The people of Israel are deliberating the fate of the hostages and the waging of war to secure long-term peace in the land. If this were a movie, we might expect a happy ending where both objectives are achieved in some miraculous manner. Barring a miracle, that dual happy ending is unlikely. The leadership of the State of Israel is wrestling between these seemingly competing objectives. They are not alone.
Angel-wrestling and the transformation of Jacob into Israel began last week with a focus on Jacob, a man steeped in spiritual pursuits, a tent-dweller. The parasha of Vayetze opens with Jacob immersed in prayer, after which he sees angels in his dreams. He awakens with a keen perception that the spot where he slept is a place where God dwells, and proceeds to proclaim it holy.
From that point on Jacob enters another world, slowly transforming into a new being through corporeal endeavors. He musters bodily strength to remove a boulder atop a well. He works seven arduous years for the love of Rachel, only to be deceived into marrying Leah. He endures another seven years of hard labor to wed Rachel, followed by six years of toil tending to Laban’s livestock. He fathers 13 children with four women. His sexual favors are bartered by members of his family. He manipulates the very genetic code of life to increase his flock and attain substantial material wealth. It is after all these physical exertions that Jacob realizes his ability to see angels once again, this time with his eyes wide-open rather than in a dream. The angels that he sees are in two groups.
These experiences mark the evolution of Jacob who began primarily as a spiritual person and is now imbued with physical proficiency to emerge anew as a fully-formed human being. A creature with heightened and interwoven spiritual and physical qualities whose spirituality allows him to discern Godliness in the world, and whose physical dimension enables him to appreciate the promises and the perils of power.
This week’s parasha of Vayishlach continues with this Jacob facing the most vexing dilemma of his already deeply troubled life. Having avoided conflict for years, in a matter of days he and Esau will collide head-on.
As blessed as Jacob has been, as certain as he may be that God will fulfill the promise of protection, Jacob sets a strategy in motion, a strategy as wise as it is excruciating. Confronted with the possible annihilation of his entire family and fortune, everything that he has built upon the foundations of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, everything upon which the destiny of the Jewish People depends, Jacob decides – perhaps influenced by the twin-camp configuration of the angels he has recently seen – to separate his family and possessions into two divisions, believing that in a deadly confrontation with Esau, perhaps half of his vision for the future might endure.
His decision made, Jacob stands alone when attacked by a being who is spiritually mighty and physically formidable, his equal. They wrestle all night as Jacob’s loved ones, split into two, await their individual and collective fates, oblivious to the struggle that grips Jacob.
That struggle occurs on two planes. Jacob must prevail physically while his soul is in turmoil over his tortured decision to split his family, a decision that might lead to the death of innocents, even as it ensures survival of his family’s historic mission.
As dawn breaks, Jacob bests the nameless being. Overpowering him physically is not enough. Jacob insists on a spiritual prize and demands a blessing, and this is it: “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and you have prevailed.”
Now adorned with the name Israel, he will face his future with physical and spiritual prowess, but also internally twisted in an eternal conflict to align competing truths. He must treasure and protect every life. He knows that in the course of advancing Jewish destiny this will not always be possible. Jacob demanded a blessing, but rather than providing the bliss he sought in a turbulent world, the blessing of Israel consigned him to a ceaseless state of wrestling with reality. The blessing of Israel elevated him to a human level even higher than he had been until now, one who can clearly discern right from wrong, yet is sensitive to the uncertainties that lie between them, ambiguities upon which he may stumble along the way.
When we were in the Garden of Eden, God warned us not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil because on the day that we did, we would die. Life would have been simple had we enjoyed the fruits of the Tree of Life alone. But after eating the forbidden fruit, our eyes are wide open. We see things the way God sees them, and God acknowledges this. “Humankind has become like any of us, knowing good and evil…” This is not God’s indictment against us. This is God’s expression of sorrow that we have attained this knowledge.
Death was not the punishment for eating from that Tree. Death was the consequence of eating from it. As beings created in the Divine image, we attempt to vanquish evil and advance towards good. We are tormented when we must compromise along the way, navigating the uncertainties in our path; each time we do so we feel like we die a little, as the original Israel must have felt when he split his family in two. As God must have felt, as well.
We wrestle still and forever. This is not only what makes us human, this is what makes us Israel.