Practical Judaism – Vayishlach

“To wrestle with, or doubt, God is perhaps the strongest form of faith.

In the same manner that you may gently rebuke a loved one for not being there in a time of need, questioning the existence of God is about pointing out a lack for the sake of developing a stronger relationship.”
-Rabbi Misha Clebaner

“Thy name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast wrestled with God (sar el) and with men, and hast prevailed.’
-Genesis 32:29

Welcome to the new season of the ‘Raising Holy Sparks’ podcast. This year, we will be focusing on Jewish concepts and will be experimenting with ways to take them out of the theoretical and turn them into the practical.

In this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach, Jacob has his name changed to Israel – the one who wrestles with God (sar el).

The concept of God is a tricky concept. In my experience, I have found two main obstacles for someone having a relationship with G-O-D. The first obstacles are the classical images of God, and the second is the name itself.

1) The stories from the Bible that describe God not only fail to inspire some of us, but even more, so they turn us off of the idea of God altogether. God brings punishment and harsh judgement upon the inhabitants of the planet. Why would we want to be in a relationship with such an entity? The truth is that each generation gets (or creates) the hero that they need.

During the days of the Bible, it was a world devoid of stability or justice. Pharaohs and warlords would do as they pleased and bad actors would get away with their wicked behavior. What did the spiritual seekers of that day and age dream of? A figure that punished the wicked and established order and peace.

As global empires became more stable, the images of God became more compassionate. The God of the Bible is softened in later depictions in Jewish literature. The God that annihilated sinners at the drop of a hat instead demanded repentance and atonement.

What does our day and age dream of in terms of “the ultimate Good”? In recent history, different communities have dreamed of different Gods. During the 1960s, as economic impoverishment touched the lives of many across Latin America, “Liberation Theology” was developed. This new God was focused on liberating the poor and alleviating their suffering. To help the poor was to pray to God. During the Civil Rights era, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that marching with Martin Luther King was like “praying with his feet.” In 2021, what is the lack that we are currently experiencing? What quality do we need more than anything else? 

Furthermore, what if the relationship that we are hoping to strengthen is not with God as a noun, but rather God as a verb: to God in this world, or God as an adjective: bringing more Godliness into this world. Still, the question remains what is this quality that we hope to elevate and magnify?

2) The second obstacle is the name G-O-D, it comes from a pre-German word ghut which meant “the one that is called upon”. This name simply doesn’t resonate with so many of us. What about the word “love”? “Love” is a word that cannot contain the infinitely expansive feelings of care and devotion that was carried in our hearts towards those closest to us. Yet, even though “love” does not perfectly capture the intensity of how we feel, we must nevertheless use the word as a shortcut for expressing how we feel. The same thing with “soul” – it’s that intangible thing, the spark that animates each of us. “Soul” can fall so flat and feel so empty. Yet, until we come up with a better system than words, we are forced to use a string of letters to describe the indescribable. 

This week’s kavanah (intentional action) that I would like to offer forward:
-Whenever you find a few minutes of down time, contemplate what quality you are in need of most during this time in your life. Then grow in relationship with this quality. There may be highs when you get it more times than others and you feel held and happy, and there may be other times when you feel totally distant from it. Just like the closeness or distance from God, it’s ok to have this relationship be one of waxing and waning.

Thanks for listening and looking forward to being on this journey through the books of the Torah with you!

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