Knowing that we’re in a biblical story can help make us less anxious. Knowing where we are in the story and what needs to happen next can help cement our commitment to wiping out Hamas and moving us toward the story’s glorious conclusion.
Jacob’s return is the central theme of the Torah portion Vayishlach (Genesis 32-36), and it is the prototype for all the subsequent returns of the Jewish people from exile. The modern return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel closely follows the Genesis prototype. In the story, when Jacob returns to the land of his fathers, he is renamed Israel. Curiously, he is renamed Israel twice in two separate incidents.
The first renaming: All-night wrestling match
The first renaming takes place after Jacob wrestles all night with the angel of his brother, Esau. In the wake of this struggle, the angel renames Jacob. “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.” In this first renaming, the meaning of the name Israel is given explicitly in the Torah text: “You have wrestled with divine beings and with men and prevailed.”
Our sages associated Esau with Rome and with Christian Europe. The wrestling match between the Jewish people and Christian Europe was indeed a dark night of struggle, culminating in the darkest night of the Holocaust.
Even after the Holocaust ended in 1945, the Jewish people still had to struggle with Great Britain to gain its independence. In 1945, the British Empire spanned the globe; it was the Esauian power of the day. The Jewish underground organizations waged an intense and bloody struggle with Britain in order to gain independence. In the biblical story, Jacob did not destroy Esau’s angel, but the angel “could not prevail” over him (Genesis 32:16). So too, the Jewish underground guerrillas did not destroy Great Britain, but they convinced Britain to leave and allow the Jews to create an independent state named Israel.
The second renaming, Part 1: rape and kidnapping of Dina
The second time that Jacob is renamed Israel, he is renamed by God. But first, Jacob and his family have to deal with the rape and kidnapping of Jacob’s daughter by the prince of the city of Shechem (Genesis 34).
When we read this section of the Torah—most recently, the week of Nov. 26—the story had a disturbing resonance with current events. Rape and kidnapping were central to what happened on Oct. 7.
The second renaming, Part 2: Shimon and Levi wipe out Shechem and look bad to the neighbors
The two sons of Jacob—Levi and Shimon—were the elite commandos of Jacob’s 12 sons. They kill every male inhabitant of Shechem, and they successfully rescue their sister.
Right now, every Jew around the world who treasures their Jewish identity is hoping and praying for two outcomes of war that are unmistakably similar: the utter destruction of Hamas; and the rescue of our sisters and brothers who were kidnapped.
Jacob voices two criticisms of Shimon and Levi for their actions. The first criticism (עֲכַרְתֶּ֣ם אֹתִי֒) is explained by the 13th-century sage, Rabeinu Bahaya, to mean that Shimon and Levi appear to the surrounding people as having spilled innocent blood. The 11th-century commentator Rashi, says that the term indicates that Jacob’s mind was clouded by what Shimon and Levi did.
The second criticism (הַבְאִישֵׁ֙נִי֙) means that Shimon and Levi’s actions made Jacob’s family smell rotten to the surrounding people.
It is uncanny how accurately these terms characterize the negative impact of the war on Israel’s image in the world. The world is accusing us of killing innocent Gazans, and Israel’s image in most of the world’s media stinks right now.
In response to these concerns, Shimon and Levi ask their father: “Shall we allow our sister to be turned into a prostitute?”
Have you seen the videos and heard the witnesses describe what happened on Oct. 7? Can we allow our sisters and brothers to be raped/murdered/mutilated in such a horrific and degrading way? Can we allow the fear of not looking good to the world to cloud our minds and prevent us from doing what must be done to destroy Hamas?
The second renaming, Part 3: Idolatrous conceptions are buried
In the next scene of the Genesis story, Jacob has his family undergo a spiritual cleansing in which they relinquish and bury their false idols.
So, too, the belief that Israel can live in peace with a Palestinian state needs to be buried. The belief that we can rely on America or technology for our security should be buried. These and other false conceptions that have guided Israel’s leaders over the last three decades need to be rejected and buried.
The second renaming, Part 4: Israel achieves security and God-awareness grows
In the next verses of the biblical narrative, we learn that the neighboring people felt fear of God and did not pursue Jacob’s family (Genesis 35:5). Wiping out Shechem instilled a fear of God in the surrounding people and provided Jacob’s family with security.
So, too, in the current story, destroying Hamas is a prerequisite to Israel’s security. This war truly is a second War of Independence.
More than that, the story implies that a heightened global awareness of God will follow in the wake of Israel’s destruction of Hamas.
The Second Renaming Part 5 – Israel recognizes the Divine source of its security and success
In the Biblical story, Jacob then builds an altar to God in Bet El, where, twenty years earlier, God had told Jacob that He would protect him and bring him back home. Now Jacob recognizes that God has fulfilled His word.
So too now, the nation of Israel, all of us – left and right, religious and not – needs to recognize that we are here in fulfillment of God’s speaking to us, through our prophets 2,500 years ago. We all need to recognize that Israel’s success is an expression of God’s faithfulness and love.
The second renaming, Part 6: Israel rises to leadership
God renames Jacob as Israel. The meaning of Israel here, according to Rashi, is a prince or a leader. In this second renaming, Israel’s stature is elevated in the world. Israel and the Jewish people are looked up to for leadership and guidance.
For the last 100 years, we have been living in the biblical story of the return of our forefather Jacob to the land of Israel and his taking on Israeli identity, and we are now reaching the climax of that story.
My hope in writing this article is that everyone reading this can feel more at ease in these unsettled times, knowing that we’re living out an old story with a glorious ending.
Secondly, I hope that knowing where we are in the story can strengthen our nation’s commitment to following the Torah’s blueprint for Jacob’s/our return from exile and becoming fully who we are meant to be as Israel:
- Destroying Hamas and rescuing as many hostages as can be rescued
- Burying the false conceptions that led to Oct. 7
- Recognizing God’s hand in our success