From Dust to Stars (Vayishlach 5783 / 2022)
December 10, 2022
וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃
Jacob was left alone, and a figure wrestled with him until break of dawn...
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃
Said he, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed."
In this week's installment of our story, parashat Vayishlach brings us the night-time wrestle between Jacob and the figure tradition names as an angel. This is the encounter from which we get our name as a people. The verse explains the name ישראל / Yisrael as shorthand for the phrase שרית עם–אלהים / sarita im-Elohim: striven or persisted ("wrestled") with God.
He comes out of that wrestle with a new name and a limp. Life’s challenges (and sometimes injustices) leave most of us with a limp, spiritually speaking. Our task is to persevere. To say to our struggles or losses or grief, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And then to live into the new name, the new chapter of who we can become, granted to us by our struggle with what’s been hard.
So what is this new name about? What (else) does it imply?
One of my favorite tools in the rabbinic toolbox is the use of anagrams and wordplay. Spiritual life can also be playful! So here's some holy wordplay I learned this week from the Kedushat Levi. The name Yisrael contains the letters of ישר / yashar / "upright," e.g. moral and ethical. The letters in Yisrael can also make ראש לי/ Li rosh / "head" and "to Me," in other words, a mind turned toward God.
The name Ya'akov contains the word עקב / ekev / "heel." Name changes in Torah are always spiritually significant, and this is a prime example of that. The name change from Ya'akov to Yisrael symbolizes a profound internal change, a kind of spiritual ascent. His name used to mean "heel," and now it implies God-consciousness. He's shifting from feet in earthly dust to the highest heavens beyond the stars.
Maybe you've heard that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't? It turns out Kedushat Levi is in that first category. He says:
Some people are able to maintain awareness of God while doing mitzvot or studying Torah, but not while engaged in business. These people are on a spiritual level that we can call Ya'akov. Others maintain awareness of God all the time, no matter what they're doing. That heightened / constant awareness of God is represented by the name Yisrael. Remember, Li rosh: mind focused on God.
Last week we heard my son teach about Jacob's dream of the ladder, and how he woke with awe but then forgot it. How Jacob lost sight of the "wow" -- how we all lose sight of the wow, all the time. As a people, we take our name not from Jacob, whose name means more or less "the heel," but from Yisrael who lived in awe and could maintain consciousness of God while doing ordinary things.
So what does it mean to maintain consciousness of God while we're out in the world? (And what if we don't "believe" in "God"?) Try this on: living in a way that embodies the name Yisrael means constant consciousness of love and justice, integrity and truth, mercy and judgment -- because "God" is shorthand for all of these. Yisrael means having all of these at the forefront of our minds.
Not just when we're "doing Jewish," but all the time, wherever we are. Justice, love, truth, integrity, a healthy balance of mercy and judgment are always front-and-center. That's what it means to be Yisrael, to be a Godwrestler. Does that change how we treat the grocery store check-out person, the homeless person, the person who gets under our skin? Does it change how we treat each other?
Levi Yitzchak teaches that with the name change from Ya'akov to Yisra'el we shift from ekev to rosh, from heel to head, from the dust of the earth to awareness of the highest heavens and presence of God. Here's a thing our forebears didn't know: we are stardust. Really And so is almost everything. The elements that comprise us began in ancient, distant stars. The dust of the earth is also the heavens.
It shatters Kedushat Levi's 18th-century binarism. Across all of our binaries -- me vs. you, us vs. them, earth vs. heavens, dust vs. stars -- there is a deeper truth. All we need is a perspective shift. When we act with integrity and awareness, we live up to our name Yisrael -- and when we feel mired in the mud or stuck in Ya'akov's wrestle, we can remember that there is also holiness in the dust beneath our feet.
This is the d'varling that I offered at Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Shared with gratitude to the Bayit board for learning together.