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Vayishlach Sermon

This week’s Torah portion tells many stories about our hero Jacob and his large family. In one particular story we discover the origin of our name, Yisrael.

Jacob now married with two wives, two maidservants, eleven children, many slaves and an abundance of livestock, sets out to return to his native land. At the same place where he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven, he sends his family across the river and again spends the night alone. Jacob is understandably nervous about the impending reunion with his brother Esau who twenty years earlier vowed to kill him for stealing the birthright. It is interesting to note that the biblical story builds on the common theme of confronting spirits at a river crossing. Here in the Bible the literary theme is transformed and given new meaning. The river marks the frontier of the future land of Israel.

That night his experience is neither a dream nor an earthly reality. He wrestles with a being that is described as divine and human. Unable to free himself from Jacob’s grasp the being offers Jacob a blessing in exchange for his release. This being declares, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) He wrenches Jacob’s hip causing him to limp. (By the way this is why filet mignon is not kosher. According to tradition this cut is not eaten in remembrance of Jacob’s pain.)

Jacob’s new name becomes the name of the Jewish people. Yisrael means to wrestle with God. What a remarkable statement about our people and our tradition! We can question God. We can wrestle with God. In fact we should question God. We should wrestle with God. While most people understand that questioning is part and parcel to being Jewish, few appreciate that such questioning extends towards heaven. The rabbis called this notion, chutzpah klappei shamayim, chutzpah towards heaven. It is a beautiful and telling concept.

Long ago the rabbis codified action over belief, the duties of the hands over the feelings of the heart. We have books and books detailing exactly which cuts of beef are fit and unfit, when and when not to recite the Shema, even how much we should give to tzedakah. We do not have such books telling us exactly what we must believe. We have many discussions and debates about these questions, but no creeds. We have codes of action not creeds of belief.

It is this embrace of many different theologies that makes Judaism so extraordinary. I don’t have to have it all figured out. I can still question. I can still struggle. I can still wonder. I can still ask: Why does God not heal every person who is sick and infirm? Why is there pain and suffering in God’s world?

Throughout the years I have been drawn to many different theologians. Martin Buber speaks of finding God in the I-Thou relationship. When we really treat others in a mutual relationship, as a Thou, rather than an It in which we only see what we might gain from the relationship, then we can find a glimmer of God. There is Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, who teaches that the community is central. It is not God who commands from on high but rather the Jewish people and their continuation that commands us. Lately I find myself increasingly pulled toward Abraham Joshua Heschel, who reminds us that we find God in moments of wonder and awe. His remarkable book God in Search of Man is a reminder that it is God who is searching for us. God is searching for us to do good. Instead we sit around doing nothing to better our world, waiting for God to fix things for us. It is God in Heschel’s theology who is praying for human beings to repair the world.

Heschel writes: “Faith comes out of awe, out of an awareness that we are exposed to God’s presence, out of anxiety to answer the challenge of God, out of an awareness of our being called upon. Religion consists of God’s question and man’s answer. The way to faith is the way of faith. The way to God is a way of God. Unless God asks the question, all our inquiries are in vain.” Biblical scholars teach us that the name Yisrael can also mean “He who is upright with God.” For Heschel this understanding captures his theology.

Regardless of which theology you found more attractive they are all part and parcel of the modern Jewish landscape. The most important task is to never give up the quest, to always question, to always struggle and wrestle.

This week’s Torah portion describes our hero’s journey, from cheating and brokenness to wholeness and peace. The Hasidic master, Sefat Emet, points out that Jacob is not called whole (shalem) until after he limps. He limps only after wrestling with God.

We learn that the greatest name we can call ourselves is that which emerges from struggle—and even pain. It is also in this struggle that our relationship with God is born and the name Yisrael is realized.