This week’s parasha is Va-yishlah, Genesis 32:4 – 36:43. It is during this portion that Jacob attempts to return home with his family. As he was fearful of Esau, Jacob divides his camp into two and sends gifts to appease Esau. When this was occurring, Jacob was alone until a man or angel appears from nowhere and wrestles with him until morning.
I would like to focus on Genesis 32, lines 25-30 when Jacob is wrestling and becomes Israel. If Jacob was left alone, who was he wrestling with? While it is commonly interpreted as wrestling with an angel, the word “ish” means “man.” Where would this man come from if Jacob was alone? Some commentaries have suggested that Jacob wrestled with neither angel nor man, but instead was wrestling with himself.
Everyone has wrestled with themselves from time to time. For some, it might be something very simple. Arguing with themselves over whether or not to break their diet when they see their favourite dessert and hear it calling their name. For others, the wrestling will be about something bigger such as their identity. Certainly for people on the LGBT spectrum, the struggle with identity can be quite significant especially when one is in an environment where LGBT people are rare and LGBT issues are not discussed. For many, there is an internal wrestling with oneself over what is wrong. What is wrong with me? Am I the only one? What will my parents think? What will become of me? What if my classmates find out? For many LGBT youth, suicide is a way out. Coming out is difficult for many people and recent studies show nearly one in three LGBT teens attempt suicide before the age of 15, and transgender youth, the percentage is even higher. Many don’t survive and the news is filled with reports of their deaths. For them, their struggles were just too much to deal with.
For those who come from religious families, not only does one have to struggle with simply being LGBT, but also about their level of observance and whether or not they can or should remain in their community. They even might ask… Does G-d hate me? Why would He do this to me? Many religious communities are not as welcoming of the LGBT community so some might have to struggle and choose which of their identities, being religious or being gay, comes first. Last year for example, I met a gay Hasidic Jew who was fighting over his identities and the last I heard, his gay identity won out and he has separated himself from the Jewish community.
During my trip to Israel through “A Wider Bridge,” a non-profit designed to build LGBTQ relations with Israel, I met several LGBT Jews who were raised in a more traditional manner and who, like my Hasidic friend, opted out of Judaism, particularly Orthodoxy, because it was difficult for them to be themselves within its confines. Some of those group members returned to Judaism, some even back to Orthodoxy, but only after a long struggle with themselves over who they were. Only after they were able to come to terms with themselves and accept their gay identity were they able to work on blending it with their Jewish identity so they could be proud LGBT Jews. Others, particularly younger group members, were still struggling and I know there was at least one person who was very uncomfortable near the start of the trip. He had previous difficulties within Judaism, being LGBT was just one small part and he also said he was the “wrong kind of Jew” and to make it more of a challenge, he is the son of an Orthodox rabbi. When we visited a gay Orthodox shul, he became so uncomfortable that he had to leave during our first Shabbat service. By the end of the trip, he seemed to become much more comfortable in every way. Perhaps he realized there is no wrong kind of Jew and that there was a place within Judaism for him all he has to do is find it. Almost everyone on the trip seemed to have a similar internal struggle at some point.
Of course, Jacob was not the only person in the Torah who was renamed. Abraham and Sarah were both renamed and it seems we never hear the previous names again. However Jacob and Israel are used interchangeably, perhaps to represent the fact all of us have various identities, some of which cause us to wrestle with G-d.