Posts Tagged 'Wrestling'

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.

Wrestling Club

In VaYishlach, this week’s Torah portion, Yakov is preparing to meet and reconcile with his estranged brother Esav. Here we read about the mysterious encounter between Yakov and the angel. There we read:

And Yakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yakov’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaks.’ And he said: ‘I will not let go of you until you bless me.’  And he said unto him: ‘What is your name?’ And he said: ‘Yakov.’ And he said: ‘Your name shall be called no more Yakov, but Yisrael; for you hast striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ And Yakov asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray of you, your name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that you do ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:25-30)

Who did Yakov really fight, man or angel, or was it perhaps a dream in which he found himself in a struggle with phantom demons? This is interesting disagreement between the Rambam and the Ramban. Did this wrestling constitute an external event or an inner prophetic experience through the medium of a dream? It is understandable that after a profound experience one would question the reality of that experience. In another way it is interesting to think that Yakov internalized the character of Esav.
I was thinking about this question of internalizing the other when reflecting on the relationship between Rabbi Meir and his master Acher, Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuyah. While Acher, literally “the other”, became an apostate, his student Rabbi Meir went on to be a very important Rabbi and a central figure to the Mishana.. There we read:
Our Rabbis taught: Once Acher was riding on a horse on Shabbat, and Rabbi Meir was walking behind him to learn Torah from his mouth. Said [Acher] to him: Meir, turn back, for I have already measured by the paces of my horse that thus far extends the Sabbath limit, He replied: You, too, go back! [Acher] answered: Have I not already told you that I have already heard from behind the Veil: ‘Return all you backsliding children’ — except Acher. ( Hagiga 15a)
It is prohibited to ride on a horse on Shabbat and it is prohibited to walk beyond a certain distance. Rabbi Meir left the comfort of the house of study to learn from his master even though his master had gone off the derech, the path of Jewish law. Is Acher real or just an internalized character in Rabbi Meir’s life? This story like the story of Yakov and the angel make me wonder how we internalize the traits of our opponents. Maybe this Esav character is now actually part of Yakov in the same way that Acher is now actually part of Rabbi Meir. How else would we have learned about this interchange between Rabbi Meir and Acher if it was not reported to us by Rabbi Meir. The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.

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