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“To be Jewish is to Wrestle,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

December 8, 2023 | 25 Kislev 5784

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

As we enter into the Shabbat of Chanukah, we remember many facets of the story that helped to create this holiday. One of them is how during the time of the Maccabees, there were divergent opinions among the Jewish community regarding how to respond to the Hellenist culture around them. How to hold the community together challenged them. I offer this D’var Torah given at Qabbalat Shabbat last week as part of the response for our own day. May the light Chanukkah inspire us all.

It is one of the most dramatic and significant scenes in the Torah. The patriarch, Jacob, prepares to return home. Before he can get there, he must encounter his brother. Twenty years have passed, but will the anger that Esau expressed as hatred when Jacob stole the blessing of Isaac from him have dissipated? The midrash, “Pesikta deRav Kahana,” described that Jacob prepared himself with three things: prayer, when he beseeched God to deliver him from the hand of his brother, Esau; gifts, since he continued to send them with the messengers for Esau and last, for war, as he divided his family into two camps with the intent to save at least one group if Esau sought to destroy him.

As much as Jacob, now more secure and financially stable than when he ran off to save his own life two decades earlier, may have attempted to have a strategy for the propitious reunion, but, he lacked an important component in his preparation:

A wrestling match.
With himself

Jacob had sent everyone to their sides, but he was left alone.  But not really.

Jacob was left alone.וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ
And a figure—eesh—wrestled with him וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ
Until the break of dawn עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר
(Genesis 32:25)

Here is where paying attention in Hebrew grammar class really helps.

וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק is a nifal verb form, the passive voice. It is not what the eesh did to him, as in the eesh wrestled him. Rather the image is that Jacob was wrestled.  Though this is an inelegant way to express what happened, it helps us understand with whom Jacob wrestled. Or so we think.

There is a treasure trove of responses that has occupied scholars and the rabbis for centuries to describe the identity of the eesh.

And this is where the clarity becomes foggy, like a dust storm that blurs the focus.

וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק, which means wrestle has the root letters .א.ב.ק which also connotes dust. The wrestling created a dust cloud, the very earthly resource from which primordial adam was created. Who was in the dust cloud of wrestling? Was it just Jacob struggling with himself or was there another being? An angel? Esau? his mother returning from the grave? We don’t know. All we know is the dust up of wrestling. Because of the lack of clarity, might it be possible that he wrestled with both himself and someone/something else? Even Jacob wants to know, but all he received was a new name.

He is no longer Jacob-Yaakov, named because he was holding onto the heel of his twin brother, Esau. It was time to let go, but wrestling and struggling would now be attached to him.

“Your name shall no longer be Jacob, לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔
but Israel, כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
for you have wrestled with beings divine and human, כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים
and have prevailed.” וַתּוּכָֽל

He is told:  You, now as Yisrael, you have the ability, you can prevail תּוּכָֽל to be the one who wrestles and struggles. It is not only a summary of his past but also of his future.

We, the people of Yisrael, we, Adat Yisrael, the Hebrew name of Temple Israel, receive this appellation as a legacy and challenge.

Isn’t this what we do on Yom Kippur? We wrestle with our own actions, our own perceptions of the way we regard the world so that we can take our place stronger and with more clarity in how we act and behave?

We wrestle with Torah. We wrestle with our history. We wrestle with the responsibility to do justice. And we have surely wrestled with all the events and tragedies regarding Israel, terrorism and the fate of the Jewish people as well as the Palestinians.

Within the course of gatherings, meetings, dinner table conversations, we speak of policy, ideology, and political change. We think we can decide about borders, land acquisition, cease fire timing, conditions for peace. I have been guilty and I have heard others do the same kind of posturing of what policies must be enacted, of what each side, each country must do. Anthony Blinken has not called me. Has he called you? Qatar is not on hold on the other line waiting for our assessment.

