ישראל Israel - Wrestling With God Question Everything, Including Authority

Some Implications of Israel:

  • Wrestling With God

  • “My Heart Is In the East” –Why?

  • Growing Your Leadership: Know Your People

The Purpose of this World

From God’s Optimism by Yehoshua November

When some Jews cannot explain the sorrow of their lives

they take a vow of atheism.

Then everywhere they go,

they curse the God they don’t believe exists.

But why, why don’t they grab Him by the lapels,

pull His formless body down into this lowly world,

and make Him explain.

After all, this is the purpose of creation–

to make this coarse realm a dwelling place

for His presence.

יהודה הלוי / يهوذا اللاوي
לבי במזרח

לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב
אֵיךְ אֶטְעֲמָה אֵת אֲשֶׁר אֹכַל וְאֵיךְ יֶעֱרָב
אֵיכָה אֲשַׁלֵּם נְדָרַי וָאֱסָרַי, בְּעוֹד
צִיּוֹן בְּחֶבֶל אֱדוֹם וַאֲנִי בְּכֶבֶל עֲרָב
יֵקַל בְּעֵינַי עֲזֹב כָּל טוּב סְפָרַד, כְּמוֹ
יֵקַר בְּעֵינַי רְאוֹת עַפְרוֹת דְּבִיר נֶחֱרָב.

Yehuda ha-Levi (1075? – 1141?)
My Heart Is in the East

My heart is in the East, yet I am in the utmost West
How can I taste the food I eat, could it bring me any rest?
The vows and oaths I’ve sworn, can I heed them as I must
When Zion’s bound with Christian rope and I with Arab chains?
It seems as easy in my eyes to leave the charms of Spain,
As precious as my eyes would find the ruined Temple’s dust.

What is so special about Israel, specifically Jerusalem, in Jewish tradition that led Jews to never forget about it?

The Two Brothers on the Temple Mount

Long before the Temple was built, two brothers lived and farmed on that site [in Jerusalem]. One was married and had a large family, while the other was single. They lived in close proximity to each other, and each worked his land growing wheat. When harvest time arrived, each was blessed with a bountiful crop and piled up his grain for long-term storage. The unmarried brother, observing his good fortune, thought to himself that God had blessed him with more than he needed, whereas his brother, who was blessed with a large family, could surely use more. He arose in the middle of the night and secretly took from his grain and put it in his brother’s pile. Similarly, the married brother thought to himself that he was fortunate to have children who will care for him in his old age, while his brother will depend on what he saved. He, too, arose in the middle of the night and quietly transferred grain from his pile to his brother’s. In the morning, each pondered why there was no noticeable decrease in his own pile, and so they repeated the transfer the next night. These nocturnal activities went on for several nights, until one night the brothers bumped into each other. In that instant, in the dark of night, the glow of brotherly love lit up the mountain sky; they each understood what the other had been doing and fell into each other’s arms in a loving embrace. According to the legend, when God saw that display of brotherly love, He selected the site for His Temple.

(retold by Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, https://www.ou.org/torah/machshava/tzarich-iyun/tzarich_iyun_the_two_brothers_and_the_temple_mount/)

  1. What was so special about this story between two brothers?
  2. Why situate the Temple, Judaism's holiest site, in this place? What does this tell us about the significance of the Temple, and of Jerusalem?
  3. Have you ever given up something of your own for another, because of your love for them? Has someone ever done that for you? What does that experience feel like?
(א) הַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר חָזָ֔ה יְשַֽׁעְיָ֖הוּ בֶּן־אָמ֑וֹץ עַל־יְהוּדָ֖ה וִירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃ (ב) וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ בְּאַחֲרִ֣ית הַיָּמִ֗ים נָכ֨וֹן יִֽהְיֶ֜ה הַ֤ר בֵּית־יְהוָה֙ בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הֶהָרִ֔ים וְנִשָּׂ֖א מִגְּבָע֑וֹת וְנָהֲר֥וּ אֵלָ֖יו כָּל־הַגּוֹיִֽם׃ (ג) וְֽהָלְכ֞וּ עַמִּ֣ים רַבִּ֗ים וְאָמְרוּ֙ לְכ֣וּ ׀ וְנַעֲלֶ֣ה אֶל־הַר־יְהוָ֗ה אֶל־בֵּית֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְיֹרֵ֙נוּ֙ מִדְּרָכָ֔יו וְנֵלְכָ֖ה בְּאֹרְחֹתָ֑יו כִּ֤י מִצִּיּוֹן֙ תֵּצֵ֣א תוֹרָ֔ה וּדְבַר־יְהוָ֖ה מִירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃ (ד) וְשָׁפַט֙ בֵּ֣ין הַגּוֹיִ֔ם וְהוֹכִ֖יחַ לְעַמִּ֣ים רַבִּ֑ים וְכִתְּת֨וּ חַרְבוֹתָ֜ם לְאִתִּ֗ים וַחֲנִיתֽוֹתֵיהֶם֙ לְמַזְמֵר֔וֹת לֹא־יִשָּׂ֨א ג֤וֹי אֶל־גּוֹי֙ חֶ֔רֶב וְלֹא־יִלְמְד֥וּ ע֖וֹד מִלְחָמָֽה׃ (פ)
(1) The word that Isaiah son of Amoz prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem. (2) In the days to come, The Mount of the LORD’s House Shall stand firm above the mountains And tower above the hills; And all the nations Shall gaze on it with joy. (3) And the many peoples shall go and say: “Come, Let us go up to the Mount of the LORD, To the House of the God of Jacob; That He may instruct us in His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.” For instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (4) Thus He will judge among the nations And arbitrate for the many peoples, And they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up Sword against nation; They shall never again know war.

