“Beings Divine and Human”
By Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D. ‘10, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Music History
The name Yisrael (Israel) is generally understood to mean “Striven with G-d” or “Wrestled with G-d.” It stems from an enigmatic scene in Genesis 32 when, for some unknown reason, Jacob is attacked by a man, angel, or deity-in-the flesh (it is unclear which). An all-night wrestling match ensues, leaving Jacob with a limp and a new name: Yisrael. Before disappearing at daybreak, the mysterious opponent bestows the moniker on Jacob for having “striven [sarita, from the root sara] with divine beings [elohim, shortened to El, meaning G-d]” (Gen. 32:29).
This folk etymology only connects to the first part of the verse. The true meaning of Yisrael requires the full pronouncement: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” It is not just a spiritual struggle, but also a struggle with other human beings. And it is deeper than prevailing in the physical sense. The man-angel-deity-in-the-flesh wrenches Jacob’s hip at the socket, yet it is Jacob who is somehow victorious.
The ambiguity of the scene is compounded by a lack of clean resolution. The strange being refuses to divulge his identity. The blessing of the new name proves inconsistent: in later passages Jacob is sometimes called Jacob, and other times Yisrael. Moreover, if we assume (as most do) that the opponent was a supernatural entity, how does that relate to striving with human beings?
Perhaps these questions are their own answer. The loose ends appear to be intentional. Jacob, as Yisrael, is a model for the people/nation who would adopt his name. His wrestling match is a metaphor for our own inner, open-ended spiritual struggles, which can be as painful as they are transformative. Jacob/Yisrael is victorious not because he has reached some end-of-the-line enlightenment, but because he endures a struggle without end.
As the story unfolds we see how this inward spiritual battle manifests in outward human interaction. Jacob learns that his older fraternal twin brother Esau—whom he cheated from the birthright—is coming with an army of four hundred men. Jacob responds with gifts of reconciliation: over five hundred animals from his abundant flocks and herds. When the estranged brothers meet in the field, Jacob approaches Esau with a sevenfold prostration. The demonstrative apology is accepted with an embrace. No blood is shed. Jacob prevails over Esau with conciliatory kindness.
This moving encounter is the other half of the name Yisrael. The internal struggle-as-victory becomes external acceptance-as-victory. Jacob and Esau will never be close or see eye-to-eye; they part ways after the meeting in the field. But their embrace signals a mending of the family fabric.
Jacob’s spiritual turmoil teaches us about the messiness of our inner and outer worlds. In the expanses of our ever-evolving inner lives, there is no set destination or single path. In the complexities of our ever-challenging outer lives, there is no end point or definitive perspective. The other person need not be wrong for us to be right.
To be Am Yisrael means combining spiritual growth with charity toward our neighbors—including and especially those who comprise our diverse and complicated Jewish family. May our wrestling within make us better human beings. And may our interpersonal interactions make our family stronger.