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This week's portion: in the dark

Beyond binaries: Jacob and Israel (Radical Torah repost)

Mea culpa, y'all. In all the chaos of blogging the Rabbis for Human Rights conference last week, I forgot to repost my 2006 Radical Torah d'var Torah for last week's portion, Vayishlach. Here it is; enjoy!

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for dawn is breaking." But he answered, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." Said the other, "What is your name?" He replied, "Jacob." Said he, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.

This may be the most dramatic moment in this week's portion, Vayishlach. In many ways it's the pinnacle of this particular story: Jacob spends the night wrestling with this stranger, this divine messenger, and at the end of the night Jacob receives a new name as a blessing for having "prevailed." What does that mean to us, and what can we learn from Jacob's injury -- and what can we take away from Jacob's new name?

I want first to look at the last few words of the quotation with which I began this post. Sarita im-elohim v'im-anashim vatuchal, the Hebrew says: "You have striven with God and man and have prevailed." That's how most English versions render it, though I think the Hebrew has a different tone, indicating simply that Jacob was able. Able to what? Perhaps to endure -- to remain in the struggle.

Though the English translation suggests winning, I don't think that connotation is present in the Hebrew. This story isn't about Jacob besting the mysterious stranger; they didn't wrestle for best two matches out of three, or even the best of their single night-long contest. Jacob "prevailed" in remaining in the moment, in the struggle, even though doing so meant enduring some pain. Jacob prevailed because he stayed in it.

Because Jacob didn't relinquish the struggle, he wound up with a hip out of joint. Thereafter, the text tells us, Jacob walked with a pronounced limp. A record of the struggle was written on his very body, a souvenir he carried with him for the rest of his days. At the beginning of his life, Jacob is described as an ish tam, a simple or homespun man -- though that adjective can also mean "perfect." After this wrestle, Jacob is no longer perfect; his body is blemished, scarred by his encounter.

Jacob's wound arises out of his engagement with the world, with this mysterious stranger, with the presence of God. Like Jacob, we too may find that the experiences where we find God, our engaged periods of wrestling with reality, leave us scarred and limping. The only way to avoid injury altogether is to avoid the world, and that kind of disengagement is not the path Judaism valorizes. Jacob received the blessing of the new name because he was willing to struggle; because he was present to the moment, even though that moment hurt.

And what of Jacob's new name? Henceforth, the text tells us, he will be known as Yisrael, he who wrestles with God. There are myriad drashot which hinge on this name change. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev reads "Yisrael" anagramatically as "Yashar El" and "Li Rosh" ("straight to God" and "God is at my head / the forefront of my consciousness.") He suggests that Yisrael-consciousness is connected with God at all times. (Jacob-consciousness, in contrast, is mundane and boundaried. Perhaps it arises out of Jacob's continual grasping, which began even in the womb.)

It's a beautiful teaching, which would seem supported if Jacob were known only as Israel from that point on (like some of his forebears whose names changed -- once Abram becomes Abraham, his old name vanishes.) But in the remainder of Jacob's story, he is known by both names, Yaakov and Yisrael. What gives? Did the name change, and the essence-change it's meant to reflect, somehow not stick?

Another possibility is that his two names, and the two states of consciousness that they reflect, are important and valuable to us precisely because of the ambiguity they allow. Jacob earns the new name because he's open to transformation, but that transformation is neither instantaneous nor irrevocable; it's something he has to continue working at, a process rather than an endpoint. As a result, he's continually oscillating between his two sides, the part of him which lives in duality (Jacob) and the part of him which lives in continual awareness of the presence of God (Yisrael.) In a sense, his real new name is the back-and-forth between the two sides of who he is.

That oscillation should be recognizable to us, because it's something we experience too. Sometimes I live, and act, out of my highest self which is aware of God's presence in all things; sometimes I don't. Like Jacob/Israel, I'm a house divided. In this week's parsha, we read about his literal division of his household (he divides his possessions, people, flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, so that if Esau destroys one half at least the other half will survive) -- but I think there's a metaphorical division at work here, too. Jacob is a man of binaries.

I'd like to think, though, that's he also a man of transcending those boundaries. He is both in the world, and beyond the world; he finds God in all things, except when he doesn't. Just like us. He's willing to open himself to the wrestle, even when that opening results in a painful wrenching which will shape the way he walks in the world. It's this which makes him our role model, the patriarch from whom we collectively take our name.