By Rabbi Josh Weinberg December 4 2020 יח כסלו תשפ”א
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל
Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:30)
What does it mean to be Israel? In short, it means to struggle – but it also means to prevail, and to continue to undergo processes of transformation. Jacob, in this week’s parashah, undergoes a dramatic transformation. Jacob’s process of individuation is presented as a struggle between two personality traits – the deceiver vs. the peacemaker, one who braces for a fight vs. achieving rapprochement.
Many commentators point out that this is an inner struggle.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “It is clear what was transacted in the wrestling match the previous night. It was Jacob’s inner battle with existential truth. Who was he? The man who longed to be Esau? Or the man called to a different destiny, ’the road less travelled,’ the Abrahamic covenant? ‘I will not let you go until you bless me,’ he says to his adversary. The unnamed stranger responds in a way that defies expectation. He does not give Jacob a conventional blessing (You will be rich, or strong, or safe). Nor does he promise Jacob a life free of conflict. The name Jacob signified struggle; the name Israel also signified struggle. But the terms of the conflict have been reversed.”
Today, the State of Israel has amassed wealth and is strong. Yet, like the patriarch Jacob, it is not free of conflict. The question is this – what is the State of Israel going to be and what is our role as Diaspora Jews, who are also בית יעקב (descendants of Yaakov), and בני ישראל (the people of Yisrael)?
The State and the people of Israel are engaged in an identity struggle playing out in its electoral politics. It looks like Israel might be headed to another election – the fourth in under in two years. One segment of the population, a determined Right-wing, has been using aggressive tactics, championing an “us or them” rhetoric whereby the religious right is proclaimed as representing Zionist Israel and everyone else (the Left, Arabs, the Supreme Court, the media, etc…) is loosely branded as traitors. After the most recent election, PM Netanyahu stated:
“The time has come for anyone who believes in the justness of our rights in the land of Israel to join a government led by me to bring about a historic process together.”
The Israeli Zionist-left parties, most notably the Labor Party, which established the State and ruled it unchallenged for the first three decades of its history, is nearing political extinction – which could happen in the next election.
Ironically, despite the decline of the Zionist-left parties, their declared positions are popular among Israelis. It is conceivable that if the electoral system were designed so that Israelis could vote on their political convictions rather than for a political party, the governing policy in a variety of arenas would be guided by a leftist agenda. And yet, Israeli left-wing parties have been stripped entirely of their electoral assets while the right-wing has dominated Israeli politics for over a decade, even though its official positions do not have broad public support.
Five years ago, the political Left held 29 seats in the Knesset (Zionist Union + Meretz), and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid had an additional 13. In the most recent election, a joint faction held together by chewing gum and political expediency of Labor-Gesher-Meretz resulted in 7 Knesset seats. Gesher’s Orly Levy bolted and joined PM Netanyahu’s coalition, as did Labor’s two MKs Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli.
One doesn’t need to know all the ins and outs of Israeli political machinations to see that Israel is struggling politically to define itself, just as we liberal religious Diaspora Jews are also struggling to understand our relationship with the State of Israel. Many of us are like Jacob, standing alone at the bank of the Yabbok River. In a stunning and unbelievably dramatic moment Jacob wrestles with God and his fate. In wrestling he transforms his fate into destiny: to own and fashion his path forward. Jacob seems to be struggling with a lack of ability to control his destiny. It is not difficult to identify with, Jacob standing alone – wrestling with uncertainty.
The word “וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק (Vayeavek),” Hebrew for struggle in this text, is explained by Rashi with an intriguing and elliptical phrase – to struggle is to embrace.
When we physically wrestle with someone, from afar, it is almost indistinguishable from the action of embracing. The image of two people locked in struggle, wrestling, is seemingly identical to that of two people locked in embrace, hugging.
The language itself plays the same visual games. The Hebrew for ‘struggle’ (א-ב-ק) and ‘embrace’ (ח-ב-ק) derive from the same two-letter root, ב-ק. Rashi (11th century France) etymologically links these two words saying that “to struggle is to embrace.”
This is the existential challenge not only for Jews but for the State of Israel too. To wrestle is to be engaged, to be fully involved – mind, body, and spirit. To be Yisrael is both to embrace and to struggle. As educator Robbie Gringras wrote:
“Wrestling with [the State of] Israel requires an effort, a fight, a struggle. But it also demands an intimacy and a commitment. The time has come for us to wrestle with Israel in the dust, in the night, and, yes, sometimes in our pain.” And I would add that we must also embrace the Jewish state as it wrestles with itself.
The beauty of Rashi’s comment is that it offers us a rich and tangible reminder that struggle cannot be distant. All wrestling, all struggle, is intimate. As we picture Jacob grappling with the stranger in the dark, we understand that struggle evokes uncertainty.
After our struggles and embraces, like Jacob we also become Yisrael. Jacob then confronts his brother and his greatest fear, that his brother will kill him for Jacob’s wrongs against him twenty years prior. Even as Jacob/Israel braces for a struggle, Torah says: “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)
By wrestling and embracing we carry on this tradition. We place both the State of Israel and the people of Israel in the context of our Jewish identity. We ensure that neither will be an optional add-on, but rather central elements of our Jewish lives. We continue with our inner struggle and search for the ability to embrace our adversaries when possible, and not to let go.
That is what it means to be Israel, then, now and always.