It’s the night after Thanksgiving and I’m eating an extraordinary Shabbos meal in Dallas, Texas. I am being hosted by a family with a fantastic house, a loving and beyond welcoming atmosphere, and one of the best dinners I’ve ever had. I’m not with my own family because they don’t keep Shabbos and aren’t within walking distance from a shul. Also there are motion sensors in the house (part of the alarm system) and if I cross one, a little blue light comes on. So even if I wanted to stay home, I’d have to stay in my room.
My host family is not only accommodating, but the dinner discussion is engaging too. However, when the great uncle brings up a controversial question, the mood suddenly changes.
“Do you really believe the Torah literally? That the world was made in 6 days and has only been around for 6,000 years?”
You see, Mr. Great Uncle is not as observant as the rest of the family. One might think he asked the question to push buttons or perhaps it was connected to an underlying resentment. It’s wrong to assume where he’s coming from, but I didn’t get the impression he was seeking a genuine answer.
The father of the family tried his best to give an explanation, but Mr. Great Uncle wasn’t having it. Not wanting to overstep family bounds, I waited for everyone to answer before offering my own insight. But before I share my answer, I’d like to talk a little bit about how the episode relates to this week’s parsha.
In Vayishlach, Yaakov prepares to face his brother, Esav, once and for all. Esav isn’t too happy with Yaakov after he stole his blessing from their father. God has commanded Yaakov to finally return home, but Esav is a master of warfare and has an army waiting for his little brother. Needless to say Yaakov, is a little nervous.
It’s on his way home that Yaakov finds himself alone and is suddenly attacked by an assailant. It’s not terribly clear who this man is or why he assaulting Yaakov. Some say that the attacker is just a mugger, some say it is the angel of Esav, and some say it’s a representation of God Himself. Yaakov wrestles with the man all night. As the sun comes up, the attacker suddenly decides to flee. But Yaakov holds firm and makes a bizarre request.
And he (the man) said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” but he (Jacob) said, “I will not let you go unless you have blessed me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” And he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have contended with God and with men, and you have prevailed.” (Bereishis 32: 27-30)
We don’t tend to think too deeply about names in secular society. For businesses and marketing purposes, we like something memorable but with simplicity. When naming a child, we want to impart a feeling of uniqueness but still allows them to fit in and maybe honors a family member or hero. But in Hebrew, the depth of a name goes much farther. In Judaism, a name is connected to the essence of the object it names. The Hebrew word for dog, כֶּלֶב, literally translates to like heart. As the saying goes, dog is man’s best friend, Hebrew seems to be pretty on the mark. When we pray for someone, we use their Hebrew name because that is what is most closely tied to their being. In fact, in some cases of illness, a Rabbi might suggest changing the patient’s name as it is believed that it might affect his destiny (mozel).
For Yaakov to suddenly become Israel is a pretty big deal. Considering that Jews are known as the Children of Israel, the essence being communicated with this new name must have extraordinary significance.
Back To Dinner
I told Mr. Great Uncle that to understand the Torah literally, it isn’t so easy as opening a Bible off the shelf. Translations help, but they fail to communicate the depths of concepts that don’t have perfect English counterparts. That if you actually look at a Torah scroll, there are no nikud (vowls) meaning that certain words could mean something completely different if you’re not referencing proper commentary. Even if you can read a Torah scroll, there are hundreds of perplexing inconsistencies in grammar and spelling that yield incredible insights if you know how to interpret them (thanks Rashi). Not to mention the infinite other levels one can uncover if they really dig deep (gematria, Kabbalistic understanding, etc.)
But despite Mr. Great Uncle’s seemingly confrontational manner, he was actually doing exactly what a Jew should be doing. The reason why the angel changed Yaakov’s name is because he wrestled with God. Properly understanding the Torah takes work. It should be hard because it should challenge you. In literacy, in understanding, but also in your sensibilities. If you’re not bothered by something in the Torah, you’re not working hard enough. And even if you are bothered by the Torah, but you’ve rationalized it as “something from an ancient time” or you just don’t think too hard about it, you’re also not working hard enough. There’s slavery in the Torah. There’s polygamy. There’s a commandment to eradicate a group of people named Amalek. If you consider yourself religious, sooner or later, someone is going to ask you about these things. What are you going to say to them?
God gave us the Torah to keep the Torah. That doesn’t just mean not driving on Shabbos and washing your hands before bread. We are supposed to strive to master it, we are supposed to engage in it, and most of all we are supposed to grow with it. And the only way to grow is by overcoming a challenge. So if you really want to accept the mantle of being a child of Israel, put on your singlet, climb into the arena, and get ready to rumble with the Torah.