Parashat Vayishlach 5779

29 November 2018 – 21 Kislev 5779

Rabbi Jackie Tabick – 23 November 2018

Is anyone up for a spot of wrestling? Not arm chair sport, this is strictly participatory. No!?? But that’s our name, Yisrael, which means: ‘the people who wrestle with God’.

I remember once a conversation with a spiritual seeker who had gone to visit a different Liberal congregation and was quite overwhelmed by the force of spirituality that she had experienced there through the service. Afterwards, she tried in vain to find someone prepared to discuss the matter with her. ‘Not even the rabbi’, she complained, ‘was prepared to discuss God’. I remembering trying to have similar conversations with my mother. As a teenager, struggling to come to terms with religious ideas, I very much wanted to learn what she thought about such ideas as omniscience versus freewill, or the personal God versus the Divine as the impersonal force behind creation. And as we struggled to bring in the washing, she turned and said, ‘Look, there’s a God. I know there’s a God and that’s that. What else is there to say!’ And in a sense, she was and is right. What else can we say that’s meaningful? Maimonides would say that God is so far beyond our comprehension that the only thing we can do is state our beliefs in the negative, i.e. God has no limits, or God has no physical shape. While of course the mystics often call God simply Ayn Sof, ‘Without End’.

Maybe that’s why Jacob, who according to the Torah actually received the name of Israel twice, once from the other being that he had fought as he waited to meet his brother Esau, and once direct from God. Maybe the name didn’t resonate with him the first time round. Maybe that’s why Jacob continued to call himself Jacob and why we, most of the time, in our prayers and in our literature, that’s how we refer to him. Maybe the name Israel was too difficult a name to bear. For don’t forget, in Jewish tradition, names are not just arbitrary handles, they either mould the person or mark some important characteristic or experience in life.

But we are Israel. And it’s obviously important or we wouldn’t have been told about the name change twice! So what does God wrestling entail?

In our tradition we are told that we must show love of God by loving our fellow humans, by seeing the Divine in everyone we meet. Prejudice, hatred, envy are supposedly banished by such epic struggles in our souls. Not that we can’t hate the evil people do, and berate them for it and demand justice. To do any less would lessen their responsibility for their evil acts. But we are not supposed to spend all our time meditating on who or what God is, or even basking in our love for the Divine, instead, we are called to transform our love of God into solid acts, into Mitzvot, making the world fairer, more just , lessening inequality, oppression, injustice and poverty, helping the vulnerable.

An anonymous Chassidic master, using the old sermonic technique of changing the letters round in a word to give it a new twist, suggested the Yisrael means Yesh li rosh, ‘I have a head’. That is, that we should aim not just to be creatures of habit, or unthinking souls, but that we should always be conscious of what we are doing. What a challenge! Imagine if every time we opened our mouths, every time we walked along the road, every time we did something or decided not to do so something, we had really weighed up all the considerations to be considered, including how it would affect times to come. It would drive us up a wall, but it would probably also make this world a better place.

Arthur Waskow, author of a book called God-Wrestling, a lovely gentle person and inspiring teacher of what is often called New Age Judaism, defines God Wrestling as the struggle we can have with the text of Torah, a struggle where we bring our experiences, worries, hopes to the text, making the text live and emerge from the struggle with a changed attitude. As he says, when we bring our whole selves to a text, ‘we change in our lives. We change the way we act in politics, in sex, in our families, at work, in eating, when we celebrate, when we mourn.’ Just as Jacob changed that night. Not that change is easy, Jacob emerged with a limp, it touched him, but it gave him courage to move on.

Twice each day, as we say the Shema, ‘Hear o Israel’ we talk to ourselves and struggle to make the Israel side of ourselves triumph over the more materialistic, more physical, more flawed part of our being symbolised by the name Jacob. The heel. The supplanter. Who cheats and lies and takes what is not his to take. Twice each day we recall to mind our role as God wrestlers, who do struggle with the idea of God and how best to approach the Divinity but who must try to let our heads rule, becoming conscious of the results of our actions or non actions, and who try to turn our love of God into love of humanity. So, happy wrestling.

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