Being Straight with God

Rabbi Daniel Siegel

Hanna and I were privileged to attend the bar mitzvah of Reb Aryeh Hirshfield’s twin sons on the Shabbat of US Thanksgiving weekend. It was a powerful experience, full of both joy and sadness, as several communities gathered to honour these two young men and their mother. Reb Aryeh z”l had passed away suddenly some years ago and was among Reb Zalman’s early musmachim and part of the founding of Jewish Renewal in the Pacific Northwest. We who were Aryeh’s friends, colleagues, and family missed him even as we kvelled at the poise, maturity, and intelligence of his sons.


Among many special moments, Rabbi Benjamin Barnett of Corvallis, OR spoke about the word and name Yisra’el. The Torah reading for that Shabbat afternoon was Parashat VaYishlach, in which Jacob struggles with the angel and receives the name Yisra’el as the morning light ends the dark night. Most of the time in Jewish Renewal, we speak of this name of ours as meaning “God Wrestlers,” reflecting the reason given by the angel for this name “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29). Rabbi Ben pointed out that the name can also be read as Yashar El, being straight or honest with God. I resonated with this because I wrote something similar when I became rabbinic director of ALEPH back in 1997. In some sense, we are not only people who wrestle with God but also a people who maintain, as best we can, an honesty and simplicity with God, a moral and ethical core to which we are committed.

For many years, I’ve declined to speak publicly about Israel, not because I don’t care about Israel but because I’ve seen no purpose in North Americans debating the various positions on the Israeli political spectrum. These debates only seem to make us angry at each other while having no real effect on the situation in the Middle East. However, in the past three months, I decided to spend more time reading, learning about what is happening in Israel and allowing my love for this country and its people to surface. The first was reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. The second was the decision my son urged me to make to subscribe to the English edition of HaAretz. He reasoned that this is a voice that we need to hear and so we ought to support it by subscribing.

I have learned and continue to learn much from these two decisions and I hope to share some of that with you in upcoming blogs. Here I want only to highlight that Shavit is advocating a kind of secular Israeli Jewish Renewal, urging us to renew the moral core which he believes must be at the centre of whatever else it may be that we think makes us Jews. I think it would be wonderful to connect with him, perhaps invite him to spend some time with us, so that we could learn from one another.

Reb Hanna Tiferet went to a talk he gave in Boston early last month. The sponsor, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, has made this talk available to everyone. I’ve pasted the link below and strongly encourage you to listen to it from start to finish, to experience in full the way he makes the case for a renewal of the Zionism he, and we, hold dear.

Ari Shavit on Gaza, Peace and the Promised Land

What I wrote about the name Yisra’el came from a teaching of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and was part of the proposal I made to ALEPH in the process of becoming its Rabbinic Director. Here is a link to Levi Yitzchak’s Torah and a part of my letter: Yashar El•Sources.