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Two Minutes of Torah: Vayishlach - God Wrestlers

One of my guilty pleasures growing up was watching the World Wrestling Federation.  I loved spending afternoons watching Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, and the Ultimate Warrior fighting against each other; and on occasion, even though they told us “Don't Try This At Home”, I have to be honest and say that with a couple of friends we would pretend to be wrestlers.  Wrestling was one of those things that I expected to see on television but I never expected to find in the Torah.  And yet in this week's Torah portion we have perhaps the most famous wrestling match in history. 

As Jacob prepares to meet his brother Esau for the first time since he stole the birthright he divides his camp and then spends a night alone and apart from everyone else.  There he encounters a strange man with whom he wrestles until the break of day.  At the end of the wrestling the man says: ‘“Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he [Jacob] answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”’ (Gen. 32:27).  In response to this the mysterious man asks for Jacob's name and then says: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29).  At this moment it becomes clear that Jacob has been wrestling with some form of divine being. 

Jacob’s request is a peculiar one for our context, victory (or at least an honorable draw) in this wrestling match is demonstrated by the receipt of a blessing.  The divine being changed Jacob's name.  His original name of Yaakov was given in relation to the fact that he was born holding on to Esau’s heal.  The significance of this new name is that it is not in connection with his brother, and is instead a name connected to God.

In Jacob’s request for a blessing and his renaming as Yisrael – God wrestler, we understand that being a God wrestler, being Yisrael, is a blessing in and of itself.  It is a call to us, as Jacob's descendants, to wrestle with God, to struggle with our faith, and to struggle with what it means to be in a relationship with the Divine; and then, like Jacob, to emerge to a place of Penniel, a place where we can declare, “I have seen a divine being face to face” (Gen. 32:21).  

In this way we are the descendants of Jacob.  But more importantly we are the descendants of Yisrael and the challenge each one of us is how we can wrestle with God in our own lives.  And then, just like Jacob, find the way of prevailing.

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