David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

The name ‘Israel’ and the exercise of power today

Much of the Western world has shown that it can sympathize with the Jews when they are weak and powerless and are victims of hatred and persecution. Attitudes change dramatically, however, when the Jews are strong and exercise their power to overcome their adversaries and defend Jewish life. Thus, throughout most of its history, rather than lauding the State of Israel for its ability to protect its citizens from the onslaught of its enemies, the world often blames it for inflicting on them what is perceived as unnecessary pain and suffering. In the same vein, although many were sympathetic to Israel in the immediate aftermath of the October 7th Hamas massacre of innocent Israeli citizens, that sympathy soon morphed into anger and outrage when Israel responded forcefully to destroy Hamas so that such attacks could never happen again. It seems that a powerful Israel that has the military capacity to defeat its enemies and defend its citizens is too much for the world to swallow. Apparently, the world has not quite grasped what this week’s parasha tells us about our identity as a people.

In the midst of Jacob’s encounter with his brother Esav, Jacob is attacked at night by a mysterious man or a divine being. The two wrestled with one another all night, and although Jacob was injured, he ultimately emerged victorious. Nevertheless, Jacob refused to let his assailant go until he blessed him: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel (“ישראל”), for you have striven (” (“שריתwith beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” What this mysterious being was trying to impart is that Jacob’s essence is “Israel”, namely, one who, when confronted by threats to his life, fights back and prevails. Strength, fortitude, power, and the ability to employ these to overcome his adversaries will be, from here on in, his defining characteristics as well as those of his descendants. Thus, when Jews in the State of Israel are attacked today, it is incumbent upon them to remain true to their identity and fight back until their enemies are defeated.

But there is another meaning to the name Israel: “-“ישר-אל “honest (with) God”. In other words, the name “Israel”, unlike the name “Jacob” (יעקב) which is associated with trickery and deception, refers to integrity and uprightness. Thus, to be a descendant of Israel is also to be a representative of moral rectitude. And here is the rub: while in contemporary parlance power is often seen as the source of immoral behavior and oppression, the Torah is teaching us otherwise. To be “Israel” is to be both powerful and morally upright and to recognize that sometimes the exercise of power, such as the war to eradicate evil that Israel is currently waging against Hamas, is an expression of the loftiest moral ideals.

May Israel, therefore, continue its military campaign, without wavering and without succumbing to international pressure, until it is victorious, and may Hamas “be frustrated and terrified, disgraced and doomed forever” (Psalms 83:18).

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content.
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