The Birth of Israel

This week’s Torah reading features the origin of the name Israel.  Jacob is encamped on the ford of Jabbok, awaiting an encounter with his brother Esau.  That night a man wrestles with him, and when he sees that Jacob cannot be overcome, he twists Jacob’s hip out of its socket.  The man then says he needs to go because daylight is approaching.  Despite being in great pain, Jacob will not let go of the man until he receives a blessing from him.  The man blesses Jacob by saying that his new name is Israel, “for you have wrestled (sarita) with God and with people and you have prevailed.”

This story raises many questions for me.  Who is this man fighting with Jacob?   How has Jacob wrestled with God?  Why does the man need to leave at the approach of daylight?  Why does Jacob ask for another blessing?

It is interesting that none of the commentators I found believe that this was a man wrestling with Jacob.  Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, quotes a Midrash from Bereshit Rabbah which says that the man is Esau’s minister, the evil angel Samael, also known as the angel of death.  According to another Midrash, Samael was the one who seduced Eve.  Sforno, a 15th century Italian commentator, does not necessarily agree that the man is Samael but does believe that it is an angel who is sent to fight Jacob by a command from God.  It is strange to me that a text which clearly says a man wrestled with Jacob is readily interpreted as an angel, just like the text about 3 men visiting Abraham being interpreted as 3 angels.  Perhaps our medieval commentators had a fascination with angels, so much so that they read them in, whereas our modern rationalism tends to read them out.  In any event, reading the wrestler as an angel helps make sense of the 2nd question, where do we get that Jacob wrestled with God, as angels were considered to be divine beings, so wrestling with an angel is akin to wrestling with God.

The 3rd question, why does the wrestler have to leave at daylight, is also answerable by viewing the man as an angel.  As Rashi points out from Talmud Hullin 71b, angels sing to God at first daylight while in the heavenly court, and therefore, if this angel is stuck on earth, wrestling with Jacob, he will be unable to fulfill his obligation in singing to God.  The Kli Yakar, a 16th century Polish commentator, has a different reading, stating that Samael saw he could not succeed in getting Jacob to deny God’s existence.  For the Kli Yakar, the wrestling is not a physical act but a metaphorical one, where the angel is arguing that Jacob needs to deny God.  Thus, Jacob’s prevailing becomes an act of affirming monotheism.

The final question, why does Jacob demand a blessing, is in my opinion the most perplexing.  Two weeks ago, in Parshat Toledot, we saw Jacob take Esau’s blessing from Isaac.  In that Torah portion, we saw Isaac bless him with the dew of heaven, the fat of the earth, abundance of grain and wine, being master over the surrounding nations and over his brother’s descendants, and having those who bless him be blessed and those who curse him be cursed.  What stronger blessing could one receive than that?  Because of this, Rashi states that the blessing Jacob wants is a reaffirmation of the blessing Isaac gave him, as Esau is trying to undermine it.  Rashbam, however, says that Jacob wants a new blessing as compensation for the injury of his hip socket.  A new blessing, this one from a divine source, would ensure that Jacob was successful in his endeavors.  Therefore, the angel gives Jacob the blessing of a new name based off the word struggle or wrestle, indicating that he will be successful in all his struggles/wrestlings.

Has anyone here ever been given a new name?  Was there a special meaning in the new name that you were given?  How did it feel to be called by something new?

I see great meaning in Jacob’s name being changed to Israel.  As the children of Israel, we have had to wrestle with those around us, both in physical fights for our survival and through debates with those of other religions who claim that Judaism is no longer relevant.  Throughout history our people have been persecuted, just as Israel was pursued by his brother, and like Israel we have had to flee for our survival.  Despite having to flee, Israel was able to become a wealthy shepherd, have 13 children and make up with his brother.  Similarly, despite the children of Israel having to flee, we have prospered in America, reestablished control over Israel and can live today in most countries in the world.  I want to take the analogy one step further, applying it to the Jericho Jewish Center, as despite demographic challenges, we have continued holding twice daily minyanim and spirited Shabbat services, fostering cutting-edge programming and creating a nurturing environment for the perpetuation of Judaism.

Where does this leave us?  I see our examining Israel’s struggle with the angel as being connected to our people’s struggle for survival, both as a nation and as a congregation.  While in this country we are thankfully not being persecuted by people who want to destroy us, to the extent of our brethren in Europe, we are fighting assimilation and demographic shifts and are struggling to enhance people’s Jewish identities.  This is an ongoing struggle, like the struggle of Israel, and hopefully also like Israel’s wrestling, we will prevail and be enriched from our struggle.  May we take the struggle of Israel to heart and may it bring us together as we continue to embrace the challenge of strengthening our congregation.

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