Nationhood is hard. Forming a cohesive people able to take the reins of its own national promise is a tortuous journey. It typically entails internal battles within the polity, and external ones with those who might try to stop a strange new actor on the global stage. This week’s Torah reading provides a name for that arduous path towards sovereignty: Israel.
Jacob receives the additional name Israel [Genesis 35:10] after an evening of struggle with a metaphysical force, either an angel representing his twin Esau, [Rashi, Gen. 32:25], with whom Jacob had a strained relationship, or God Himself, as Jacob presumes [Gen. 32:31]. This spiritual wrestling match occurs just before Jacob’s return to Canaan, known already as a piece of land called Israel [Gen. 34:8], Jacob’s new name. The name of the man and his land are the same.
Rashi comments that the name Israel connotes political leadership [Gen. 35:10]. The Biblical text itself prefaces this by explaining that this princely name was won through struggle, both soulful and physical [Gen. 32:29]. The Meshech Chochmah makes clear that the name Israel is specifically for national use, while Jacob remains the patriarch’s name only when the text is concerned with him as an individual [Gen. 35:10].
Shabbat Candles: 4:11 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 32:4-36:43
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7-12:12 (Ashkenaz); Ovadiah (Sephard)
Havdalah: 5:14 p.m.
Israel then is the name granted to a man fathering a people. Jews thereafter, even in this early parsha, are called “the Children of Israel,” at once denoting collective identity and common origin [Gen. 32:33]. Through the process leading to the name Israel we learn something of what it means to become a people. Jacob’s dark and tense struggle with Esau’s guardian angel can represent the fight a nation has beyond its borders with those who oppose it. This is the common struggle most states have with their political adversaries. However, if we see Jacob as struggling directly with God, that is the domestic striving communities go through, over their own inner divisions, seeking out collective value in a world governed by the unknowability, and ultimate otherness, of the Divine [Rambam, “Guide for the Perplexed”].
Becoming a nation therefore entails two parallel efforts: struggle without and struggle within. A nation must simultaneously sustain both its physical and spiritual survival if it is to realize a meaningful ongoing existence, as the Torah expected of the Children of Israel.
In his biblical studies paper, “Jacob and Esau and the Emergence of the Jewish People,” political scientist Daniel Elazar writes, “Thus it is the unique destiny of the Jews — Israel — to wrestle with God as well as be witness to His covenant.” By this, Elazar meant that the Jews would not be practically or spiritually still. They would live out their Biblical promise by never sitting satisfied as a people with a spiritual passivity. Rather, they would historically live out their covenantal understanding with God, left mysterious to humanity, by nationally “wrestling with their own inclinations and doubts in the face of a mystery which will not fully reveal itself.” That is a tremendously empowering claim.
Covenant, and its ongoing effort, places squarely in our flesh-and-blood hands (just as in Jacob’s that pitch-black night) the chance to always evolve and redefine our suppositions and behaviors in light of the partnership we share with God as partners in creation. We can never wholly grasp the mystery of the Divine, but neither do we ever cease reaching to understand what it demands of us in terms of conviction and behavior as a community of faith. Just as Jacob pushed forward relentlessly, even at great risk to his own person (as shown by the physical injury he received through his struggle that night), so too the Children of Israel is supposed to, by this biblical model, meet its challenges and emerge stronger.
This understanding of the striving nature implied by the national name “Israel” bequeathed to the Jewish people in this week’s parsha, has serious implications for our community’s potential role in the American, indeed global, political conversation today. Judaism knows of no “ism,” whether conservative or liberal, when Torah is taken on its own terms. The Bible and Talmud supply their own respective covenantal premises separate from the latest ideological fads. Being outsiders, constituents of a people forged in antiquity under an ethic of struggle illuminated in this week’s parsha, allows, without ideological prejudice, the Children of Israel to be honest critics and fair civic contributors to a world in need of repair.
Israel is our national name. It came out of one man’s battle for physical survival and spiritual growth. Just as people struggle to evolve, it is not easy for nations to mature. We have been working on this intensely for four millennia. We have a contribution to make to the world.
Rabbi Abraham Unger is associate professor of government and politics at Wagner College, and Rabbi of Congregation Ohav Zedek of Bayonne, N.J. He is the author of the upcoming “A Jewish Public Theology: God and the Global City” (Lexington Books).