Archive for the '1.08 VaYishlach' Category

Keep Wrestling: For Reflections on Footprints in the Sand

After 20 years in  Charan, Yaakov returns home. VaYishlach , this week’s Torah portion, starts with Yaakov sending angel-emissaries to Esav in hope of a reconciliation, but his messengers report that his brother is on the warpath with 400 armed men. Yaakov prepares for war, prays, and sends Esav a large gift to appease him.That night, Yaakov ferries his family and possessions across the Yabbok River; he, however, remains behind and encounters the angel that embodies the spirit of Esav, with whom he wrestles in the dust until daybreak. Yaakov suffers a dislocated hip but vanquishes the supernal creature, who bestows on him the name Yisrael, which means “he who prevails over the divine.” This is a critical episode in that we his descendants get our national name from this moment as well.

A decade ago in thinking about this critical moment in Yaakov’s life and our national narrative I got to thinking about Mary Stevenson, 1936 classic Footprints in the Sand. Clearly written for a Christian audience I adapted it for what I thought it meant to be Jewish today.

blog footprintsOne night I dreamed I was walking along a path on a pristine beach. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes the path was well worn, other times it seemed that I took the path less traveled, and still yet other times I had blazed my own trail. What bothered me was that I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see that the otherwise clear path was muddled and unclear. So I cried aloud, “What about the promise that if I followed the path, it would always guide my way. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has no clear path in the sand. Why, when I needed guidance most, I was left alone with no direction?”And then I was quiet and I heard a still small voice reply, “The years when you could not see a path is when we wrestled, we are always together Yisrael.”

A decade later I feel that we are even more in this Yaakov moment of wrestling. It is clear that we are living in troubled and troubling times. I know that I for one am ” tired from all of this  winning“. We find ourselves amidst a frightful surge of antisemitism. We feel alone and abandoned. We are reliving the Dreyfus affair. Why must we repeat history?

I also know that we are struggling with ourselves as to what the future of Jewish life will look like.  It seems like we are perpetually stuck in the dual narratives of antisemitism and assimilation.  What will be our path be moving forward?

At the same time I  know that now more than ever the world needs us to live up to our name.  We are Yisrael. We need to be there for each other. We are not alone. We need to keep wrestling. Together we will find a path forward.

Between Achilles and Yakov

Years ago when I left yeshiva and returned to the university it took that as a an opportunity to rethink many of classics that I had the fortune of reading during my college experience. It is always so interesting to see the parallels between the great works of Westerns Literature and the Torah. With this in mind I have been thinking about Homer’s Iliad this last week. There we meet the hero, Achilles, who is the son of the mortal Peleus and the Nereid Thetis. His mother attempted unsuccessfully to make her son immortal. Thetis held the young Achilles by the heel and dipped him in  the river Styx; everything the sacred waters touched became invulnerable,  but the heel where there was a hatzitzah remained dry and therefore unprotected. In the end of the story Paris ,aided by Apollo, mortally wounded Achilles in the heel with an arrow.

I believe that there is an interesting parallel between Achilles and our the hero from this weeks Torah portion Yakov. We see that Yakov who is left alone from the rest of his family meets his match in an all night struggle with an angel of God. Mortal verses divine locked all night long until the angel finds Yakov’s one vulnerable spot. Offering to bless Yakov and to change his name to Israel the angel bargains his way out of the dead lock.

While the similarity between these two heroes is interesting, the difference between the Iliad and the Torah is much more telling. Achilles dies when he is forced to realize that his is not totally divine. In contrast, Yakov achieves greatness in realizing his limitation. Yakov’s Achilles heel is that he has been running his whole life. Finally with a limp he can settle down and start building a nation. Being in touch with our vulnerability keeps us humble and more in touch with our humanity.

Wrestling with Race: Another Look at VaYishlach

As we will see in VaYishlach, this week’s Torah portion, Yakov splits his family and live stock into shnei machanot– two camps- as a defensive measure in preparation for confronting his long estranged brother Esav. Under the cover of darkness Jacob sends the two camps over the river and then returns back over the river. As we all know too well. There is where he faces an angel by himself and wrestles till day break. There we read:

Vayivater Yakov Livado vaYe’avek Ish imo ad  olot haShachar. And Yakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. (Genesis 32:25)

Rashi explains that the verb vaYe’avek is connected to the word avak– dust. As to say that they wrestled and got all dusty.

As well as we know the story of Yakov wrestling with the angel, we often forget where it all happened. As we learned in VaYetzei, last week’s Torah portion, this happened in  Machanaim. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov resolved to return home. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov split his family into two Machanot– camps. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov realized the value of small things (See Rashi ad loc). It was there in Machanaim that Yakov wrestled with the angel. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov stopped running or could not run any more ( see hip injury). It was there in Machanaim that Yakov realized who he was. It was there in Machanaim his name was changed from Yakov to Yisrael.

