Parashat Vayishlach / Diminishing the Divine

The face-to-face encounter with the truth sometimes exceeds the human capacity for containment.

Art by Gustave Doré depicting 'Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,' 1855.
Wikimedia Commons

We received our name, “Israel,” after we were impolite: Instead of observing the commandments, we grappled with them, sometimes wrestling with the one who imposed them on us.

Jacob became Israel not because he fervently respected God, but rather because he was prepared to wrestle with God’s messenger and even demand a blessing from him: “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’ And he said unto him: ‘What is thy name?’ And he said: ‘Jacob.’ And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed’” (Genesis 32:25-29).

The face-to-face encounter with the truth sometimes exceeds the human capacity for containment. Whoever dares, or is forced, to meet the Creator could emerge with a trauma. After his night-long wrestling bout with a superior rival, as described in this week’s portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), Jacob has both a new name and a new identity: “And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved’” (Gen. 32:31). However, after his frightening encounter with God, Israel “limped upon his thigh” (32:32). Israel, God’s chosen one, is also a wounded veteran of God’s army.

Those who feared to be Israel turned him into a cautious and pious individual who diminished God to a sort of china doll preserved behind glass lest human contact endanger its survival. The possibility of confronting God has not entered the mind of religious Jews for centuries. The preservers of a miniaturized God fear that, if they are not polite enough toward him, he will cease to exist. They thank him endlessly as if he were a rejected child in need of constant reinforcement. Israel vanished, and what remained was an extremely polite Jew, afraid of contact and determined to please, and protect, his Creator.

Those who needed to “market” God by inflating his compassion and generosity removed from his image the “terrible in his doing” (Psalms 66:5).

The fear of facing the intolerable haphazardness of the world’s disasters, the knowledge of the trials human beings cannot surmount, and God’s absence from those post-traumatic moments when he is most needed – all this led to the discarding of elements we considered “evil” from God’s image.

Legend turned the prophet Elijah, the uncompromising truth-seeker, into a village saint who returns lost children to their homes. Isaiah’s God – “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the Lord, that doeth all these things” (Isaiah 45:7) – is transformed in Jewish liturgy into a palatable figure, who “forms the light, and creates darkness; who makes peace, and creates everything” (from the morning service).

During the Jewish people’s long exile from its homeland, God ultimately was given a new label: kashrut supervisor, synagogue official and ritual-bath attendant. This was much more convenient than the conception of a biblical god who forbids bribes even for the sake of public support for yeshivahs. God’s guardians take pains to meet him only through the Shulhan Arukh codex of Jewish law lest they discover, for example, that his commandments also oblige one to work with receipts.

Talmud classes, as I am told by colleagues who teach them in state-religious schools, are detested by their students – perhaps because the students cannot express their anger over the declarations of tanaim and amoraim (sages), and cannot scream in protest to the high heavens.

Those who have stopped wrestling with the angel read the biblical story through so many layers of commentary by very polite exegetists that the story gets lost.

For one moment in time, in the Zionist movement’s initial stages, we again became Israel – after so long. The heirs of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs were again prepared to wrestle with angels and to inform the one who sent them that it is impossible to maintain contact with him when we are being slaughtered:

If there’s justice – let it come now!

But if it should come after I’ve been

blotted out beneath the sky,

let its throne be cast down.

– Haim Nahman Bialik, “On the Slaughter” (as translated by Peter Cole)

Those who warned God that they were going to fire him had a god. The Israelis whom Bialik hoped would be “faithful servants of God’s image in the world” (“That I Could Be One of You,” as translated by Atar Hadari) are gone.

The Zionist pioneers have been replaced by those post-modern Jews who want to relinquish the distinction between a citizen of the world and a citizen of Israel . On one hand, the post-modern Jew insists on the Other’s uniqueness and sanctifies his otherness; on the other, in contravention of his own values, he demands the nullification of Israel’s uniqueness as a nation. While struggling for the Other’s right to be unique in his needs, inclinations, attire and customs – he forbids us to have a mission and to reveal an Israel that is unique among the nations.

Judaism is now in the hands of the flatterers of a saccharin-sweet God. “Tzadik” (“righteous one”), cries out the neighborhood falafel seller, his head covered with a large black kippah, to the buyer who does not wear one: “Do you want tahini with that?”