Each one of us is Israel, because we all struggle with God. All struggle with the idea of God. All struggle with the power that is God. All struggle with the certainty that God doesn’t provide for us. All struggle with the uncertainty of God. All struggle with the faith that is God. All struggle with the life that God gives. All struggle with identity and meaning. Who is it that doesn’t struggle with one thing or another? And, in fact, some of our struggles may be faceless.
We are prone to think that we do not deserve the blessings that have been poured upon us, or the hand that we have been dealt with. I don’t pretend to know why we think we do deserve, or do not deserve, one thing or the other. But how could you, if wherever you turn to display traces or residue of human struggle - our struggle? Ours is a reality wherein we see lives constantly engaged in some sort of struggle. When could we live a life devoid of any struggle? And is that even possible?
The idea of Israel came to be when Jacob, who had cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, left home for fear of being killed by Esau. He escapes into the open wilderness, by himself, to his uncle Laban’s house, where he makes his family. Jacob eventually decides to return home, but yet still feared that his brother Esau might exact revenge on him. On the night before his meeting with Esau, Jacob struggled with a mysterious man, or angel, or God, until day break. For whatever reason, the mysterious man, angel, or God could not overpower Jacob. Come morning, the mysterious being said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob responded, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God, and with men, and have prevailed.”
Jacob, a name which meant "deceiver", is now to be called Israel (Yisra`el), meaning "one that struggled with the divine angel." Another interpretation is "one who has prevailed with God". Afterwards, Jacob named the place Penuel, meaning "face of God", saying: "I have seen God face to face, and lived." In this story, we touch the essentials of our own struggle of fear, loneliness, powerlessness, darkness, exhaustion, and relentless pain, but we also know that they cannot prevail against us.
What fascinates me about this story is not the idea of struggling, but rather struggling with God. The name Israel itself emanates from a struggle with the divine. And I think that the idea of struggling with God is akin to discerning the will of God. In the context of our struggling with God, we see the face of God; we do not die by seeing the face of God, instead we live. And living helps us to understand the nature of our individual and collective struggle as one not devoid of the presence of God, but that God shapes and shepherds our struggle until the morning sun rises. Learn this: real growth involves struggling... Israel.
The sun that rises upon daybreak simply alerts us to the hope that none of our struggles can overpower us unless we let them. Nor can we let the mystery man - God, depart without blessing us. “Bless me before you leave,” Israel said. The psalmist assures us, “weeping my last for the night but joy comes in the morning.” May the joy of knowing that we have endured a night of struggle move us toward believing that God is ever a part of our lives, our struggle. Israel.
I will conclude by quoting St. Augustine, who wrote that “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.” May we empty our hands to receive the fullness of God’s gifts which come to us, and are given to us, offered to us, and bestowed upon us because we refuse to let Him go until He blesses us.
At daybreak, the Son will rise, and our struggle will end. Israel.