05 Dec 2014

Vayishlah 5775 – Fight Club

And Yaakob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the coming up of dawnwhen he saw that he could not prevail against himhe said to him What is your name? And he said Yaakob. Then he said: Not as Yaakob shall your name be uttered, but rather as Yisrael for you have fought with G-d and men and have prevailed. (32:25-26,28-29)

Never throughout history has a man who lived a life of ease left a name worth remembering.

Theodore Roosevelt

This week our parasha showcases an historic struggle. During the journey that Yaakob makes with his family on his way back home to Canaan, he finds himself left alone one evening. No sooner are we told of his solitude, do we read that he is engaged in a brawl throughout the night with a mysterious, some say divine,  aggressor. Yaakob struggles until daybreak with this ‘man’. As he beats him at dawn, and the aggressor prepares to retreat in defeat, he bestows upon Yaakob a new name, Yisrael,  later to be endorsed by G-d[1]. He is called Yisrael (ישראל) because of his struggles, “you have struggled (שרית) with G-d and men and have prevailed”.

Yaakob’s successful struggle literally became the defining act of his life and the tenor for the development of his progeny. A nation of his descendants would emerge from the crucible of slavery, and Yisrael would go on to struggle through an epic three-thousand year saga of challenge and adversity while showing no dimming of its vibrant spirit. Just as our forefather did, we emerge from strife with intrepid resolve.

The name Yisrael, however, does not highlight the success of the fight, but the fight itself and the readiness to take on all manner of challenge, be it divine or mortal, in order to survive and thrive. There is something, though, about the primal fight of Yaakob that is unique. The Torah makes a point of telling us that Yaakob was alone just before he began wrestling with the adversary. There are those who see that his struggle was an internal and personal conflict, and the “man” that he fought was a powerful and aggressive element of his own psyche. There are many ways to look at and understand the struggle of Yaakob Abinu, but the idea that it was a personal struggle that manifested itself externally — as if it were with a different person — is intriguing.

We all have facets to our personalities that do not fall in line with each other. There are drives that urge us to do and think certain things that run counter to the part of our selves that aims at our highest goals and aspirations. Yaakob and his descendants often, almost endemically, saw the dissonance that emerged from our inner dualities as an ongoing personal battle for perfected selfhood and integrity. It is a lone struggle, fought for our own sake,  that no one can fight for us. There are battles we win, and battles we lose, but we are always at a point of tension between the push of our drives and the motivation of our potential, perfected selves.

There is something sacred in the struggle itself. Even when we lose a battle, our lives are elevated because we care enough to fight. To acknowledge that we harbour streaks within us that run counter to our ultimate goals, and to commit to facing them and wrestling with them, is in large part what being Yisrael is about. Before we capitulate to drives like lust, greed, power and arrogance, that serve little more than to efface a faithful and upstanding identity, we rise to the duel with the name of Yisrael on our shields and fight to achieve virtuous lives. To commit to this struggle is to believe that there is a life and identity that is worth fighting for. At the heart of our nation is the belief that the struggle is worth it, and that win or lose, the holy, human glory lies in the fight itself.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] 35:9-10 “G-d said to him, Yaakob is your name, Yaakob shall your name be called no more, for your name shall be Yisrael! And he called his name Yisrael.”