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December 16, 2016

Wrestling With God (Parashat Vayishlach)

Julia R. Cadrain

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During my time here at Central, I have spent many mornings at the Upper West Side mikveh, sitting with Rabbi Lisa Rubin as she leads her students through the ceremonies of conversion.

We start with a beit din—rabbinic court—where we ask questions to draw out the students’ reflections on their process. From there, students immerse in the waters of the mikveh, and then we close with celebration and blessing. Witnessing this ritual of transformation is always a beautiful way to start my day.

If you’ve never participated in or observed this process, you might be surprised that students are not asked to recite a creed, or express loyalty to God. How is it that such a profound transformation of conversion can occur without those proclamations?

There may be an answer in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach. As the portion opens, we watch as a very nervous Jacob prepares to reunite with his twin brother Esau after a long estrangement. Jacob sends his family across the river and is left alone on the other side, where he wrestles with a man, a shadowy unnamed figure, until dawn. This struggle profoundly changes Jacob. And as often happens in the Jewish tradition, with this transformation comes a new name. The man he wrestles tells him, “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel.”

Israel comes from isra—wrestling—El—with God. In this renaming, we understand that Jacob was actually wrestling with a divine being. The name that Jacob earns from that struggle becomes one of the names for the entire Jewish people. We are Israel: a people who wrestle with God. To be Jewish or to become Jewish, we don’t have to definitively state our belief in God for all time. Instead, we are encouraged to wrestle with God—to engage with the idea of God and work to interrogate our own beliefs. So what does that look like?

I want to offer two different interpretations of this mandate to wrestle. In the first, wrestling has a violent connotation. And sometimes that is exactly how it feels. When we experience trauma, we might call out to God with rage and passion. In the face of darkness and evil, we might scream to God, “Where are you?!” This is one way of grappling with God, and it is important to allow ourselves the honesty of these moments of wrestling.

In contrast, there is a calmer, more loving interpretation of wrestling, one that Rashi describes in his commentary on this portion. He depicts “two [people] struggling to overthrow each other, where one embraces [the other] and knots him with his arms.” This is a more intimate and gentle kind of wrestling. Maybe this is how it looks when we’re feeling at peace with our lives and are curious about God’s role in that.

Perhaps confronting your beliefs has led you to conclude that God doesn’t exist. And if that’s the case, I would challenge you to continue to engage in that wrestling so you can gain clarity around it. Sometimes what we are rejecting is a lingering image of a biblical, vengeful, bearded God. And if we can work to name and articulate whatever it is that we don’t believe in, we can also get closer to our own truth.

Wherever you are in this personal process—whether you’re certain God doesn’t exist, or furious with God, or grateful, or questioning—let your wrestling be dynamic. We have space in our tradition for our relationships with and ideas about God to evolve daily. Think about your childhood image of God and compare that with how you think of God today. And know that this may be different from how you think about God tomorrow.

Perhaps our dynamic grappling can lead to profound transformation, like it does for those who embark on a process of conversion to Judaism, and like it does for Jacob who becomes Israel. To fully embrace our name as Israelites, those who wrestle with God, may we make space for all of our questions and doubts, and open ourselves to the mystery of everything we don’t yet understand.

I’ll leave you with a poem by Richard Levy, found in our prayer book:

As you taught Torah
to those whose names I bear,
teach me Torah too.
Its mystery beckons,
yet I struggle with its truth.
You meant Torah for me:
did you mean the struggle for me, too?
Don’t let me struggle alone;
help me to understand,
to be wise, to listen, to know…
lead me into the mystery.