. Israel. The ones who struggle with God. We are the people of Israel, the people who struggle with God. If it were not for being the people of Israel, I don’t think I would or could be Jewish. It is fundamental to my identity as a Jew, Yisrael, this name that appears for the very first time in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43). Abraham lays this foundation within moments of his connection with God in his classic and chutzpadik challenge- “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?” Indeed.
This week, Jacob, Yaakov, notoriously named “the heel,” is traveling to a reunion with his brother Esau, from whom he has been estranged for 20 years. When last together, Esau wanted to murder his brother, perhaps rightfully so, for tricking him out of the birthright and blessing to which he was entitled as the first-born son. Jacob fled the scene and now, as you can imagine, is plenty nervous about getting back together. I’m sure he couldn’t help but wonder how it would go, whether his brother was still holding on to his anger, whether forgiveness was possible?
In fact, he is so worried that he can’t sleep. He sends his entire family across the river while he wrestles with his fears. The wrestling manifests as a physical contest with a person who appears from nowhere and wrestles with him until morning. At some point, Jacob comes to understand that this is not a human but a divine being, and he demands a blessing. And what a blessing it is! Yaakov is renamed from the heel, to Yisrael, the one who wrestles with God. And thank God for that, for in that moment we learn that it is not only okay for us to question God, it is expected. God is actually challenging us to question.
When dawn breaks and this moment in the story ends, Jacob/Israel limps off with his hip wrenched to meet his brother. He renames the place- “Peniel,” the face of God. God’s face is truly revealed when we live up to our name as the people who never stop asking questions.
In Jewish tradition, God has 70 different names, at least 70 different aspects. We repeat God of Abraham, God of Sarah, recognizing that each person has their own concept of God, and, that that concept may shift during one’s lifetime. I personally continue to evolve in my own understanding of God’s presence in my life.
Jacob’s core identity is changed in this experience. No longer the heel, he has truly been blessed. Jacob is wounded in this process, as we may find ourselves wounded as we wrestle with the challenges in our own lives. Jacob, now Yisrael, approaches his reunion with his brother with a much greater sense of humility. Sometimes, it is in our darkest night of the soul, when we face our deepest fears, that we are able to confront our own wrongs and our own weakness. And, often, it is through this wrestling that we discover that strength can emerge from that confrontation. We know ourselves in a deeper way, and this knowledge empowers us as we move through life.
As the text moves forward, Yisrael is not able to hold onto this new identity. He vacillates between being Yaakov, Jacob, and Yisrael, the God-wrestler. It is easy for us to forget the hard lessons that we have learned from our moments of deepest challenge. It is then that we need to look within and draw from the deep well of blessings that ultimately define who we really are, and how we can manifest Godliness in the world, the essence of our holy being. Ultimately this is what matters most- not what is God or who is God, but how do we express God in our lives? In the final analysis, perhaps God is not a noun but a verb, or, not ONLY a noun but ALSO a verb. And, when we feel God lacking in our world, we can take comfort in being the people of Israel, the people whose very name, whose very mission, is to constantly question.