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What “Israel” Truly Means #702

11/19/2021 05:18:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Vayishlach
“For seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Genesis 33:10)

What "Israel" Truly Means

Was there a moment in your life when you decided it was time to grow up?

The illness or death of a loved one? Was it that first moment — as one writer describes it — of “failure, betrayal, break-up, empty wallet, empty stomach, loneliness or criticism?”

In this week’s Torah portion, that is the moment experienced by Jacob, Judaism’s third-generation patriarch.

To date, he has tricked his brother into giving up his inheritance. He has repeatedly run from confrontation. He has played “let’s make a deal” with God.

But this week, it’s time for Jacob to face the failures of his youth. He is about to encounter his long-estranged brother Esau, who — 20 years earlier — vowed to kill him.

Do I feel sorry for Jacob to date? Not at all.

Do I consider him a role model worthy of the title “patriarch?” Not yet.

Do I consider him a reflection of how so many of us live during our childhood or early adult years? Oh yes.

And that is what makes our Torah so incredibly relevant generation to generation.

As this week’s ParashahVayishlach, opens, Jacob is on his way home, and sends messengers ahead to make contact with Esau.

As the Etz Chaim biblical commentary notes: “The specter of a vengeful Esau looms before him.”

Jacob divides his camp in two. If a vengeful Esau decides to kill him and his immediate followers, half of his entourage would survive.

The night before the inevitable confrontation, Jacob sends his immediate family away, choosing to sit alone on the opposite bank of what is known today as the Blue River — about 20 miles north of the Dead Sea.

And there, the Torah tells us, he wrestles with an “ish,” literally translated as “a man.”

There has been much speculation about that “ish.” Was it a stranger? Perhaps it was Esau confronting him directly? Was it the spirit of the river or Esau’s guardian angel?

Whoever it was, most of our Sages agree that Jacob wrestled all that night with no ordinary “ish.”

Some Sages say the “ish” — man or angel — was there to build Jacob’s strength and courage before meeting Esau. Others contend that the “dust up” was conceived to tear down Jacob’s ego before contritely facing his brother.

But I believe that no supernatural explanation is necessary; I believe Jacob was wrestling with himself.

Indeed, Jewish tradition places a high value on introspection. 

We all make mistakes in our youth. Words are spoken. Actions are performed, often without considering the consequences.

In many ways, the rabbis are harsh when it comes to our youth. They note that from the time that we are born, we reach out for whatever pleasure or satisfaction we can find. We call this our “yetzer rah,” our evil inclination.

But it is replaced as we mature — as we pass through bar or bat mitzvah age — by a more evolved awareness that we are not alone, and that we are here to make ourselves and the world a better place.

It comes with time.

As dawn breaks, the Torah tell us that the wrestling match ends. Jacob asks the mysterious man to bless him perhaps as the great 12th Century commentator Beckhor Shor states — “to make peace with me and acknowledge that I beat you.”

But the “ish" refuses. Rather, he provides Jacob with a new name — Yisrael, which literally means “wrestler” or “struggler with God.”

Aren’t we all?

When the two of them part company, Jacob is left with an injury. During the bout, the angel has pulled Jacob’s hip from its socket. Jacob, as the narrative explains, will walk with a limp for the rest of his life.

Or, as I like to reflect, can we ever shake off those things that we committed, as youths, out of haste or self-interest?

Each day, most of us wrestle with God. I observe events in our country and in the world, and wonder why conflict, disagreement and discord are continuing to rise. Why does anti-Semitism perpetually rear its head? Isn’t the world supposed to becoming better? 

Indeed, this is part of our eternal wrestling match with life.

Each of us has a little El — a piece of God — in us. It is called our soul. As we mature, that spark shines brighter. And, as we, like Jacob, develop the capacity to put aside our material interests or grievances with others, we become godlier.

Jacob begins his life looking out mainly for himself. Later as he meets his estranged brother, he offers much of what he owns to Esau: “For seeing your face is like seeing the face of God,” Jacob says, as they begin their tearful reconciliation.

The two weep. They kiss. They catch up and rejoice in each other’s success.

For if there is one thing that this Torah portion teaches us, it is that family bonds run deeper than any of the physical possessions and conflicts that too often divide us.

The Torah’s narrative ends as Jacob and Esau peacefully go their separate ways.

I like to think that at that moment, Jacob — or Israel — comes of age. He goes on to raise 13 children — with victories, tragedies and challenges along the way.

But from that point on, Jacob worries less about himself and more about the future of his family and, ultimately, the Jewish people.

It is a fine line that each of us has or needs to cross. Somewhere inside of us, we still limp, as we reflect upon the errors of our youth.

But that limp becomes less pronounced as — over time — we embrace our “yetzer tov,” our “better angels.”

Becoming a better person takes work. Each day, to turn ourselves into someone better, we struggle with life, with others — even with God.

In so many ways, that is the essence of Judaism.

Each of us has an “ish” with whom we struggle every day.

It’s what makes each of us, a son or daughter of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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