December 7, 2011
Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)
Like a good movie, Israel evokes a variety of emotions within us. In fact, the poster for the 1994 Israel Film Festival (IFF) reads:
“Passion, Triumph, Danger, Tragedy, Suspense, Miracles, Conflict, Ecstasy, Israel.”
When I asked Meir Fenigstein, founder and director of the IFF, why he chose these particular words, he said, “These are the ingredients that produce a good film, and these also happen to be the emotions that best capture the story of Israel.”
Fenigstein was referring to the modern State of Israel, but I would argue that these words have portrayed the story of Israel from its very inception. From the very first time the word “Israel” was pronounced, the scene was one of danger, suspense and conflict; its outcome could be tragic or miraculous; and the passion that ensued produced a feeling of ecstasy and, ultimately, triumph.
It was a dark, lonely night when “Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25). Jewish commentators are divided as to what exactly took place that night. Who was this mysterious “man” that suddenly appeared and wrestled with Jacob all night? Was he an angel or a real person? If he was an angel, who and what did he represent? Was this a real, physical event, or did it take place in the realm of the supernatural? Was it a prophecy, a dream or a combination thereof?
No matter what answers the commentators have suggested, the outcome of this wrestling match is even more compelling than the above questions. Just before the break of dawn, when the “man” saw that he was unable to defeat Jacob, “He wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was dislocated as he wrestled with him.” He then implored Jacob, “Let me leave, for dawn is breaking.” Despite his injured thigh, Jacob still overwhelmed the “man,” and refused to let him go until the “man” would bless him.
“What is your name?” the man asked.
“Jacob,” he replied.
The “man’s” answer to Jacob is the turning point in Jacob’s life and marks the dawning of a new nation destined to spend its eternity much like Jacob spent this night — alone, often in the dark, struggling with God, wrestling with enemies, injured … and triumphant. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29).
The medieval Bible commentator and grammarian Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak) teaches that the Hebrew word for “striven” — sari-ta — has as its root the word sarah (not to be confused with the name Sarah), which means “to contend,” or to “struggle toward victory.” This explains, according to Radak, the choice of Jacob’s new name — Israel. Built into the word “Israel” is the root sarah, which means that built into the word Israel is the character of struggling — with “beings divine and human.” Much like the patriarch Israel spent that night — and much of his life — struggling with the complexities of God, family, sibling rivalry, morals and ethics, parenthood and relations with neighbors, so, too, his descendants — the nation of Israel — were destined to spend their existence struggling with God, with each other and with those who surround them.
The Talmud teaches: “The deeds of our forefathers are a sign for their children.” Never was this more applicable, especially to contemporary Israel, than the moment when Jacob — now named Israel — walked away from his wrestling match triumphant yet limping, permanently scarred from his battle wounds. This image conjures up the many instances in Israel’s modern history when Israel triumphed, but the wounds of battle rendered the triumph bittersweet. From its rebirth in 1948 on the rebounds of the Holocaust, to the many valiant battles fought by the Israel Defense Forces, to the miraculous victory at Entebbe marred by the loss of one soldier, to the elated feeling of seeing Gilad Shalit home again with the sobering reality of the price for his release, Israel — like its namesake — continues to walk off its many battlefields with her fists raised in triumph, despite her injured legs limping away.
The words on the Israel Film Festival poster continue to ring true: Passion, Triumph, Danger, Tragedy, Suspense, Miracles, Conflict, Ecstasy, Israel. Like Israel the patriarch, Israel’s wrestling matches are passionate, filled with internal conflict, wrought with suspense and danger from enemies, and when we experience the ecstasies of Israel’s triumphs, we are compelled — as David Ben-Gurion said — to believe in miracles.