The weekly Torah portion of Vayishlach, describes a famous story in the life of Jacob. It is a message that Israeli Jews continue to hold dear.
Jacob had left his parent’s home fearing for his life, as his brother Esau had threatened to kill him. After many years away, Jacob prepared to return with his new large family, only to discover that Esau had a welcoming party for him of 400 men, an army.
Assuming a battle, Jacob prepared to meet his brother Esau by separating his family into two groups, hoping that one group could escape while the other fought Esau’s army. Jacob did not anticipate that there would be another fight before he even encountered Esau.
Genesis 32:24-30 relays the story of Jacob being left alone after readying his family. “Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
Sages relayed that the man with whom Jacob wrestled was an angel, both a physical man and divinely creature. This angel was both a symbol and a messenger: Jacob had fought with men such as Esau and his father-in-law Lavan, but also in his relationship with God. The angel let Jacob know that as he had prevailed in the past, he would again prevail when he encounters his brother. As such, the angel renamed Jacob “Yisrael” which is a combination of Hebrew words conveying both the struggle and the success.
The Jews of today were originally called “the Sons of Israel” in the bible, not the sons of Jacob. They carried Jacob’s new name and the knowledge that while they continued to struggle with both man and God, they would ultimately prevail.
Jewish history is full of difficult encounters with men, whether in the holy land or around the world. Jews lost many more battles than they won which often led them to question their belief in God. Sages debated whether that cause-and-effect was actually reversed, and considered whether Jews lost so many fights because they failed in their relationship with God.
The Holocaust is an example of the terrible struggle Jews had with man and God. The very government to which Jews remained loyal, turned on them and butchered them. Holocaust Survivors were left to question both the morality of men as well as the role of God. Was “surviving” really prevailing? On a broader basis, was the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel after the slaughter of one-third of the global Jewish population, really “prevailing?” Is the definition of “prevailing” staying alive, a tangible victory of a self-governing homeland, or simply maintaining faith?
Today, Jews continue to grapple with those relationships and questions. In November 2015, an Israeli woman preparing for her wedding was informed that a Palestinian Arab terrorist killed her father and brother. She delayed the wedding so she could bury her family members and sit shiva, seven days of mourning. As she ended her mourning, she invited the entire country to join in the wedding celebration. Her invitation carried a message from the prophet Micah:
“Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy. Though I fall, I will rise”
The heavenly promise of overcoming battles was matched by human determination. The bride said “precisely from the pain in the month of courage before Hanukkah we will, together with all the nation of Israel, spread a great light of joy, giving and love that the nation of Israel has inundated upon us.“
Her voice was echoed by thousands of Jews who came to the wedding in Jerusalem waving Israeli flags singing “The Nation of Israel Lives!”
The children of Israel continue to wrestle with God and man, but prevail. They prevail in being alive, in the Jewish State with complete faith in God.
Am Yisrael Chai.
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