It is not, however, what decisions we make, it is the questions with which we wrestle, the possibilities we ponder, the challenges with which we complexify instead of reducing to a some simplistic formula. Instead of cancelling with our criticism, concocting some kind of questionable rationale to refute, it is the struggle within, willingly engaging our minds and hearts. And I know, all of the clergy know, the anguish that has been expressed across the spectrum of feelings and reactions about Israel. Within the anguish is pain, frustration, and hurt.

I keep thinking from my own wrestling about this poem by the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, entitled:

“The Place Where we are Right”

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

The Torah instructs us that we cannot wrestle with others unless we have done the sacred, difficult work with ourselves.  We may be quick to quote another as a way to verify our perspective, but I challenge us with an alternative action.

Our synagogue must be a refuge and gathering space where we can and must be able to wrestle on our way to express where and how we see ourselves in light of all that is going on. Our community spans a spectrum where people may feel progressive about one facet of the Mideast and much more moderate about some other idea regarding Israel or feel pushed or pulled toward a conservative approach in a different arena. To categorize anyone is unfair. To be curious? Better. I have been calling this approach a safe space but that does not reflect the reality. It is more of a brave space. To have the strength to speak out AND to listen; to challenge AND to respect; to comfort AND to disturb takes a kind of bravery to hold what does not fit into any neat package. We lean in multiple ways. And there are extremes, beyond what I am referencing that we do push away.

I support Israel’s right to exist and to defend herself. I believe in Israel’s self determination. At the same time you have heard, as I shared this past Yom Kippur, regarding this Israeli government’s behavior. I worried about its inability to engage in heshbon hanefesh, holding itself accountable for its actions. I still worry. And yet I still believe, now more than ever, that we must lean toward Israel, to recognize her important role to the Jewish people and for all those who live there. Two thousand years of longing resulted in a hope realized. We cannot give up now.

And still, we don’t have absolute clarity on the exact path forward. How could we since we are not sitting at the table of negotiation? And though we don’t know, we are still of Yisrael, the one who wrestles clouded in dust. Nevertheless, we still must push and pull each other in this brave space of community.

Jacob finally encountered his brother and they weep.׃
Esau ran to greet him. וַיָּ֨רׇץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙
He embraced him and, וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ
falling on his neck, וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו
he kissed him; וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ
and they wept. וַיִּבְכּֽוּ

But there is no happily ever after story here. Jacob will end up elsewhere far from Esau.

And we know that reconciliation and resolution between Israel and Hamas will not happen in a happily ever after scenario either.

Yet, we can and must consider what the reality might be between Israel and the Palestinians AND the many nations of the Mideast and the world invested in creating a better life of healing and wholeness for those who dwell in the region. That is what has given me hope in these days of despair and darkness.

The drama of this portion is in our responsibility to grapple and wrestle even in a cloud of dust.

Perhaps and maybe, in that brave space, we will discover a glimmer of that which is holy in our communal brave space through the words spoken by the brothers:

“To see your face is to see the face of the divine.”

So may it be.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah!

I continue to value the many comments you exchange with me through these Shabbat Awakenings.  Share with me what you think. Your email goes directly to me!

This Weekend at Temple Israel:

  • We come together as a community to celebrate Shabbat and the second night of Chanukah at 6:00 p.m. for Qabbalat Shabbat with Community Wide Chanukah Celebration onsite or  on ZoomFacebook Live, or stream on our website
  • Chanukah Shabbat Mishpachah gathers onsite at 5:15 p.m.
  • Riverway Chanukah Shabbat gathers at 7:00 p.m. for a schmooze and nosh. Service begins at 7:30 p.m.
  • Torah Study  gathers onsite or online at 9:00 a.m.
  • Thank Goodness it’s Shabbat gathers at 10:00 a.m. No registration needed.
  • Gather online to say goodbye to Shabbat with a lay-led Havdalah on Zoom at 8:00 p.m.

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