This week's parsha
Resisters and Affirmers
A psychologist who was researching religious attitudes in the Jewish community, some years ago, came to the conclusion that some people could be termed “resisters” while others are “affirmers.” The resisters resist being told what to do. When considering the details of some aspect of traditional Jewish life, and all its dos and don’ts, the typical resister often feels it is too much and too difficult, and has to struggle to comply.
By contrast, the affirmers feel inspired and encouraged. They love hearing what Jewish teachings tell them. If they hear that they have to go to a lot of trouble in order to ensure that some aspect of daily life is more closely in accordance with Jewish law, they cheerfully accept this. “No problem, yes, of course . . .”
A further subtlety is that the resisters often turn into affirmers. A man or woman who starts off resisting the idea that traditional Jewish laws might have a role to play in their lives often ends up affirming enthusiastically that these teachings in all their details provide the most meaningful way to live. There also exist people who move from being enthusiasts to becoming resisters. Yet for everyone, the story is still in progress.
Indeed, in any one individual there can nestle both a resister and an affirmer, at the same time. At one point the resister is dominant; at another, the affirmer. Yet, in a sense, the fact that the resister resisted helps make the enthusiastic affirmation more wholehearted, at least at that point in time. Later, the resister might well come back into play.
These two aspects of a person relate to a theme in this week’s Torah reading, Vayishlach, as explained by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. There is a striking passage in which Jacob wrestles with an angel, which the sages tell us was the spiritual force of Esau. Although Jacob was temporarily harmed in the struggle, the angel was not able to overcome him. Then the angel tells Jacob that since he has been successful in the struggle, he will have a new name: Israel.
The name Jacob relates to the Hebrew word eikev, meaning “heel.” When Jacob was born, his hand was clutching the heel of his older twin brother Esau. Jacob had to struggle with Esau, and also with his uncle Laban. The name Jacob suggests struggle and facing opposition, and being in a difficult situation. By contrast, Israel relates to sar, a prince, suggesting leadership, and includes the letters of the word rosh meaning “head.”
Earlier in the Torah, when Abraham and Sarah were given new names by G‑d, the old names are never used again. However, in the case of Jacob the Torah continues to use both names for him, Jacob and Israel. The Rebbe explains that this is because both Jacob and Israel exist within each Jew. On the one hand there is the resister, who still has to struggle; on the other there is the affirmer, who is inspired.
For many of us, much of our lives are spent in some form of struggle, and inspiration is rare. Yet for G‑d, our struggle too is precious: the times when it is not easy. However, both dimensions exist within our hearts. At any moment, prompted who knows by what, we might move from Jacob to Israel, from inner struggle to inspired illumination.