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Jacob and our wrestling match with God

The Torah is full of stories of bloodshed and warfare. But only one of our forefathers engaged in hand-to-hand combat: Jacob, who wrestled with an angel and went on to start a nation.

Since then, wrestling with God has been at the core of Jewish identity. The wrestling can take different forms, from struggling to understand the Holocaust to arguing over the meaning of a sacred text.

Jacob was the third patriarch, grandson of Abraham the journeyer and son of Isaac the would-be sacrifice. He began his career as a wily trickster, strategically obtaining for himself his brother's birthright, after following his mother's orders in deceiving his blind old father Isaac. His name itself meant heel or crooked.

But touched – and partially crippled – by an angel, he emerges as the archetypal Jewish ancestor. Even flawed, he continues on to face and wrestle with God and man. Jacob, more than any other figure, represents the character of our people. 

First Person
Part of taking responsibility for our relationship with God is being willing to learn, willing to change, willing to work, willing to argue, and willing to love.

–Ricki H.

I think people are generally embarrassed about defining and expressing their feelings about God. They're afraid of sounding like fanatics.

–Nechama M.

Share your thoughts. Join our private havurah communities.

Like his grandfather before him, Jacob received a new name from God, symbolizing a transformation. "No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel, " declared the angel, "for you have wrestled with God and with men, and have prevailed."

Among the understandings of the name Israel are:

One who wrestles with God.

One who is straight (direct, honest) with God.

This quality of confrontation and engagement with God, as opposed to pure submission, remains a distinguishing characteristic of Judaism.

Related:
Abraham and our Jewish journey

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At Passover, the holiday most observed by Jewish families, questioning is actually mandated. On Passover one is commanded to question. "Four questions" traditionally recited by children are written into the Passover Haggadah. But, according to the Talmud, even more important are the spontaneous questions that emerge from real curiosity, rather than mere rote., e.g. "Why in the world are we doing this?"

The Talmud itself – the corpus of law and learning at the center of Judaism as defined in the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple – is about challenging and questioning. It is a book of questions and arguments, not answers, which can only be studied through a process of questioning. This sort of interactive study of Talmud – or the Torah, or other sacred texts – is, to some thinkers, the central religious act in Judaism.

For contemporary Jews, Judaism is adopted by choice rather than the inevitable result of their birth. This makes questioning more important, and Judaism embraces this living struggle with the holy.

Such wrestling is at the core of what we at Mishpacha are trying to nurture with our private virtual communities. All the questions we ask ourselves in our Jewish exploration are important. The story of Jacob itself invites questions of Jewish identity difficult for many contemporary Jews. Here are a few for your wrestling pleasure:

  • What does Jewish identity have to do with the sacred?
  • What does it have to do with God?
  • Is it a historical identity, an identity of peoplehood, or a religion?
  • Is there room for the transcendent in this identity?
  • And if there is, what implications does that have for our lives?

 

Parenting Tip
Ask your children what being Jewish means. Sometimes the fresh understanding of a child can help us take a new look at ideas that may have become old.
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