Written by Dovid Gurevich, rabbi of Chabad at UCLA.
Three adventurers from France, Italy and Israel were captured by vicious Caribbean cannibals. In an attempt to be “civilized,” the cannibals offered each captive one last wish before being thrown into a huge cauldron. The Frenchman ordered a baguette and fine wine for his last meal, and the Italian a gourmet pasta dish, before succumbing to their fate in the boiling pot. However, the Israeli, to the savages’ amusement, requested a huge kick in the behind by the strongest cannibal available. After the Israeli rolled over from the sheer force of the blow, he then reached into his boot, pulled out an Uzi and gunned down the cannibals. Shocked and relieved, the Italian and the Freshman exclaimed, “You had a gun all along! Why didn’t you use it earlier?!” to which the Israeli replied incredulously, “What?! You want me to be the aggressor?”
This week’s Torah reading contains arguably the most dramatic and historic encounters within the entire Torah: it depicts our patriarch Jacob having a nocturnal showdown with a mysterious man, who turns out to actually be a guardian angel of his evil twin brother, Esau. Not only is Jacob victorious, albeit wounded, against his celestial opponent, but he is foretold of his imminent name change from Jacob to Israel.
Israel is still trending in the news, as it has for the past 3,600 years. But what does this name mean? The Torah’s explanation of the then-new name Israel is equally enigmatic: “You have wrestled (SaRitAh) with G-d (ELokim) and with men and you have overcome” (Gen. 32:29). What does wrestling with G-d mean? Why would this become our collective name? And more importantly to us — who cares?
A powerful Chassidic insight and explanation can help us uncover something important about our essential Jewish identity (after all, the Jewish people are called Children of Israel), as well as gain an understanding of the world’s obsession with Israel, the name selected for the Jewish state above all other options.
The key is in understanding the Divine Name “Elokim.” Its plural grammatical form has been a source of much confusion and misunderstanding. As overheard by yours truly at Kerkhoff patio, it has been misused to advance a proof of G-d’s multiplicity, which clearly doesn’t jive with Judaism’s unequivocal affirmation of G-d’s absolute oneness.
Rather, the Chassidic masters explain, based on Kabbalah, that the Name “Elokim” refers to G-d as He is concealed within the Nature. In fact, the gematriya (numerical value) of this Name is 86, which is equivalent to the gematriya of the Hebrew word “HaTevah,” meaning “the Nature.”
So if we now reread the explanation of the name Israel, it would read as follows: “You have wrestled with concealment of G-d… and you have overcome.”
In other words, we are tasked in our daily lives to pierce the veil of nature, obscuring the Divine reality and consciousness of existence; to look beneath the surface of superficial materialism; to transcend the mundane and the profane and to sense the spiritual and the holy. We accomplish this every time we choose to do a mitzvah (a good deed) — most of which involve physical material objects, such as a coin for charity or parchment of mezuzah — thereby transforming the physical into spiritual. Even time itself can be sanctified, when we celebrate Shabbat or a Jewish holiday.
The very existence of Israel, and its every child, declares to the world that it is much more than a collection of random molecules and cells. It negates the natural order by indicating a deeper reality. The materialistic world is bothered by being negated by Israel, “SarEl” — the officer of Hashem — which is another interpretation of this name. The antipathy is real, painful and palpable, as we are currently witnessing, once again.
However, the Torah promises that Israel can ultimately overcome all obstacles and prevail over the Divine and man-made concealment. Then, says the prophet Ovadya (himself a descendant of Esau), the survivors of this cosmic wrestling match, those who were not consumed by the allures of materialistic world and maintained their spiritual mission, will “go up the mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau” and reestablish the world’s true inner Divine reality.
May it happen immediately with the coming of Moshiach now!
This article is part of Ha’Am’s new Friday Taste of Torah column. Each week, a different UCLA community member will contribute some words of Jewish wisdom in preparation for Shabbat.