Vayishlach: Singing God’s Song
What does it men to truly partner with God to create a more meaningful and just world? Being a Jew and a father, I think about this question a great deal. As a Jew, I’ve been taught that being a good person means being a mensch. Kindness, integrity, responsibility are all the qualities of a mensch. On a deeper level, I know that to be a partner with God is to live up to my legacy as a Jew. That means going back to the to my roots. We are called by another name – “The Children of Israel.” While it was Abraham and Sarah that were our first parents, and Isaac, who was who was willing to give all of himself over to God. While, it was Joseph who saved his family and was called “righteous,” and Moses, the greatest of all prophets, who knew God “face to face.
We are not called by any of their names. The Jewish people are called the “Children of Israel and the Community of Jacob.” What is it about Jacob, whose name changes in our Torah portion, Yayishlach, that warrants our adoration, and ultimately becomes the moniker of what it means to be a partner with God?
The answer, is found in the moment that the name, Israel, is first expressed in the world. Jacob, in fear of his brother of Esau, prepares for the worst. He fully expects Esau to hunt him down for what he did. (Remember, Jacob stole the birthright and blessing back when they were kids.) Jacob separates out his camp and tries to ensure their survival. At which point, he is left alone on the ford of Yabbok river where an angel appears to Jacob at night. The two beings wrestle with each other until the sunrise. The angel, locked in stalemate with Jacob sees the dawn breaking and asks:
“What is your name? He replied, ‘Jacob.’ Said the angel, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28-29)
What does this name, never before uttered, Israel, mean? Why would the angel choose to give Jacob this name of all names? There have been many interprations. Perhaps the most poetic is the that of Rabbbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935) was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine, a Jewish thinker, Halachist, Kabbalist and a renowned Torah scholar.
He takes the word Israel, to be a compound of two words. Shir and El, or the “Song of God.” He writes:
There is a fourfold song in the world:
- There is one who sings the song of one’s own life, and in himself he finds everything, a full spiritual satisfaction.
- There is another who sings the song of his people. … [H]e stretches himself with a gentle love to the whole community of Israel. Together with her he sings her songs. He feels grieved in her afflictions and delights in her hopes. He contemplates noble and pure thoughts about her past and her future, and probes with love and wisdom her inner spiritual essence.
- There is another who reaches toward more distant realms, and he goes beyond the boundary of Israel to sing the song of humanity. His spirit extends to humanity in general, and its noble essence, aspiring towards humanity’s general goal and looking forward towards its higher perfection.
- Then there is one who rises toward wider horizons, until he links himself with all existence, with all God’s creatures…and he sings his song with all everything that is …
And then there is one who rises with all these songs in one ensemble, and they all join their voices….The song of the self, the song of the people, the song of humanity, the song of the world all merge in her at all times, in every hour…. The name “Israel” stands for “Shir- El” the song of God. It is a simple song, a twofold song, a threefold song, and a fourfold song. It is the Song of Songs of Solomon, Shlomo which means peace or wholeness. It is the song of the Highest One in whom is wholeness. (Orot Hakodesh, Volume II, pp.458-459)
Rav Kook illuminates something beautiful in the name Israel. All of us, at any given moment can sing these songs. Each level of song is wider than the one the proceeds it. Moving from our self and our private needs to the song that holds up the entire world. From the song of our selves we then displace ourselves. We dissolve into the wider chorus of our people, then all people and finally all of existence together.
As we widen the notion of the self to encompass others, we become more holy. I learned this first when I found my partner and again each time we had a child. The heart can be infinitely big. We add love to love, for love is infinite.
Moreover, as Rabbi Kook teaches, as we grow in our song, we also trace a wider circle of our responsibility. To be Israel, to be a Jew, is to sing God’s song. It begins with the song of ourselves. Each of us in unique, created in God’s image. It grows with the the song of our people. We live in the covenant. It grows again as our song includes all people. We must take care of others just as we take care of our own. It is the the song of the world. God is global, we must be global too.
The name given on that fateful night, not only to Jacob but to every Jew, is our birthright and sacred responsibility to be the singers of God’s song. We are to be proud of Judaism and it’s values. To share them with all people, and to stand for godliness at all times. To be the community of Jacob, is to inherit the name, Shir El, the Song of God, the name Israel.