Crossings (Vayishlach)

a_man_crossing_the_river_beas_in_manali_in_2009At the first meeting of a class, discussion, or spiritual direction group, I invite people to introduce themselves. Sometimes, I’ll ask members of a Jewish group to give me a sense of their spiritual orientation.

“Let us know,” I’ll say, “which name of our people most closely describes you.

“Are you Ivri (עברי Hebrew), a boundary-crosser, like our ancestor Abraham who crossed the rivers to begin a new life?

“Are you Yisrael (ישראל Israel), one who wrestles with God, like our ancestor Jacob who struggled with the mysterious stranger – and described it as ‘seeing the face of God?’

“Or are you Yehudi (יהודי Jew), a grateful one, like our ancestor Judah who learned to appreciate his precious family and its potential to love?”

The Torah itself does not appreciate my neat three-fold distinction. Rather, Torah reports that Jacob received his spiritual name Yisrael on the day he was most Ivri.

Torah uses the root for “crossing” עבר (ayin, bet, resh) five times as it describes the hours before Jacob’s famous wrestle and reconciliation with his brother.

The gift to Esau crossed before him. He took his two wives, two concubines and eleven children and crossed  the Yabbok crossing. He took them across the river and he took his belongings across. Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn. (Gen. 32:22-25).

As Torah sees it, Jacob’s wrestling is a profound psychological process. It calls on all his resources: family, access to land, possessions. When he reaches a new level, his inner light shines, illuminating three aspects. Jacob has crossed a boundary, wrestled with a mystery, and expressed gratitude for insight, family, and growth. He is Ivri, Yisrael, and Yehudi. 

Perhaps in the the future, I will ask my students: where in the cycle are you today?

For more reflections on Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), click here.

Image: photo by Kiran Jonnalagadda

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