After crossing the river Yabok, Yaakov wrestles an angel, and demands a blessing from him. In the blessing that the angel gives him, he gives him the name “Yisrael.” This episode raises questions, such as “Why would a physical altercation be a reason to confer a Divine name on someone?” or “If Yaakov was powerful enough to win a fight against an angel, why was he afraid of his own brother?” These questions might inspire us to solve problems in the storytelling, but they are not necessarily fuel for spiritual growth. Sometimes, to guide us towards the spiritual gifts of Torah, our focus needs to turn towards one detail of the narrative, and to ignore other parts of it.


In his book “Kedushat Levi,” the early Chassidic master Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev explains that the meaning of the name “Yisrael” refers to a Jew who remains attached to God even when talking with human beings. The name “Yisrael” represents a fully spiritually actualized Jew. The name contains the words “yashar” (straight) and “el” (God). The word “rosh”(head) is also contained in that name.


The Kedushat Levi explains that Yaakov elevates from being “Yaakov” to being “Yisrael.” There are many religious Jews who are attached to God when studying Torah, praying, or performing ritual mitzvot, but lose that spiritual awareness when they deal with other people or when they work at their professions. Such people are described by the name “Yaakov,” for whom God, represented by the letter yod, follows (ekev) everything else in life. God is secondary; the self is primary.


We must be very careful in trying to apply the lesson of the Kedushat Levi. There are pitfalls for any spiritual aspirant who tries to live this lesson. Are we attached to an image of ideals and holiness that we call “God” that blinds us to the real person before us? If we are concerned, first and foremost, with encountering God through our images of God, or by trying to fulfill a mitzvah as prescribed by halachah, we may lose sight of the real-world person who we are interacting with. To use Martin Buber’s model of the “I-it” vs “I-thou” relationships, we may see another person as a means to a spiritual/religious end, and fall into an “I-it” relationship with that person. Instead of an “I-thou” encounter between two selves, two living beings, a utilitarian “I-it” relationship ensues. We give tzedakah not because of the other’s need, but because we are focused on what God wants us to do, and so the recipient of our tzedakah becomes a means to that end. We avoid lashon hara not because we are aware that we do not know enough about another person to judge them, or because we seek to understand the other person in greater fulness, but because we are focused on the idea that God commands us not to speak ill of another person.  Another pitfall, which is another “I-it” relationship, is seeing another person as a symbol of something instead of as a person.


How, then, can a Jewish spiritual aspirant follow the Kedushat Levi’s teaching in a way that leads to greater, not lesser, spiritual awareness? We remember Eliyahu’s encounter on Mt Carmel. God was not in the fire or in the earthquake, but in the kol dmamah dakah, the still small voice. God, the essence of being itself, can be found in the brilliance that fills the silence and the darkness that we actually see in the world. We see a person as a person, not looking for “God,” but we open ourselves to hear the person’s actual feelings and thoughts that they express, consciously and unconsciously. We listen. We do not fill our thoughts with holy images or with preconceptions. We remain open. We acknowledge the still, small voice of God in the essence of the people we encounter and in the natural world. Sometimes, to achieve that openness and to quiet our mind, we need to retreat; to cross a river. When we come back, we are ready to meet others as Yaakov met his brother. When he did, the Esav he met was not a symbol of danger, hate, or anger, but his brother, greeting him again after twenty years.


Shabbat shalom!

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