We are so focused on his name and our name being Yisrael that we overlook the plain meaning of the text. This story of Yakov’s  travel to Machanaim  is in the context of his reconciliation with his estranged brother Esav. Before the Rabbis get to him, Esav seems like a really good guy who got manipulated out of his role as eldest and chosen child. While we repaint Esav as bad,  we forget that it was Yakov who was in the wrong. Is it possible that the name of this place being duel encampment has nothing to do with his strategic splitting of his wives and children in preparation for dealing with a hostile sybling, but instead of rift that existed between Yakov and his brother Esav? It was there is Machanaim that Yakov realized the work he needed to do to make peace with his brother. It was here that he stopped running from his own role in hurting his brother. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov did the work he needed to do to reconcile his relationship with Esav.

I was thinking about this moment of reconciliation between two brothers recently while reading The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In this memoir he explores his relationship with his father and his own process of becoming a conscious black man in America. Reading how Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up made we realize how  unconscious I was to my own privilege growing up white in the suburbs. There is just so much that I have taken for granted. Reading this book I got the sense of how deep our history of racism is in this country. The cataclysmic impact of the evils of one people being enslaving another is not born out of the course of a lifetime, but generations.What will it take for white people to show up, own the wrong that has been done, stop running away from our history,  and start to work toward reconciliation?

When we figure out how to include the marginalized elements of our family who we have wronged we too become Yisrael at Machanaim . There is much work to be donw, but the place of inclusion is surely Machaneh Elokim– God’s camp.

 

 

Split Camp: Coming to Terms with Trump?

As we will see in VaYishlach, this week’s Torah portion, Jacob splits his family and live stock into shnei machanot– two camps- as a defensive measure in preparation for confronting his long estranged brother Esav. Under the cover of darkness Jacob sends the two camps over the river and then returns back over the river. As we all know too well. There is where he faces an angel by himself and wrestles till day break. There we read:

Vayivater Yaakov Livado vaYe’avek Ish imo ad  olot haShachar. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. (Genesis 32:25)

Rashi explains that the verb vaYe’avek is connected to the word avak– dust. As to say that they wrestled and got all dusty.

As well as we know the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, we often forget where it all happened. As we learned in VaYetzei, last week’s Torah portion, this happened in  Machanaim. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob resolved to return home. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob split his family into two Machanot– camps. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob realized the value of small things (See Rashi ad loc). It was there in Machanaim that Jacob wrestled with the angel. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob stopped running or could not run any more ( see hip injury). It was there in Machanaim that Jacob realized who he was. It was there in Machanaim his name was changed from Jacob to Israel.

We are so focused on his name and our name being Israel that we overlook the plain meaning of the text. This story of Jacob’s  travel to Machanaim  is in the context of his reconciliation with his estranged brother Esav. Before the Rabbis get to him, Esav seems like a really good guy who got manipulated out of his role as eldest and chosen child. While we repaint Esav as bad,  Jacob was the one in the wrong.

Is it possible that the name of this place being duel encampment has nothing to do with his strategic splitting of his wives and children, but instead of rift that existed between Jacob and his brother Esav? It was there is Machanaim that Jacob realized the work he needed to do to make peace with his brother. Is so doing  in Machanaim that Jacob became Israel. When we figure out how to include the marginalized elements of our family who we have wronged we too become Israel at Machanaim . The place of inclusion is surely Machaneh Elokim– God’s camp.

For many of us, we feel like Esav in that the election for the next president of this country was stolen. Every day that does by as Trump is putting together his administration we see how our larger camp is going to be split up. The lines of struggle are clear, what is not clear is how he will reconcile the two camps of Americans. While I will never grow in my tolerance of illegal and unethical actions at some point I hope to grow in appreciation for Trump’s presidency. To the victor goes the spoils, but also the responsibility of bringing peace to the camp.

The Quality of Torah

In this week’s Torah portion, VaYishlach, we learn of the reunion of Esav and Yaakov. We read that Jacob told his messengers to report to Esav, “I have sojourned (GaRTY) with Lavan”( Genesis 32:5). According to Rashi, the message was to communicate to Esav that Yaakov did live with the wicked Lavan, but he still kept true to observing the 613 (TaRYaG) commandments and did not learn any of Lavan’s evil ways. GaRTY and TaRYaG being the same letters in Hebrew in a different order. How does Rashi’s understanding of this word play affect the meaning of what Yaakov was trying to tell his brother?

In the plain meaning, Yaakov is trying to assuage his guilt over having stolen the birthright and blessing from his elder brother Esav. In this sense Yaakov is admitting to having done the crime and claiming that he served the time. Yaakov is a reformed man having just gotten out of  the jail of Lavan’s house. Maybe Yaakov is telling Esav that there was no great prize of the birthright or the blessing. Being “chosen” to keep the Torah was and will not be a cakewalk.

On a deeper level, we learn from Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin that Yaakov was saying, “While I remained firm in my observance of the 613 commandments, I failed to learn from Lavan to perform the commandments with the same dedication and zeal as he pursued his evil ways.” Even though Yaakov had dutifully kept the Torah, he still has a lot to learn, even from Lavan. Yaakov is not perfect.

