Looking for a new way to think about Judaism this week? Here are some reflections on Parshat Vayishlach to add a modern perspective to this week's Torah reading.
This coming week, we get to one of the most talked about stories in the whole Torah: Jacob wrestles with an angel, and his name is changed to Israel. Ironically, this is one of the stories in the Torah that people most struggle. First of all, the so called "angel" is identified in the text as an "eesh" (translated: man). So why do we call him an angel? Who sent him? And why do the two men immediately fight one another? If it is an angel, how is it possible that Jacob beats him?
I don't have the answers to any of these questions, and neither do rabbis and scholars who have sought answers to these same questions for 2000 years. This is part of the great Judaic tradition of struggling with our text, history, and traditions. Interestingly, the name that Jacob receives, Israel, comes from a combination of the biblical Hebrew word for struggle, Yisra, and the word for God, el. After this name change, Jacob's children became known as B'nei Yisrael, the children of Israel, for the remainder of the Torah, literally making us "those who struggle with God."
While today we are most commonly referred to as Jews, and the most common use of Yisrael is the name of the Jewish state, I believe that the name Yisrael still applies to us today as a people. As Jews, struggle is an inherently important part of our religion. Many of our holidays introduce challenges: we fast on Yom Kippur, we eat matzah for eight days on Passover and we're told to live in wooden "booths" for a week on Sukkot. We've struggled as a nation, both in history and in the world today. But what does this idea of "struggling with God" mean now?
In my Jewish upbringing, I was always told to question and struggle with everything -- with God, the Torah, the world, and our values. I believe this idea is the lesson we are supposed to learn from this week's Torah reading: that we are supposed to struggle with our beliefs. One of the reasons that rabbis have been asking these same questions and debating the same ideas for thousands of years is that they continue to be relevant. Like our ancestors, we must continue to challenge ourselves to think differently, to struggle, and to constantly be changing and growing with our own ideas and as a people.