Talk It Out

  • How does our world compare to the vision that Isaiah presents of Jerusalem?
  • What are some of the themes about Jerusalem that you see in these two texts?
  • How do you typically think about Jerusalem? How is this way of thinking different from the one you see in this text?
“Judah ha-Levi” from the Jewish Encyclopedia

Judah ha-Levi does not seem to have been contented in Toledo; for he removed to the (Muslim) city of Cordova. Even here he did not feel at ease… He had long yearned for a new, or rather for the old, home—for the Holy Land… and at length he decided to set out on a journey to Palestine. For himself at least, he wished "to do away with the contradiction of daily confessing a longing and of never attempting to realize it" (Kaufmann, "Jehuda Halevi"); and therefore, on the death of his wife, he bade farewell to daughter, grandson, pupils, friends, rank, and affluence. There was only one image in his heart—Jerusalem:

Oh! had I eagle's wings, I'd fly to thee, And with my falling tears make moist thine earth."

After a stormy passage he arrived in Alexandria, where he was enthusiastically greeted by friends and admirers. At Damietta he had to struggle against the promptings of his own heart and the pleadings of his friend Ḥalfon ha-Levi that he remain in Egypt, which also was Jewish soil and free from intolerant oppression. He, however, resisted the temptation to remain there, and started on the tedious land route trodden of old by the Israelitish wanderers in the desert. Again he is met with, worn out, with broken heart and whitened hair, in Tyre and Damascus. Here authentic records fail; but Jewish legend has taken up the broken threads of history and woven them further. It is related that as he came near Jerusalem, overpowered by the sight of the Holy City, he sang his most beautiful elegy, the celebrated "Zionide," "Zion ha-lo Tish'ali." At that instant he was ridden down and killed by an Arab, who dashed forth from a gate (Gedaliah ibn Yaḥya, "Shalshelet ha-Ḳabbalah," ed. Venice, p. 40b).


  • Can you imagine yourself having a love like Judah Ha-Levi’s for Jerusalem?

  • What will you do to develop the Jewish love story with Jerusalem?

שיר מרובע

יש שהוא שר את שירת נפשו, ובנפשו הוא מוצא את הכל, את מלא הסיפוק הרוחני במילואו.

ויש שהוא שר שירת האומה, יוצא הוא מתוך המעגל של נפשו הפרטית, שאינו מוצא אותה מרוחבת כראוי, ולא מיושבת ישוב אידיאלי, שואף למרומי עז, והוא מתדבק באהבה עדינה עם כללותה של כנסת ישראל, ועמה הוא שר את שיריה, מצר בצרותיה, ומשתעשע בתקוותיה, הוגה דעות עליונות וטהורות על עברה ועל עתידה, וחוקר באהבה ובחכמת לב את תוכן רוחה הפנימי.

ויש אשר עוד תתרחב נפשו עד שיוצא ומתפשט מעל גבול ישראל, לשיר את שירת האדם, רוחו הולך ומתרחב בגאון כללות האדם והוד צלמו, שואף אל תעודתו הכללית ומצפה להשתלמותו העליונה, וממקור חיים זה הוא שואב את כללות הגיונותיו ומחקריו, שאיפותיו וחזיונותיו.

ויש אשר עוד מזה למעלה ברוחב יתנשא, עד שמתאחד עם כל היקום כולו, עם כל הבריות, ועם כל העולמים, ועם כולם אומר שירה, זה הוא העוסק בפרק שירה בכל יום שמובטח לו שהוא בן העולם הבא.

