|With my hair still wet from the mikveh and my certificate|
D’var Torah: Genesis 32:25-33
Jacob’s struggle with God/an angel resonates with me on such a deep level and has for many years. I see my own spiritual journey as one of wrestling with God. Wrestling with myself, with religious institutions, with all I have learned, and so it makes perfect sense that I would finally find my home, my people, my God among Israelites - those who struggle with God.
Jacob’s encounter with the angel comes after his dream where he sees angels ascending and descending on a ladder (Genesis 28:12-13) and the night before he is to see his brother, Esau, since he stole his blessing. Jacob has learned some hard lessons since he last saw Esau. He himself has been tricked by Laban - laboring for seven years and then Laben substitutes Leah for Rachel. He has served Laban for many years, amassing his own wealth, enabling him to flee Laban. In addition, his marriages have given him eleven sons, a daughter, and Rachel, his beloved, is pregnant with his twelfth son. He is not the same man who took his brother’s birthright for a bowl of stew; or with his mother’s help stole his father’s blessing. He knows how it feels to be in Esau’s shoes and it tells us a great deal about Jacob, that he fears his brother’s anger.
So the night before this meeting that Jacob dreads, he wrestles with a man, the text tell us. They wrestled all night. In the morning, the man wrenched Jacob’s hip. Jacob stops the man from leaving and demands a blessing. This demand for a blessing is classic Jacob. He has no problem demanding what it is he wants and doing what it takes to get it. The man asks his name, which is itself is strange if the being is an angel or God, would he not already know Jacob’s name? He then tells Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Yet who is this being that Jacob wrestles with all night?
Sforno, Rashi, and Chizkuni all affirm that the being is an angel but have different explanations about who the angel is or what the struggle represents. For Sforno, the struggle symbolic of all of Jewish history. The Jewish people would struggle, struggle all night long, yet in the end the Jewish people will prevail. Rashi tells us that the angel is Jacob’s guardian angel and yet he also struggles with Esau. Finally Chizkuni, argues that the angel is Esau’s protective power that both makes sure Jacob will show up in the morning and to assure him that Esau will not harm him. Jacob tells us that he wrestled with God and names the place Peniel - I have encountered God face to face and yet I live.
Rabbi Charles Kroff in his D’var Torah, “Chasing Your Demons: Finding Your Friend” tells the story of a family where the four sisters are all in conflict with each other at the funeral of their father. They refuse to sit together, look at each other or interact in any way. Rabbi Kroff contrasts this with how Jacob wrestles with himself, with Esau, with God, which then results in the embrace of Esau and Jacob the next day. Esau does not harbor bitterness or anger. Jacob can accept the embrace because he has wrestled with what he had done, with Esau, with God, with himself - he can take responsibility for what he did. Rabbi Kroff asks “Haven’t we all struggled with our fears and our vulnerabilities at some time in the dead of night?”
Rabbi Kroff quotes Rabbi Cohen saying that Jacob"was conscious of all the different forces in his life with which he struggled: God, Esau, the side of himself that haunted him like a shadow. He was surely confronting both the human and divine in his life... That night, all the parts of Jacob and all the parts of his life came together, and he would never be the same" Rabbi Kroff tells us that this wrestling leads to transformation, to a new name to represent that who Jacob was when he laid down the night is not who he is in the morning. Jacob asks for a blessing and is given a new name, Israel. Jacob struggled with God, himself and other humans. Israel means one who struggles and prevails with beings both human and divine. However we understand Jacob’s experience - a dream, vision, or an actual physical battles, it is only through being willing to face what we fear, face ourselves, face truth, face God, that we can transform. I would say that for Jacob, that struggle through the night is the cumulation of a lifetime of struggle, and in the morning Jacob can finally embrace his full self. Florida Scott Maxwell states “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done … you are fierce with reality.”
I have wrestled with myself, with life, and I don’t know whether I have yet achieved having possesed all I have been and done. I do know that in my own wrestling, my own long, sleepless nights, I too have been transformed. Nowhere is this more true, than in my spiritual journey. To come to this place, to find my spiritual home within in Judaism, is not possible without struggling with first with the religious tradition I was brought up in, my search for a spiritual home within Christianity and within Unitarian Universalism. Yet is not just with religious institutions or traditions - in some ways they are only the surface, I have also had to struggle with God, with myself, with where I belong, who am I and who am I meant to be, and certainly struggle with the demons of insecurity, doubt, fear.
When I say I have found a home in Judaism, that home is not a place to get comfortable, to be quiet, or to cease from struggle. Oh it may be all that at times, and it is also loud, opinionated, with a fierce wrestling with God, with tradition, with Torah, and with how to live life fully and in service to healing the world. Not even Jacob stops struggling, soon he will lose Rachel, think he has lost his son Joseph, and will end his days not in his homeland, but in Egypt.
Part of conversion to Judaism is to choose a Hebrew name. There are many ways to go about this process but for me it was this text. This text that resonates so deeply with my own journey. I choose Yisraela (יִשְׂרְאֵלָה) as my Hebrew name. It will serve as a reminder of the struggle to this point and that life will continue to offer challenges with beings both human and divine.