The nighttime wrestle - a pearl of Torah for Vayishlach
Where fandom and religion coincide

Seeing the wrestle as a blessing: thoughts on Vayishlach

Here's the d'var Torah which I offered yesterday at my shul. Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.

At the start of this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob prepares to meet his twin brother Esau. This will be their first meeting since Jacob tricked their father into giving him the oldest son's blessing. He rises in the night and sends his family on ahead of him, across the river Jabbok.

Jabbok: יבק. Jacob: יעקב. The two words are made up of the same letters, though Jacob's name has an extra letter, a silent ע. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh teaches that this letter connotes vision.

"Now Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the rise of dawn."

Our tradition understands unnamed men in Genesis to be angels, which is to say, divine messengers.

At the end of their wrestling match, Jacob demands a blessing. The blessing he receives is a new name, Israel, "for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and have prevailed."

My teacher and friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow translates Israel as God-wrestler. Israel is the one who wrestles with God. And as we are the people Israel, the community which bears his name, then wrestling with God is our task, too. Perhaps this means wrestling with the texts in Torah which challenge us, or wrestling with ethical questions about what kind of life we intend to lead.

After this encounter, Jacob names the place of the wrestle Peni'el, "the Face of God," saying, "For I have seen God face-to-face, and my life is spared." In the Biblical understanding, no one can look upon God's infinity and live. Jacob has seen only a face of God, a facet of God, a refraction or reflection of God in the person of the angel with whom he wrestled.

"Only" a face of God? How remarkable it would be if we could see the face of God in every being we meet.

Your face: a face of God. Her face: a face of God. His face: a face of God...

After Jacob's wrestle with God in the person of the angel, he meets up with Esau -- with whom he wrestled even in the womb. But perhaps Jacob's God-wrestling has changed him; he doesn't fight with his brother this time. And perhaps Esau has experienced some God-wrestling of his own (though Torah never tells us so) -- because Esau doesn't fight with Jacob, either.

A changed name, in Torah, denotes a changed person. Surely this is the reasoning behind that old folk custom of changing a sick child's name -- to fool the Angel of Death into not taking that child, because a changed name means a changed human being.

But after this name change, our patriarch will be known sometimes by one name, sometimes by the other. He is both Jacob and Israel. And so, I would argue, are we.

Earlier this morning when we sang Mah Tovu, I noted that it refers to Jacob's tents and to Israel's mishkanot, dwelling places for God's presence. Jacob was the worldly guy who lived in a tent; Israel was the God-wrestler whose very tents were transformed into dwelling places for Shekhinah.

Most days we begin in Jacob-consciousness. We wake up already consumed by the newscast, the radio, the details of the morning, putting gas in the car, getting the kids off to school. But it's always possible to rise up into Israel-consciousness, in which each person we meet is a facet of God.

Jacob's name change happens on the banks of a river which more-or-less shares his name. He went to a place which reflected and reinforced who he already thought he was. But he brought that extra letter, that ע which represents vision -- and with that vision, was able to see his encounter with a stranger as a wrestle with God, and able to receive the blessing of expanded consciousness which comes with that wrestle.

May we be able to do the same.