Saturday, December 17, 2016

Parashat Vayishlach: Who are you Israel?

At the ford of Jabbok, Jacob demanded a blessing from the man with whom he had wrestled all night. The man asks his name and declares: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel (Gen.  32:29a).”
And the Torah continues calling him… “Jacob.”
Later we read: “God said to him, ‘…You shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.’ Thus God named him Israel (Genesis 35:10).”
And the Torah continues calling him… “Jacob.”
But also “Israel.” The commentator Benno Jacob counted 34 occurrences of “Israel” from Genesis 35:10 to the end of the book, and 45 occurrences of “Jacob.” He contends that “Israel” represents the spiritual side of his personality, and “Jacob” the human-material one. To me is seems that the name “Israel” is used in more forward-looking contexts, with an eye to the nation being built. Perhaps that is why the Talmud (Berakhot 13a) says, “Israel is principal, Jacob is secondary.”
I would like to focus on the meaning of the name “Israel.” The stated meaning: “For you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed (Genesis 32:29b)” is problematic. With whom exactly did Jacob struggle? Prior to that night, Jacob’s inter-personal relations were characterized more by deception, trickery, and flight than direct engagement.
And God? On his way to Padan-Aram, Jacob struck a deal: “If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making… the Eternal shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode… (Genesis 29: 20-22).” God fulfills Jacob’s requests but Jacob does not return to the pillar until God reminds him. Not too impressive.
On a linguistic level there are also difficulties. Here, I am relying on the scholarship of Simha Kogut and Israel Knohl. First, the meaning of the root “ש-ר” relates to ruling power, as in “Abimelech ruled (“וישר”) over Israel three years” (Judges 9:22). The root is still used in that manner, as in the word “שר” meaning “government minister.” Second, the structure of “Israel” is same as “Ishmael” which means “God will hear” or “Ezekiel” meaning “God will make strong” and many other names. Therefore, “Israel” means “God will rule.” The substance of the name “Israel” is a declaration of loyalty to God, and hope that God’s sovereignty will be established in the future. On this level, “Israel” is a reminder that even if the ladder is set on the ground, the Eternal is at the top, and we must set our priorities accordingly.
On a homiletical level, “Israel” can be understood as “the ministers of God,” the high-level officials who do God’s bidding. The letter of appointment has many sections and paragraphs. The prophet Micah summarized them in three: “Do justice, love goodness, and walk modestly with your God,
Do justice by conducting our personal and public lives according to principles of fairness and justice that do not give preference to the wealthy and powerful, and that distribute resources so that the basic needs of all are met.
Loving goodness is more than a pleasant inner feeling. It calls for active love: aiding the needy and weak in society with concrete assistance, feeding the hungry, providing for the homeless and clothing the naked; and being a supportive presence for people in vulnerable situations: the sick and injured, lonely and bereaved.
Walk modestly with your God, not necessarily in terms of dress, but rather without calling attention to ourselves and our acts because it’s not about us, or as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The greatest beauty grows at the greatest distance from the ego.”
Every morning, in Birkhot Hashahar we express gratitude for “being created Israel.” 
This is an opportunity to ask ourselves: am I faithfully meeting the terms in the letter of appointment, to do justice, love goodness and walk modestly with my God? If yes, take a moment to give thanks for having the strength to do this, and make a commitment to keep going. And if we are still struggling to realize the “Israel” within, this is the moment to turn the blessing into a mission.
Every day we have a new chance. If not now when?  

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