ויש אשר עולה עם כל השירים הללו ביחד באגודה אחת, וכולם נותנים את קולותיהם, כולם יחד מנעימים את זמריהם, וזה לתוך זה נותן לשד וחיים, קול ששון וקול שמחה, קול צהלה וקול רנה, קול חדוה וקול קדושה. שירת הנפש, שירת האומה, שירת האדם, שירת העולם, כולן יחד מתמזגות בקרבו בכל עת ובכל שעה. והתמימות הזאת במילואה עולה היא להיות שירת קודש, שירת אל, שירת ישראל, בעוצם עזה ותפארתה, בעוצם אמתה וגדלה, ישראל שיר אל, שיר פשוט, שיר כפול, שיר משולש, שיר מרובע. שיר השירים אשר לשלמה, למלך שהשלום שלו.

(אורות הקודש ב, עמ' תמד-תמה)

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, The Fourfold Son

Orot Hakodesh, Volume II, pp.458-459

There are many levels of song.

There is one who sings the song of one’s own life, and in herself she finds everything, full spiritual satisfaction.

There is another who sings the song of his people. He leaves the circle of his own individual self, because he finds it without sufficient breadth, without an idealistic basis. He aspires toward the heights, and he stretches himself with a gentle love to the whole community of Israel. Together with her he sings her songs. He feels grieved in her afflictions and delights in her hopes. He contemplates noble and pure thoughts about her past and her future, and probes with love and wisdom her inner spiritual essence.

There is another who reaches toward more distant realms, and she goes beyond the boundary of Israel to sing the song of humanity. Her spirit extends to the wider vistas of the majesty of humanity in general, and its noble essence, aspiring towards humanity's general goal and looking forward towards its higher perfection. From this source of life she draws the subjects of her meditation and study, her aspirations and her visions.

Then there is one who rises toward wider horizons, until he links himself with all existence, with all God's creatures, with all worlds, and he sings his song with all of them. It is of one such as this that tradition has said that whoever sings a portion of song each day is assured of having a share in the world to come.

And then there is one who rises with all these songs in one ensemble, and they all join their voices. Together they sing their songs with beauty, each one lends vitality and life to the other. They are sounds of joy and gladness, sounds of jubilation and celebration, sounds of ecstasy and holiness. The song of the self, the song of the people, the song of humanity, the song of the world all merge in her at all times, in every hour. And this full comprehensiveness rises to become the song of holiness, the song of God, the song of Israel, in its full strength and beauty, in its full authenticity and greatness. The name "Israel" stands for shir el the song of God. It is a simple song, a twofold song, a threefold song, and a fourfold song. It is the Song of Songs of Solomon, Shlomo which means peace or wholeness. It is the song of the Highest One in whom is wholeness.

(כה) וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃ (כו) וַיַּ֗רְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָכֹל֙ ל֔וֹ וַיִּגַּ֖ע בְּכַף־יְרֵכ֑וֹ וַתֵּ֙קַע֙ כַּף־יֶ֣רֶךְ יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּהֵֽאָבְק֖וֹ עִמּֽוֹ׃ (כז) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שַׁלְּחֵ֔נִי כִּ֥י עָלָ֖ה הַשָּׁ֑חַר וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אֲשַֽׁלֵּחֲךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּֽנִי׃ (כח) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו מַה־שְּׁמֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹֽב׃ (כט) וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃
(25) Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. (26) When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. (27) Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” (28) Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” (29) Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

In this story, Jacob wrestles with a man who, it seems, is actually an angel of God. His name is changed to Israel (which in Hebrew reflects the idea of having struggled with God) as the culmination of his achievements; he has fought both man and God. When have you felt that you wrestled with a person or situation and came out on top? What elements made it possible for you to prevail in those situations?

(כב) וַיִּפְנ֤וּ מִשָּׁם֙ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים וַיֵּלְכ֖וּ סְדֹ֑מָה וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם עוֹדֶ֥נּוּ עֹמֵ֖ד לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ (כג) וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַאַ֣ף תִּסְפֶּ֔ה צַדִּ֖יק עִם־רָשָֽׁע׃
(22) The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD. (23) Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?

Abraham, the first of the patriarchs, is portrayed in this passage as fighting passionately against the injustice of collective punishment. He is not afraid to speak out, even when the injustice clearly comes from God. The strength to speak out against injustice, wherever it comes from, is deeply ingrained in Jewish history and belief. Where do you think there is the greatest need to speak out nowadays? What obstacles might you have to fight to have your voice heard?

