When We Struggle with God

Yael Eckstein  |  November 16, 2021

Black and white image of a man holding his head in his hands.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” — Genesis 32:28

Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is Vayishlach, which means “and he sent,” from Genesis 32:4—36:43.

What is the most important verse in the Bible? This almost seems like a heretical question. I mean, isn’t every verse equally the Word of God? How can we say that any one verse is more important than any other? And yet, in the days of the sages of the Mishnah, some 2,000 years ago, two great sages argued about this exact point.

One rabbi claimed that the most important verse in the Torah is Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” The second rabbi argued that the most important verse in the Bible is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

What’s more important, faith in God or love for our fellow man? The truth is that both are pillars of a life of faith in the God of Israel. Jesus said this, too, in Mark 12:29-31 when he cited exactly these two verses as the most important commandments in the Torah.

But life isn’t always about love, as we read in Ecclesiastes, “a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace” (3:8). Our experiences with other people are not always about love.

Sometimes we struggle with threats, both spiritual and physical. And the truth is that even in our relationship with God, while we never stop loving Him, there are times when He challenges us and we struggle with Him.

When We Struggle with God

This lesson is beautifully expressed in this week’s Torah portion when the angel gives Jacob a new name, Israel, “because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (Genesis 32:28)

Life is full of challenges. Sometimes we are called to struggle against human evil, fighting for what is true and good in the eyes of God. At other times, God puts us through difficult situations, testing our strength and our faith in Him.

Jacob dealt with both kinds of struggle. He was pursued first by Esau, then by Laban, and then again by Esau. At the same time, he experienced the premature death of Rachel and a famine in the land, problems brought on by God to test him.

The name “Israel,” given to God’s chosen people, teaches us that even as we love God and our fellow man with all our hearts, it’s okay to struggle. With faith in God, we can struggle “with God and with humans and… overcome.”

Your Turn:

What are you struggling with today? Pray to God for the strength to overcome.