Chapters XXXII, 4 – XXXVI, 43
Jacob is given the name Israel, God-Wrestler
By Morty Breier
Nov. 27, 1999
This is part of the Genesis story where Jacob leaves Laban, his father-in-law, with all his household and possessions, to go back and meet, with much anxiety, his brother Essau. The night before he was to meet with his brother, Jacob, alone at his desert encampment, encounters a stranger with whom he wrestled until daybreak. Jacob let the stranger go only after being blessed by him. He was told by the stranger that Jacob’s name would henceforth be Israel, or God-wrestler. I’ll do my drush on this one element of today’s narrative.
Our name Israel means God-wrestler… what a way to define a people…. an appropriate one, at that. We are God-wrestlers, by definition… if you look up God-wrestler in the dictionary you’ll see a picture of us. Me and you… Israelites, God wrestlers. I’m using wrestling here as a metaphor for struggling with obtaining meaning from. Does God wrestling mean word-wrestling or does it mean reality-wrestling? The black hats, in my take, wrestle with words. This to me is like smelling the word rose. Isn’t Shakespear closer to the truth when he says “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Or as the Zen master said “don’t mistake the pointing finger for the moon.” This difference, word and reality, lies as a fault zone in our definition of ourselves, in the meaning of Israel, God wrestler. The crux of our deliberation this afternoon is the difference between words and reality. This question, I believe, is on the cutting edge of our faith’s ongoing job of defining itself.
I understand the beauty, utility, importance and even the spiritual significance of language. I assign them a very high priority in my lexicon of values. Words have greatly expanded my world so that now I live in a much larger universe of even greater detail. Words are the way humanity accumulates knowledge, skills and sometimes even wisdom, and I access that inheritance through word filled books. We humans cooperate on a vast scale with the use of electronic words. I use words to reveal my interior, my secret self, to the world, and I learn of your secret self through words. My love for Karen and her love for me is often expressed with words. And we pray using words.
But notice that in each of these wonderful compliments to words, lies the reality being served by the words. Let me go through them one by one. Words are a useful means for expanding my world, but expanding my world, my reality, is what is important. Accumulating words in the libraries of this world to pass on humanity’s understandings of itself and its surroundings, is a noble effort, but remember its aim is to see reality more clearly. Words are the loom on which our cooperative efforts are woven but it is our intent at cooperation that yields the resultant tapestry. Human communication, the way we reveal our interior mental deliberations to the world, is, after all, still concerned in essence with our interior mental deliberations. Surely beauty, poetry and joy lie in love using words, not in words using love. And although we may think that worded prayer is the best way to communicate with Hashem, there is great reason to believe that as far as Hashem is concerned, our actions speak louder than our words.
Try to find a case where words have value that is independant or worse, subordinate to the reality they attempt to express. It isn’t easy. That’s because words have always been the pointing finger and not the moon. Words are our contrivance, tools for communicating a multitude of Human feelings and understandings about the realities we find ourselves in. Better words describe that reality in richer terms, more clearly, with more profound meaning. Worse words describe it more poorly, muddled, seeing only reality’s surface features. So, although words are very important to us, and their expression worth perfecting, without an intent to see, and an underlying inclusive vision of, reality itself, words become useless babble, or what’s worse, blinders to that reality, a false god trying to entice us away from witnessing, the real-time unfolding of the living God’s own glorious reality, the present here and now.
Let’s return to Israel, to God-wrestling. Is true God-wrestling wrestling with words about reality or is it wrestling with reality itself. Again, I’m using wrestling as a metaphor for struggling with obtaining meaning from. The black hats would have us believe that the only wrestling worth doing is wrestling with the words of Torah, or studying those who wrestled with the words of Torah. They believe the words have more meaning than the reality itself. They believe all reality’s meanings have already been expressed by the words of Torah and we need only struggle to find meaning in these Torah words. I heard one say “even God had to consult the Torah to build the world”. We have too often deferred to them, carriers of our historic image, the people of the book. We have deferred too often to those who know the book’s words better than they know reality.
And for me personally, I have too often had my eyes and ears on words and too little on the whisper of trees or bird’s singing. I have too often missed Hashem’s real world because I was listening to too many of my own interior voices. I must stop my incessant fascination with words, many of them my own, it is truly idolatry. The Hindus say that the mind is often like a tree full of drunken monkeys. I need to quiet my mind to let Hashem in. I need to create an empty space to entice spirit to enter. Only in silence can I chance to hear Hashem’s message.
I am alive in Hashem’s classroom, the events of my life perfect lessons for my journey. My history tracks that journey toward a clearer, more detailed, more inclusive, more meaningful appreciation of reality, a journey toward harmonizing more gracefully with Hashem’s day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute offerings. Our prayers say that God spoke and it was. This means that God speaks through isness. To me this kavanah, this intent, to be fully aware of this isness, Hashem’s real-time Torah message, is truly God-wrestling. I must do it on God’s terms, reality itself, and not on my terms, my fascination with language, whether English or Hebrew. Wrestling with the meaning of language is like wrestling with my own shadow. Wrestling with the meaning of reality, my own and the worlds, is truly wrestling with God. And this is precisely what we, as inheritors of the name Israel, are asked to do.
Morty Breier, Kona Hawaii, November 4, 1999