We live our lives in intersecting-overlapping circles of cultures and civilizations. We can find ourselves at the spot where they all overlap. This insight helps us understand that our uniqueness is forged from the many influences of our experience as well as from our own inherent character.
In this week’s portion, we see the development in the life of the patriarch Jacob as he becomes Yisrael. Tradition tells us that Jacob, while growing up in the household of Isaac and Rebecca, was influenced by the teachings of the students of Sham and Eber, as well as his brother and his mentors. His mother’s concerns cause him to be blessed and to need to flee. The spirituality of the wilderness, reflected in the Stairway to Heaven, is then tempered by being exposed to his father-in-law, Laben, and his culture of wheeling and dealing. Now, as Jacob is returning to his roots, he prepares to face his brother Esau. He develops a strategy using diplomacy and preparing for the defense of his family, he faces a night of struggle.
We read that he “wrestled with the angel” throughout the night, emerging with a new name and a limp. His name, “Jacob” (“heel grabber”), is now changed to Yisrael – one who struggles with God. We learn that for the rest of our history we will be blessed with this trait of being Yisrael – people who struggle to find ourselves, God, and our way. Yes, it is forever our role in life to spend our energy to find our way – we often succeed and we often end up with an imperfection or emerge wounded in some way.
Any observer of the history of civilization will find that “we” have played a role in almost every positive development of human culture. In the past few centuries, almost every movement for the improvement of life has had an unusually high percentage of Jewish people in its forefront.
In many of the arts, which demand self-awareness and struggle to find an identity, you will find many people with Jewish names listed among those who are talented. Some people claim that all this is caused by our genetic heritage, while others point to our culture. Yet others claim it is the brit, the contract between Abraham and God.
No matter what the reason, we are blessed to maintain the lesson of Jacob, the ability to struggle to find the correct path. It is important to understand that we are influenced and shaped by many forces but at the center we find, as Jacob did, that we must struggle to find our identity and path in life. We, like Jacob, must prepare for the future, use diplomacy, act humbly but be prepared with strength. Strategy and tactics emerge from using all our abilities – especially those that are rooted in a core of struggle to find the best.
What we learn from this week’s portion helps us to continue the Jewish way of life, as a guide to our own paths, as well as a guide to community development and an approach for governments to function.