Friday November 19, 2021 – ט״ו בכִּסְלֵו תשפ״ב
“וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו מַה־שְּׁמֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹֽב׃ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃”
“…Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Yisrael, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”
This week the patriarch Jacob receives a new name, Israel, in one of the most dramatic scenes in the entire Torah: a nighttime struggle with an unknown being that altered his identity and ours as a people, and changed the course of Israelite history. No longer did Yaakov carry the identity of a deceiver or a heel (the root of Yaakov is ע-ק-ב ekev, meaning “heel” because Jacob held the heel of his brother Esau at birth), but now “Yisrael” after he ‘struggled with beings divine and human and prevailed.’ What does the name literally mean?
The Biblical understanding of the word is taken from the verb ‘Isra’ – שָׂרִיתָ (sarita), connected with the first part of יִשְׂרָאֵל (Yisrael). This construction means “to struggle” or “to wrestle.”
However, not everyone agrees.
The King James Bible translates it differently and derives the verb from the root ש-ר-ר which means to be like a ruler or who “rules like a prince” – and so is connected to the modern Hebrew word שר, the title for a “Minister” in government. Others contend that the verb comes from the root י-ש-ר meaning “straight” or “fair.” Yisrael could have been named first as יָשָׁר-אֵל meaning “the one whom God makes straight,” or “El our God is upright.” The name is contrasted dramatically to “Ya-akov-el,” “the one whom God makes to limp or whom God makes to cheat.”
The word “Israel” was the name of an ethnic group in the Levant at least 3200 years ago based upon the first known mention of the name in the written record in ancient Egypt. It appears as a hieroglyphic inscription on the Merneptah Stele (also known as the “Israel Stele”). Dating from the late 13th century BCE, the inscription says: “Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more.”
In the Hebrew Bible “Israel” is evidently a theophoric name (i.e. bearing the name of God), designed to invoke and display the protection of the God El. Changing the name was meant to convey a sense of pride for the God “El” – a ‘pro-El’ story.
Today, what do you think of when you hear the word, Israel? Does the word summon deep feelings of endearment and warm memories of smells, tastes, salty air off the beach, and long hikes in the desert?
For some, the name “Israel” conjures images of Biblical and religious sites. Others think of a war zone and conflict, and there are many who recall as kids in Hebrew school the photos of kibbutzim and Zionist pioneers. For most of you who read this newsletter, you likely have a very specific idea of Israel based on your own education and experience. More than half of North American Jews have no personal experience in Israel, and despite all our efforts, Israel just isn’t something they think about at all.
When you think of Israel, do you focus upon Israel’s victories, triumphs, and successes?
Do you imagine a land flowing with milk and honey or a land devouring its inhabitants?
Are you disturbed by images of war and terrorism, victimization, and delegitimization?
Or are you consumed by images of the occupation, Israeli-Palestinian strife, and injustice?
The name “Israel” continues to evoke a multiplicity of images.
Imagine the following scenario. You get comfortable on an airplane and settle in for a long ride (for some of us the very notion of air travel requires a great deal of imagination these days). The person next to you strikes up a conversation. At first, you’re hesitant to engage, but after a bit, you let down your guard and open up.
“Oh, you’re Jewish!” your neighbor exclaims with excitement. “I’ve really wanted to meet a Jewish person as I have so many questions…”
You feel nervous thinking, “Really?!? How could this be happening to me? How is it that I’m the first Jew this person has ever met, and now I have to represent all Jews and explain all of Judaism to some stranger who doesn’t know Mt. Sinai from Mt. Rushmore?”
“You see,” they begin… “I just watched this intriguing series about Jews on Netflix, and boy, do I have some questions.”
As you share that not all Jews live like the Satmar Hassidim in Brooklyn, or Litvaks in Jerusalem you come around and explain that not all Jews think the same way about Israel.
While this is an extreme example, conversations like this happen all the time concerning Israel and Zionism.
Viewed from afar, Israel is often seen in simplistic, even caricatured ways, whether good or bad, its complex history, society, and politics reduced to talking points and slogans.
Too often, I’m confronted with the assumption that being a Zionist equals a specific set of political views and a particular ideology, missing the dizzying diversity and raucous cacophony of voices, narratives, and viewpoints.
“I assume you’re against a Palestinian State?” one student asked me.
“Oh, why do you assume that?”
“Well, you’re a Zionist, so naturally…”
A staff member at a URJ camp this summer did not want to talk to me because I’m identified as a Zionist and because, as she declared: “Israel is a racist state and I am anti-racist.”
We are the People of Israel who represent so many shades of Jewish experience down through the millennia to today. We are strugglers who wrestle. We are rulers who lead a sovereign state that bears the name given to Yaakov at the River Yabok (Jabbok) in the middle of the night. I imagine that there will always be those who hear something different and who have different understandings of what Israel means. I suggest that successful Israel engagement means that we Jews as a people can be on the fence concerning the critical issues facing our people and the Jewish state. We can still hug each other and wrestle with our differences and be both troubled and committed to the Jewish people and the State of Israel. At the end of the day, I believe that being Yisrael means working to better, not batter, Israel.
Modern Israel was born out of a struggle. It faced staunch opposition by many who actively worked to prevent its coming into being as a sovereign nation. Now it is a thriving modern state, yet still has much work to be done to make real its own aspirations and live up to its founding principles of freedom, justice, and peace.
The big question is how we can take Yisrael from being only “God-Wrestlers” and “rulers” to being also יָשָׁר-אֵלYashar–El a people and nation that are upright, decent, and just?”
The historic meaning of “Yisrael” ought also to be its destiny.
Shabbat Shalom and חַג חֲנֻכָּה שָׂמֵחַ,
**Our newsletter will be off next week as our offices are closed and we will return the following week during Hanukkah!