Dennis C. Sasso
Dennis C. Sasso

Becoming Israel: Not Just a Wrestling Match

Following 20 years of exile from his parents’ home after he had deceived his father Isaac and usurped the birthright of his brother Esau, Jacob has now grown to adulthood and acquired wealth and power.  But Jacob longs to return home and he begins the journey back from Mesopotamia to Canaan with his wives and children.

As he nears home, memories of the past begin to haunt him. “Jacob was afraid and anxious” (Genesis 32:8). What if his brother Esau has not forgiven?  What if he attacks Jacob and his family and plunders his wealth?

In the privacy of his heart and in the solitude of his spirit, on the banks of the river Yabok, Jacob’s destiny was changed and his character transformed: “He struggled with a man [a divine messenger] until the rise of morning” (Genesis 32:25).  As morning came and the angelic dream was escaping him, Jacob received a blessing:  “Your name shall no longer be Ya’acov, but Yisrael, for you have struggled with God and humans and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29; see also Genesis 35:10).

We are typically taught by this biblical folk etymology that Yisrael means, “One who wrestles (or struggles) with God.”  However, I believe it is more valuable to see the name change as reflecting a developmental transformation from Ya’acov, the One who is “bent” or “crooked,” to Yisrael, the One who is “upright.”

The word Yisrael can be thought of as an antonym of Ya’acovYisrael is related to the word yashar which means “straightened”.  The term resonates in the poetic reference for Israel, Jeshurun (in Hebrew Yeshurun – Deuteronomy 32:15; 33:4-5; 33:26, Isaiah 44:2).  Isaiah comforts Israel:  “that which is rough/crooked (he’akov) shall be straightened, (l’mishor)” (Is. 40:4).

The story of Jacob’s struggle records a developmental, moral, and spiritual transition from deviousness to uprightness, from crookedness to righteousness.  Jacob emerges from the encounter physically disabled, limping, but spiritually erect. He is morally and spiritually “rightened”.  He is no longer Ya’acov the “supplanter”, the “deceiver”, but Israel, not just the “God-wrestler,” but the “Upright of God.”  Jacob is now qualified for leadership.  He is ready to seek forgiveness, to “come home”, to become the eponymous or name-giving ancestor of our people:  We are “B’nai Yisrael” – the Descendants of Yisrael.

Like Jacob, we all struggle:  physically and emotionally, materially and spiritually. Life’s experiences, the good and the bad, life’s fulfillments and disappointments, help to shape our faith, who we are at the core. As we mature intellectually, socially, emotionally, our faith also develops. God ceases to be the “Cosmic Sugar Daddy” – The “Old Man in the Sky”. We learn to accept joy and pain, the ambiguities of life, and to accept others and ourselves with our limitations – as we are, with our potential, and as we may yet become.  Like Jacob, we all confront transformative moments at diverse and discreet stages in life that test and shape our faith.

Scholar John Westerhoff speaks of four stages of faith:  “Experienced Faith”, “Affiliative Faith”, “Searching Faith”, and “Owned Faith.”  They afford us a paradigm for Jacob’s experience and our own.

Experienced Faith is the faith we learn in our childhood years.  We “experience” it as our families light Shabbat or Hanukah candles; as we sit at our grandparents Seder; as we walk down with a little Torah at Consecration for the start of Religious School.  Experienced Faith is rich in symbolism and colorful in imagery — objective and sensory.  In its earliest stages, “religion is caught, not taught.”  In later years, such faith gives us warm memories, “the fuzzies”, and nostalgia.  That’s why people always like the “traditional” melodies – that is to say, the ones we remember from childhood.

The second faith stage is Affiliative Faith.  It builds upon the previous stage of “experienced faith”.  It is the most prevalent of religious expressions.  It is “group” faith.  We affiliate, we belong to the synagogue and to other organizations; we come, seldom or regularly, but we know it’s there.  It is a corporate faith; you do it with others.  It is what makes kids love camp; it affords a sense of community and belonging.  Regrettably, this is where the faith journey ends for most people.

But others move on to the third stage, a Searching Faith.  A Searching Faith is motivated by our broadening education and maturing world view.  It often leads us to question and to doubt some of our earlier faith assumptions.  The Searching Faith stage is not always an easy transition.  Some college students, for example, reject their parents’ beliefs, declare themselves atheists, and withdraw from active participation in church or synagogue, sometimes to join other groups – because of their need to belong.  For many, this stage can be an important part of continued growth into spiritual maturity.  Others, however, remain stuck in this stage.  They know what they “do not believe in” but cannot fill the gap with a wholesome meaningful, positive faith.

The last stage or style of faith is called Owned Faith.    Owned Faith is an expression of one’s total being.  It includes experience, affiliation and searching but moves beyond them.  For some people there is an identifiable, often dramatic moment of discovery or “conversion”; for others, it develops quietly and slowly.

Owned Faith allows us to understand our religion as a pattern of beauty and holiness by which to live our lives meaningfully; but not as a closed system with “either/or”, “I’m right/you’re wrong” answers.  We can critique it without betraying it.  It is open to growth, nourished by questions, and affirmed by deeds.    For the person of Owned Faith, prayers, rituals, customs, and ceremonies are important not as ends in themselves, but as meaningful symbols and signposts along the road.    An Owned Faith helps us give purpose to our lives and to make the world a better place by our involvement in it, as human beings and as Jews.  It reflects not only the need to feel blessed, but the urge “to be a blessing”.

These stages are not necessarily sequential or chronological.  We can move back and forth among them.  Each works for better or worse at distinct moments in our life experiences.  Most people remain in the first and second stages of faith.  We are nostalgic Jews, organizational Jews.  But we often do not “search” nor “own” our faith.  It is not because we are unsophisticated or immature.  Many people in the early stages of faith are intelligent, contributory members of society — scientists, business people, and academicians who have allowed our intellectual and professional lives to outgrow spiritual development.  We think of Judaism primarily in group and organizational ways, of religion only in terms of tribal identity, rituals and customs.  We substitute “Jewishness” for Judaism, committees for commitment, ancestry for destiny, shallow ethnicity for sacred community.

To grow into a Searching and Owned Faith, we need to allow mind and heart to speak to each other, to engage in an ongoing learning dialogue with our heritage.  We need to see ourselves as participants in our story, not merely as listeners — to consider ourselves not only descendants of past generations, but ancestors to future generations.

Through the story of Jacob, the Torah teaches us about life’s faith stages.  Jacob grows up in the comfortable, protective household of Isaac and Rebecca.  He experiences his identity and seeks affiliative connections that will please him and his parents.  But then, later in life, he begins a searching stage.  Jacob realizes that not all that he had done was right.  He needs to return home, but as a different person.  His search leads him to own his faith, to transform his character, to shape his destiny, and to embrace his past and those from whom he became disaffected and estranged.

The goal of faith is to move us to see God not as Cosmic Puppeteer that favors or punishes at will, but as a faithful Companion, One who sees us through life’s difficulties and causes us to appreciate the joys of life as opportunities for growth and for being a blessing to others.  This is what Jacob discovered that night of struggle.  Jacob was now ready to become Israel, to be a blessing.  He would now walk, physically limping, but questing for uprightness and integrity into the challenging chapters yet ahead.

About the Author
Dennis Sasso is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, Indiana.
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