Wrestling and Prevailing

a man wraps strips of cloth on his hands in preparation for a wrestling match
Artem Ermilov / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Rabbi Kelilah Miller

Parshat Vayishlach

In the parshah this week, we read one of the most enigmatic (and most often-referenced) passages in the Book of Genesis.

As Yaakov is about to meet his brother Esav for the first time since their traumatic parting, Yaakov remains alone for the night. A “man” comes and wrestles with Yaakov until daybreak, and the stranger is only able to overcome Yaakov by resorting to supernatural means, revealing himself as more than human.

In the end, the supernatural stranger still cannot escape Yaakov’s grasp, and Yaakov demands a blessing from his opponent. Yaakov is blessed with a new name: Yisrael — “For you have wrestled (sarita) with the Divine (Elohim) and with humans, and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29).

This name Yisrael, of course, becomes the name of the entire nation, and the name by which Jews know ourselves today. We are named after a “God-wrestler” — a dynamic character that has an evolving (and at times confrontational) relationship with God and with the human beings in his life. We see in this name a reflection of our own constantly evolving, often tumultuous, relationship with God, with life and with Jewish history.

Many of us take great comfort in the image of Yisrael as “God-Wrestler,” since we feel so much less alone in our inevitable moments of doubt, discomfort, ambivalence or alienation. Many of us feel pride in our mandate to interrogate and reshape tradition through the process of sacred grappling. All of this is deeply important to Jewish process and to the evolution of Jewish religious civilization.

And, at the same time, our self-image as “God-Wrestlers” risks becoming a Jewish truism.

At this stage in my own spiritual journey, I find myself increasingly impatient with an approach to Judaism that values the wrestling without imagining what might be on the other side of all that effort. After all, Yaakov/Yisrael is not locked in perpetual combat for the rest of his life. He wrestles, he remains persistent and he eventually gains a blessing, a new identity and, ultimately, reconciliation with his estranged brother.

Without the blessing, the midnight wrestling match is a bad joke — a parody of the religious quest. And yet we so often find ourselves tempted to focus exclusively on the wrestling, without even considering what blessings we might ask for when dawn comes.

This is not to say that, when we have periods of profound God-Wrestling, we must emerge with some kind of permanent spiritual transformation. Life does not take that narrative shape for most of us; rather, we move constantly between effort and rest.

The key is to remember that the periods of “prevailing” are as important as the periods of grappling. There are real spiritual truths and blessings to be won through our efforts, even if those truths and blessings are incomplete or provisional. We must keep searching for them, rather than allowing ourselves to become mired in cynicism and barren skepticism, believing that struggle is all that exists.

My hope and prayer for this coming Shabbat is that we can all invite a little bit of rest and blessing into our spiritual journeys, so that when we do inevitably re-enter the “God-Wrestling” ring, we are reinvigorated with joy, purpose and possibility.

Rabbi Kelilah Miller is the education director/cantor at Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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