(א) וַתִּקְרַ֜בְנָה בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָ֗ד...לְמִשְׁפְּחֹ֖ת מְנַשֶּׁ֣ה בֶן־יוֹסֵ֑ף וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ שְׁמ֣וֹת בְּנֹתָ֔יו מַחְלָ֣ה נֹעָ֔ה וְחָגְלָ֥ה וּמִלְכָּ֖ה וְתִרְצָֽה׃ (ב) וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֜דְנָה לִפְנֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֗ה וְלִפְנֵי֙ אֶלְעָזָ֣ר הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְלִפְנֵ֥י הַנְּשִׂיאִ֖ם וְכָל־הָעֵדָ֑ה פֶּ֥תַח אֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃ (ג) אָבִינוּ֮ מֵ֣ת בַּמִּדְבָּר֒ וְה֨וּא לֹא־הָיָ֜ה בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעֵדָ֗ה הַנּוֹעָדִ֛ים עַל־יְהוָ֖ה בַּעֲדַת־קֹ֑רַח כִּֽי־בְחֶטְא֣וֹ מֵ֔ת וּבָנִ֖ים לֹא־הָ֥יוּ לֽוֹ׃ (ד) לָ֣מָּה יִגָּרַ֤ע שֵׁם־אָבִ֙ינוּ֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֔וֹ כִּ֛י אֵ֥ין ל֖וֹ בֵּ֑ן תְּנָה־לָּ֣נוּ אֲחֻזָּ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֥י אָבִֽינוּ׃ (ה) וַיַּקְרֵ֥ב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטָ֖ן לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ (ס) (ו) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ (ז) כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ אֲחֻזַּ֣ת נַחֲלָ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֣י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וְהַֽעֲבַרְתָּ֛ אֶת־נַחֲלַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ן לָהֶֽן׃

(1) The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family...came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. (2) They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, (3) “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the LORD, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. (4) Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (5) Moses brought their case before the LORD. (6) And the LORD said to Moses, (7) “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.

Prior to this story in the book of Numbers, the law was that daughters did not inherit land. These women have no brothers, and they are facing the prospect of having their father's land handed off to other male relatives, without the option of holding on to his inheritance and continuing his legacy. They speak out against the injustice in the system, and the law is changed; God acknowledges the justice of their cause. What strategies do the women use to push this change forward successfully? Is there an issue you struggle with which you feel is legal, but unjust?

Good morning to You, Lord, Master of the universe,
I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev,
I come to You with a Din Torah (lawsuit) from Your people Israel.
What do You want of Your people Israel?
What have You demanded of Your people Israel?
For everywhere I look it says, "Say to the Children of Israel."
And every other verse says, "Speak to the Children of Israel."
And over and over, "Command the Children of Israel."
Father, sweet Father in heaven,
How many nations are there in the world?
[ a tremor passed through the auditorium, scattered sighs and muffled sobs were heard. And when he began to thunder:]
Persians, Babylonians, Edomites.
The Russians, what do they say?
That their Czar is the only ruler.
The Prussians, what do they say?
That their Kaiser is supreme.
And the English, what do they say?
That George the Third is sovereign.
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
"Yisgadal v 'yiskadash shmei raboh-
Magnified and sanctified is Thy Name."
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
"From my stand I will not waver,
And from my place I shall not move
Until there be an end to all this.
Yisgadal v'yiskadash shmei raboh-
Magnified and sanctified is only Thy Name."

Paul Robeson, 1898-1976, singer, actor, and civil rights activist, wrote this song on the basis of a story about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, an 18th century Chasidic master. According to tradition, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak composed this prayer on Rosh Hashanah, and essentially accused God of committing "sins" against the Jews that were far worse than any that humans might be atoning for. Robeson celebrated this story as a protest against persecution, and it is consistent with the Jewish ideal of holding everyone to the highest possible standards of justice, even if that means struggling with God. Are there other songs that you know of that celebrate these values?

Excerpt from an Interview with Elie Wiesel

(read the full interview here: http://www.cathleenfalsani.com/?p=36066)

Why on earth does he still believe? I want to know. I need to know.

“Doubt is there all the time,” he says, softly.

“The questions are there, and all my questions are stronger than all my answers.”

And yet you continue to wrestle with God?

“I continue because what is the alternative?” he says.

You could walk away.

“And do what, really? Could I not believe? If I were not who I am, of course I would not.

But I am who I am,” the professor says. “I cannot not believe.”

Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize winner, always described his struggles with God and faith as central to his life. As he says above, he cannot walk away from belief, and he continues to "wrestle with God." How do you think the Holocaust might shape our struggles with God, faith, and injustice in the world?