In my own life, I have found that living by the code of the Torah is important. I learn from Yaakov that no code can ever be an excuse to act immorally. Even if he kept that Torah, he still had to apologize to his brother for his wrongdoing. Moreover, regardless of how much Torah I ever learn in life there is still what to learn from the “non-Torah” world. The enduring quality of Torah is shown when it opens us up to a pursuit of truth, the Jewish community, the larger world, and even our inner selves. We all have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. 

Kickin’ Up Dust : Protesting Racism

In Vayishlach, this weeks Torah portion, we read that, “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:25-29). Rashi explains “vaye’avek ” the wrestling in a literary way to mean that they became “dusted”. The word vaye’avek is related to the word avak, meaning dust, because they would raise dust with their feet through their movements. In their struggling and grappling with each other they stirred up dust. And in this process Jacob became Israel.

This past few weeks there have been a number of court cases that brought some of the systemic racial divides in this country to the surface. In response to these issues there have been many protests decrying the racial problems that exist in fabric of this country.  Many have pushed back at the protesters claiming that they are the real problem. But, there is not doubt that they are part of the reason that more people are struggling with important conversations about racism today.

When does this dust turn to dirt? When have the protesters causing a problem? There is no doubt that every real struggle needs people with integrity to work towards progress. As the people of Israel, our destiny will always be to struggle and kick up the dust. In last week’s Torah portion we read of Jacob’s dream. He is blessed that his offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen. 28:14). To ensure a better future, we might just have to risk getting a little dirty helping kick up the dust.

Between Brothers

In VaYishlach, the Torah portion two week’s ago, Yakov is preparing to reconnect and to reconcile with his estranged brother Esav. Here we read about the mysterious encounter between Yakov and the angel. We read that:

And he ( Yakov) took them, and sent them over the stream, and sent over that which he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. ( Genesis 32: 24-25)

This is clearly am important moment. This is when Yakov and our whole nation become Yisrael. But, why did Yakov return over the Yabuk? On this, Rashi quotes the Talmud:

And Yakov was left alone. Said Rabbi Eleazar: He remained behind for the sake of some small jars. Hence [it is learned] that to the righteous their money is dearer than their body; and why is this? Because they do not stretch out their hands to robbery.(Hullin 91a)

Why would Yakov risk so much for these little jars? What was in these jars? If we go back to the beginning of his journey, we recall Yakov’s dream with the ladder. Upon waking up he consecrated that place with oil:

And Yakov woke out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely God is in this place; and I did not knew it.’ And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Yakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. ( Genesis 28: 16-18)

One reasonable reading is that these “small jars” had more of this consecrating oil in them. So why did he need them at this moment?

To understand this we need to understand Hanukkah. On its surfaces Hanukkah is a simple holidays. We see the themes of light breaking through the darkness, a small group banding together to beat a much stronger force, and the power of having faith in community. But like everything else in Jewish life nothing is ever as simple as it seems. So let’s look deeper into the three miracles of Hanukkah. One miracle is that small group of zealots were able to beat the stronger forces and regain control of the Temple. Keeping Yakov’s dream in mind we should not forget that when recovering the Temple they also recovered the Even haShetiya– the foundational rock that was his pillow and was at the center of many of our stories ( see Dome of the Rock). When they recaptured the Temple they found on small jar of oil for the menorah in the Temple. The second miracle was that despite the fact that this small jar only had enough oil for one day it lasted for eight days. This story about the miraculous Hanukkah oil has allowed us to look past focusing solely on the military victory. This is important in that the war was not a black and white fight between the Jews and the Greeks. Rather, it was a civil war between a small group of religious zealots and a larger group of their Hellenized Jewish brethren. In my mind this is itself the third miracle of Hanukkah. Our ability to tell the story of the second miracle of the oil to overshadow the first miracle of a civil war. The story of the oil helped cover over the other story of the recovery of the Temple with its foundational rock.

This year is special in that Hanukkah shares the calender with Thanksgiving. On its surface they are similar in that they are both days of giving thanks. But what is Thanksgiving? It is traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. We retell the story of the first settlers to America who found salvation when they reached another foundational rock- Plymouth Rock.

But is that the real story of Thanksgiving? On October 3rd 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. There we read:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

Like the third miracle of Hanukah, Thanksgiving is not really a story about the Pilgrams, but rather the constitution of a ritual of reconciliation post-civil war. Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving represent the re-creation of national mythologies for the sake of mending the wounds of fighting between brothers. We in camping appreciate the impact of a good story regardless of its being true. Camp in its essence is an artificially manufactured community built on rituals, traditions, and history that need not be based on fact. It is here in this miraculous fabricated narrative that we create enduring memories of brotherhood. So while the story might not be true, the community could not be any more real.

So now I return to Yakov. Why did he return to get the small jars of oil? Like the Rabbis take on Hanukkah and Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving, Yakov was getting the oil in preparation to reconcile with his brother Esav. The stories we tell are the foundational rocks of our culture. The true miracle of our holidays is the oil that helps us rewrite those stories to make peace between brothers. Have a very meaningful Thanksgivukkah. Happy holidays.


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