In the 1940s, when a group of philanthropists sought to find a name for the American Jewish university they were opening outside of Boston, several ideas were debated. Some wanted to name the school after Albert Einstein. Others sought to honor a figure who had a recently passed away and was widely considered the most accomplished American Jew of the first half of the twentieth century. That figure was Louis Brandeis.
Brandeis was not a conventional American Jew. He was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, in an assimilated family that had roots in the mystical Frankist movement of nineteenth-century Prague. Scholars speculate on the influence of his Frankist heritage on his later adoption of Zionism. Yet Brandeis had very little exposure to Judaism for the first half of his life. He married a cousin in a ceremony presided over by another relative, Felix Adler, the leader of the Ethical Culture movement. (For a comprehensive look at Brandeis's life, see the recently published book by Melvin Urofsky, Louis Brandeis: A Life [New York: Pantheon, 2009.)
Sometime in his fifties, Brandeis felt a pull toward Zionism. Beginning in 1910, and culminating in his election as the head of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs in 1914, Brandeis gave new stature and direction to the American Zionist movement. He was eminently successful in increasing its numbers and support, and he provided a philosophy-Zionism as a synthesis of American and Jewish ideals-that guided the movement through much of the twentieth century.
Something happened within Brandeis in the early part of the twentieth century that led him to become a fervent Zionist. Scholars speculate about internal struggles he might have had or instances of anti-Semitism he experienced. Yet he underwent some kind of transformation from an uninterested assimilated Jew to a symbol of American Judaism. From a spiritual point of view, I would say that it was both a maturing and a homecoming. Shaped by his progressive political and social values, his understanding of Judaism emerged from apathy to engagement; he saw in Zionism a return not only to a physical Jewish homeland, but also to the moral virtues that he argued had distinguished Jews throughout their history. Rebutting the infamous charge that American Zionists were guilty of dual loyalties, Brandeis argued and proved that Zionists can be faithful Americans and Jews.
His struggle toward maturing and homecoming parallels the experience of Jacob that we see in this week's Torah reading. Jacob is on his way back to his homeland. He is traveling with Rachel and Leah, their children, assorted servants, and belongings. He hears that his brother Esau is on his way to meet him, with the ominous warning that Esau is accompanied by 400 men (32:7). Jacob then splits his camp up and crosses the Jabbok River to spend the evening alone (32:8-9; 23-24). During that evening, he wrestles with a mysterious man or "angel" (32:25).
The identity of the angel is unclear. Among the many possible answers is that Jacob was wrestling with himself. Encapsulated in that evening, I believe, was the internal struggle and maturing Jacob had been undergoing since he fled his homeland twenty years earlier. We recall that on the initial part of that journey, Jacob dreamed and God spoke to him. During that dream, Jacob saw a staircase between heaven and earth, with angels going up and down it (Genesis 28:12). After awakening from his dream, Jacob creates a monument to God makes a quid pro quo to Him: If God assures his safety, he will accept the Eternal as his God and set aside a tithe for Him (28:18-22). This naive promise, and the deception he pulled on his father in the prior chapter (27:15-29) are what we know of the early signs of his character.
Over the next twenty years, Jacob himself is deceived (29:25). Then, he works and begins to forge his own life outside of his homeland. As he returns home, he is faced with a test to see if he has grown. That he has passed the test is indicated clearly in the final words he says to the unknown adversary, "I will not let you go until you bless me" (32:27). Jacob sees that faith is not a quid pro quo: it is finding a blessing in the midst of struggle. Blessings dwell even in times of crisis and we gain strength when we find them. With the angel's blessing, Jacob is able to restore his relationship with Esau and return safely to his homeland.
Crises and times of difficulty like the one Jacob was facing force us to ask ourselves difficult questions. We have to wrestle with ourselves and determine what is truly important and worth pursuing. Jacob emerged from that struggle with a renewed sense of faith that in every crisis there is opportunity for growth and rebirth. We can emerge from difficulty blessed and strengthened.
With his new name, Israel, Jacob becomes an emblem of the Jewish people. Like him, Louis Brandeis, I think, is an emblem of our American Jewish people. He underwent an internal struggle and growth, and emerged with a new vision of American Jewry as teachers and exemplars of Jewish ethical ideals. His vision shaped those who succeeded him, and remains a legacy and challenge for us all.
Rabbi Evan Moffic is senior rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois.