[This essay was written for the “People and the Book” section of the Jerusalem Report.]
One of the siblings says, “A God-struggle have I struggled, and indeed I have prevailed.” And a new name emerges from the struggle.
Sounds familiar, no? This must be the Godwrestle that Jacob undertakes the night before he is to meet his estranged older brother Esau, which results in his “prevailing” and being renamed Yisrael, Godwrestler (Gen 32: 25-33).
It is the God-struggle (naftulai elohim) that Rachel struggles, one of a number of struggles between her and her older sister Leah over their love for Jacob and their desire to bear him children (Gen. 30: 8). Out of it, through her servant-woman Bilhah, she “bears” a child and names him Naftali, My Struggle.
Most English translations for this passage refuse to translate the word “elohim” as God, and instead say “fateful” or “fine” or some similar word of superlative tone – but not “God.” And most commentators ignore the striking resemblances between this passage and the one about Jacob’s Godwrestle.
Why? Is it because until our generation, Torah commentators could not absorb the notion that a woman might have a God-struggle? Or that the struggle over birth-order between sisters was as important as that same struggle between brothers? Or that giving birth itself was as crucial to the universe as the struggle over property and other blessings? Or that this sisterly Godstruggle came before, and perhaps became the model for, the brotherly one?
These possibilities, which they may have rejected, we can embrace.
And once we see the birthings by these sisters and their surrogate-mothers as worthy of being called God-struggles, we can ask a broader question: What does it mean to give birth to Seeing (Reuven), Hearing (Shimon), Connecting (Levi), Thanking (Yehuda), Justice (Dan), Struggle (Naftali), Good Fortune (Gad), Happiness (Asher), Recompense (Issachar), Princeliness (Zevulun), Justice yet again (Dina) – justice redoubled, Dan and Dina, like Tzedek Tzedek – may it increase (Yosef)?
And finally, the birthing later, in suffering and sadness as Mother Rachel died, of the one she called “Child of my Affliction” (Ben-Oni), only to have his father rename him Child of the Right Hand (Binyamin).
In biblical tradition, 12 brothers who live into adulthood and themselves have children give collective birth to a “nation.” So we may add the question, what does it mean that this nation, which became known as the Godwrestling folk, could be completed only in sorrow over the birth of the twelfth-born son?
When the biblical mind-set, arising out of a patriarchal society, explored the creativity of women, it focused on the creative act of giving birth – even birthing that ends in the mother’s death. But we do not need to be so constricted in our understanding.
By focusing on the meanings of these children’s names, meanings infused with the spiritual searches (“God-struggles”) of their mothers, we can see and hear and deeply know how women can give birth to happiness, to thankfulness, to justice redoubled, even to affliction – and all the other qualities that make up a living, breathing community.
Of course, not women only. The point of these creative acts and the naming of boy-children with these qualities is that men as well as women can embody them.
But we live in cultures still struggling to give a new birth to ourselves from the narrowness (meitzrayyim) of images of God as masculine. We live in societies still struggling to emerge from the constrictions in which women rarely had power and even more rarely could exercise it in a nurturing mode.
We live in a world in which we call the Earth “Mother” and then proceed to rape her, killing thousands of her species and shattering the patterns of her climate in which we humans were ourselves given birth.
Mother Rachel is dying before our eyes, and all we can do is reject the truth of a woeful planet, the “Child of My Affliction” she sees and names – and give a wishful, wistful name to the survivors. Held close at our “right hands”? Only when we act to make it true.
So in our own generation, we must continue to lift up the ancient texts and the contemporary actions of women who enter whole-souled and whole-bodied into God-struggles. We must be clear that these struggles are indeed not merely “fateful” or “fine” but imbued with all the awe and sacredness that comes from embracing and transforming God. We are not entitled to announce that we have “prevailed” in the great feminist struggles to nurture both women and men, the struggles that Emma Goldman and Bella Abzug, Henrietta Szold and Rachel Carson, Mairead Corrigan and Aung San Suu Kyi, still call us to.
So the passage of “naftulai elohim,” precisely in its obscurity, precisely through its mistranslations, calls us to notice. To see, to hear, to connect. Above all, to redouble our work to make justice.