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12.1.2017 Weekly Torah Portion

PostPosted: Fri Dec 01, 2017 10:23 pm
by RabbiMark
Why be Jewish? Today, the variety of spiritual options available to us is abundant - what’s the point of signing up for (or sticking with) a complicated, arcane ancient Near Eastern religion? There are plenty of simpler, newer, more straightforward ways of building values, ritual, and connection in a world where an immediate way of attaining each of these key components of living well seems vital. And, for those of us for whom Judaism is our primary choice (for we are all, these days, Jews by choice, in some way or another), what’s the guiding principle, the central component of that decision?

One of the most evocative and memorable scenes in the Torah is a centerpiece of this week’s parashah. The night before reuniting with his brother Esau, a fraught, long-anticipated encounter with an uncertain outcome, Jacob is confronted by and wrestles with a “man” (often understood as an angel) all night long. As the man is trying to leave at daybreak, Jacob says he will not let him go without receiving a blessing. He receives in reply a name change, in a passage that is usually translated as “no longer shall you be called Jacob, but rather Yisrael, for you have struggled with God and with people and have prevailed.”

Since Jacob is the father of the sons who become the twelve tribes comprising the totality of the Jewish people, we in turn become known as Am Yisrael, “the people of Israel.” This passage, therefore, is often examined as a way of understanding who we are. Through the lens of this translation of the verse, we are a people who wrestle with God, consistently trying to determine how to best connect and relate with a power greater than ourselves and bring that out in the world. Just as Jacob emerges transformed from this encounter, so too do we when we engage with God in that way.

This is a compelling reading - and not the only one. In exploring the words more deeply, I came across two additional readings that offer a way of understanding Jacob’s experience and, in turn, offer additional grounding for our self-understanding. The word “Yisrael” can also be understood as connected to the Hebrew root for “ruler” or “strength.” As seen through this perspective, Jacob’s name change reflects that he gains his strength through God. We can see ourselves in this way, too: that being part of this people means drawing power and might not just from the worldly, but also, if not primarily, from the divine.

The third understanding I’ll offer is a bit looser with the word itself. It reads Jacob’s new name as ish- ra’ah-el, “a person who has seen God.” Through this encounter, Jacob has an intimate and personal interaction with God, which impacts him deeply enough to be reflected thereafter in his very name. This reading is well supported in context - before moving on, Jacob names the place where he wrestled Peniel, because “I have seen God face to face.” For us, what does it mean to be a people who have seen God, who work to see God in our daily lives?

Growing up, I heard very little about a relationship with God through the Jewish institutions with which I was connected; my experience was that it was talked about through the veil of ritual and the haze of abstraction, but never as a lived reality, a relationship that could inform my life and the choices that I was making in a concrete way. And so, today, combining each of the interpretations of this verse - drawing strength, seeing clearly, and struggling - offers a way of understanding how I can relate to God, which informs and dictates how I see myself as a Jew in the world.

I certainly don’t think Judaism is the only spiritual tradition through which one can formulate this type of relationship with God - and, I do think there’s something particularly noteworthy in this multi-faceted word being our very name. A response to the question “Why be Jewish?” may very well be grounded in how we identify as a people. The synthesis of the above understandings of “Yisrael” gives both an answer and an opportunity for further conversation. I’m under no impression that this is the only or best answer - take what you like, and leave the rest. One of the delights of our tradition is that it offers no shortage of interpretations and understandings, most certainly including responses to this critical and complicated question.

My hope is that we can continue to struggle with each other to better understand and engage in this conversation, to draw strength from that struggle, and to bring ourselves closer to an authentic seeing and connecting with each other and with God.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Matt