William Hamilton

The Dignity of Israel

“Prestige isn’t what gives us value,” Bari Weiss recently said. “Being part of something beyond ourselves does.” 

Representing something larger than oneself does invest you with dignity. It is, alas, a source of misery when the Children of Israel forget what we represent. We learn in this week’s portion how we get the name Israel and what this represents.

Jacob is left alone. It’s dark. A mysterious being confronts and contends with him. His hip gets painfully dislocated as they wrestle all night long. As dawn breaks, the being asks to be released. Jacob responds: “I will not release you until you bless me” (Gen. 32:27). This particular response earns him the new name, Israel.

What does it mean to have a share in Israel? It means to extract something blessedly helpful and healing from a painful ordeal. It means to put your own pain in service of another person who’s in an emotional vice grip. It means to refuse to abandon a person or a problem on the roadside. Something of worth must be extracted from it. Pain hurts. Our beloved Children of Israel knows this all too intimately. Jacob becomes Israel when he determines not to let it go to waste. 

We are meant to resist and to insist. To resist releasing heartache without finding a way for it to serve as solace for another. And we are meant to insist, as Jacob, turned Israel, does. He insists on regaining his balance. As Israel today insists on restoring her deterrent credibility. Her life depends on it.

Curiously, when Jacob becomes Israel, the word he uses to refuse to release his mysterious contender isn’t a word that means let go. It’s a word that means to send forth, or to be sent. It’s the same word as being called (shlichut), for carrying a message (also, the Torah portion’s name Vayishlach). 

Rabbi David Wolpe has said, “To go through life without knowing your soul is to carry a message unread.” 

It’s also been said that two days matter most in your life: The day you were born. And the day you learn why you were born. As you find your dignity in representing Israel, may you find yourself poised to live out your why.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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