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The people who partner with God

ElshaddaiIn this week's Torah portion, Jacob is given a new name -- twice. Or maybe even three times. (It's the same name each time.)

The first time comes on the cusp of his meeting with his estranged brother Esau. He is alone; he wrestles all night; as dawn is breaking he tells his opponent "I will not let you go until you bless me," and the angel with whom he has grappled all night tells him his new name will be Yisra-El, Wrestles-With-God.

The second time comes later in the parsha. God appears to Jacob and says, "You whose name is Jacob: you shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name." Then Torah reiterates the name yet again, adding "and thus, God named him Israel."

What's up with the triple reiteration of this name? One answer is that the redactor wasn't paying attention and he repeated himself, and said the same thing twice, and also conveyed something in multiple ways. But I think that's a cop-out. Our tradition invites us to find meaning in these repetitions. If Torah says it three times, it must be important. What is it telling us?

It's interesting that immediately after the third reiteration of Israel's new name, God introduces God's-self to Israel, saying, "I am El Shaddai; be fertile and increase, for nations will descend from you..."

Notice the juxtaposition of introductions. First God tells Jacob who Jacob is: one who wrestles with the divine. (This is one of our people's names to this day.) And then God tells Jacob who God is: אֵל שַׁדַּי‎‎ / El Shaddai. In Hebrew, names have meanings: they aren't just sounds. So what does this divine name mean? "El" is pretty straightforward; it simply means "God." But "Shaddai" is less clear.

El Shaddai is often rendered as "God Almighty," but I'm not sure that's a good translation. Some argue that the word relates to mountains or wilderness. Others, that it relates to a root meaning "destroy." But in modern Hebrew, "shadayim" are breasts. I like to understand "El Shaddai" as a name that depicts God as the divine source of nourishment and flow. God as El Shaddai is the One Who nurses all of creation, Whose abundance flows like milk to nurture and nourish us.

In a related interpretation, Shaddai is seen as related to the word meaning "sufficiency" or "enoughness." (As in די / dai, "Enough!" -- or dayenu, "It would have been enough for us.") El Shaddai is the God of Enoughness, the One Who gives us everything we need and then some. Perhaps the name El Shaddai can remind us that we too -- made in the divine image -- are "enough" just as we are. 

There's a sense of gender fluidity to this divine name, because "El" is a masculine word, and "Shaddai" (if you accept the shadayim connection) connotes femininity. Fluidity seems appropriate; after all, we call God the source of divine flow. The discipline of spiritual direction invites us to discern together where and how God's flow manifests in the life of each seeker. God flows into our lives in different shapes and forms.

El Shaddai is only one of our tradition's many names for God. The names we use for divinity change, as the faces of divinity we seek change.  Sometimes we need God to be the All-Mighty, our defender. Sometimes we need God to be All-Merciful. Sometimes we need God to be Friend, or Beloved, or Parent. For me, the name El Shaddai is a reminder that I can relate to God as the nursing mother Who aches to bestow blessings.

As the sages of the Talmud wrote, "More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow yearns to give milk." More than we yearn and ache -- for love, for abundance, for sweetness -- God yearns and aches to give those things to us. Think of someone you deeply love, to whom you want to give every good thing. Feel how your heart goes out to them: you just want to give! The name El Shaddai describes a God Who feels like that toward us. 

This piece of Torah reminds us who God can be for us -- and who we can be for God. The name Yisrael says it's our job to be in relationship with God. To dance, to push back, to waltz, to fight, to suckle: the wrestle takes many forms, but the relationship is always there. Even when we're angry with God, or when we feel as though God is angry with us, the relationship is there. The centrality of that relationship makes us who we are: the people Yisra-el, the people who partner with God.


Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. 


Related: El Shaddai (Nursing Poem), 2009. (Also published in Waiting to Unfold, Phoenicia 2013.)