December 13, 2018

Jacob & the Angel

Being a hospice chaplain, I encounter every side of life’s last phase: the person with the final illness & death and the grieving survivors. Being a teacher of Torah, I find great comfort in understanding the challenges of life in what I call “Stepping into the Jewish Paradigm,” or in the situation I am about to describe, “Stepping into a Torah Paradigm.” I have found it helpful in various circumstances to relate the experience of the person before me to stories from Torah. I plan to write about several of these, this being the first. Look for others in future.

I find that many people approaching an illness, whether as a patient or a caretaker, enter optimistically. Even though great fear may be involved, there is an expectation that complete recovery is possible. This is the beginning of penetrating the denial of death, our very human, and might I say, God-given, gift of denial that enables us to live with an idea of a hopeful future. It is our last wrestling match with life and disappointment, and it is portrayed so well in the Torah story of Jacob’s Encounter with the Angel.  Gen 32:25-33. (It’s good to read the back story, all of chapter 32.)

Jacob is at a low point in his life. He’s on the outs with his father-in-law, Laban, who has treated Jacob deceitfully. But to leave Laban, he must go back toward the land of his brother Esau. Many years ago, Esau wanted to kill Jacob. He is caught between a rock and a hard place!

Jacob is left alone by the river, greatly frightened. I liken this to one being ultimately alone with encountering one’s existential reality: that we really must, at some time, die. We can be supported by many people, but the internal engagement with this notion of death is one made alone. This inner confrontation with the terrifying unknown is portrayed in our story as Jacob’s outer struggle with an angel.

Just as there are so many vague and variable factors in facing a serious illness, so the angel will not tell Jacob his own name. He is a mystery. However, the angel sees that Jacob is facing him and engaging: not giving up. So the angel determines that Jacob merits a new name. Jacob has become a different person by virtue of this wrestling match. He will “no longer” be called “the supplanter,” the one who takes what he doesn’t deserve, but “Yisrael:” One who struggles with God “and has prevailed.” Yes, when we can begin facing our own death, we have struggled with the Great Mystery that rules we must die.

But this is not the end of the story!  Dawn breaks, a NEW DAY. The angel must flee, and he leaves Jacob a changed person. Jacob has won a new name, YET HE LIMPS away from the encounter. He has gained in understanding and courage and fortitude, but his body is weaker. He does not return to his former self, neither in personality, nor in body. With age and serious illness, one’s body declines, but by tangling with the reality of death, we gain the opportunity to deepen our wisdom and compassion and understanding of the nature of life.


Me’irah Iliinsky is a Reconstructionist rabbi, as well as an artist. She works as a hospice chaplain for Vitas Healthcare in the San Francisco Bay region and teaches Torah at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Her artwork can be viewed at  





Free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 to help defray our costs in providing all five sessions.

The first session (Rabbi T’mimah Ickovits) was Sunday February 1st, the second (Dr. Eitan Fishbane) on March 1st, the third (Rabbi Dr. Burton Visotzky) on March 29th

The fourth session (Rabbi Goldie Milgram) will be on WEDNESDAY,  May 20th at 8 pm EST.  All sessions will be recorded and available for (re-)viewing by those who are registered. 

You can see the full series listed and sign up at


Chevrah Kadisha and Spiritual Care Conference


Planning to be in Israel May 5th 2015?  If so, the American Kavod v'Nichum and its Gamliel Institute cordially invite you to attend a Chevrah Kadisha and Spiritual Care conference focused on traditional Jewish practices at the end of life.

Kavod v’Nichum Israel-American Kenes

Dignity, Simplicity, Comfort and Spirituality At Life’s End

What:  A program of learning and an exchange of information focusing on Chevra Kadisha, Spiritual Care and end of life issues. (Program in English)

Why: To compare and contrast American and Israel end of life practices – funeral and burial planning, tahara, shmira, mourning; to learn from each other, share problems, network, strategize, brainstorm and explore working together.

For Whom: Chevra Kadisha administrators and workers, rabbis and rabbinic students, Israeli spiritual care providers; social workers, medical professionals, Chevra Kadisha students at Ariel University, advocacy groups, members of the national religious community, cemetery managers from kibbutzim, moshavim, civil and state sponsored cemeteries.

Sponsor: The Gamliel Institute of Kavod v’Nichum, an American non-profit organization that provides education and training for Chevra Kadisha groups.

When: Tuesday May 5, 2015

Time: 8:30am-5:00 pm

Where: Jerusalem – Yad Ben Tzvi – Ibn Gabirol Street 14

More Information: Contact Nomi Roth Elbert ( ) to be put on our mailing list.


Starting in May:

Chevrah Kadisha: Educating, Organizing, & Training. Tuesdays. 12 online sessions. (Orientation session on Monday May 25th, classes start the 26th). 8-9:30 pm EDST. Working with and educating the members of the Chevrah Kadisha, your congregation, the community, other organizations, and the public. Includes undertaking a project that will have practical and real world effect, and will also serve as information and a resource for others. Prerequisites: Successful completion of Gamliel Institute Course 1, 2, or 5.

Starting in October:

Chevrah Kadisha: History, Origins, & Evolution. Tuesdays, 12 online sessions (orientation session Monday, classes start the next day, on Tuesday. Check the website for specific dates), 8-9:30 pm EST. An examination of the modern Chevrah Kadisha from 1626 in Prague, through history, as imported to Europe and the world, broughts to the US, and as it has developed and changed over time, bringing us up to the present. 

You can “> Contact us for more information about scholarships or any other questions. or call 410-733-3700.  



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