Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
The Legacy of Yisrael
In this week's parashah, Vayishlah, Jacob is reunited with his brother Esau some 20 years after stealing their father Isaac's blessing. As he spends the night alone in preparation for the fateful meeting he encounters a man/angel who wrestles with him through the night. As the sun begins to rise the angel begs Jacob to let him go, but he will do so only if the man/angel blesses him. And so he is blessed with a new name Yisrael, meaning "one who struggles with God. From then on Ya'akov is also Yisrael and his descendants become B'nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel.
On that life-changing evening our ancestor becomes not merely Ya'akov, the one who held on to the "heel" (akev) of his twin brother at birth, but Yisrael, the God-wrestler (to borrow a term from Rabbi Arthur Waskow). He is no longer simply the one who hangs on to his big brother trying to prevent him from getting what is rightfully his (the blessing and the birthright), but the one who is ready to forge a new path for himself and his descendants.
And so here we are today, the Jewish people, named after his son Yehudah/ Judah. The line of tradition continues. And yet will it always be that way? Will be able to continue the tradition of God-wrestling that has sustained us through the years or will we instead become more like Ya'akov, the one desperately trying to hang on and hold back the other from superseding us?
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