Posts Tagged 'Yisrael'

Weird Fish: The Blessing of Diversity

According to National Geographic Animal Encyclopedia, all fish share two traits: they live in water and they have a backbone—they are vertebrates. Apart from these similarities, however, many of the species in this group differ markedly from one another. Fin fish like salmon have gills, are covered in scales, and reproduce by laying eggs. Eels, by contrast, have worm-like bodies and exceedingly slimy skin. Lungfish gulp air. Whale sharks, the largest fish, give birth to live young and eat only tiny fish, squid, and plankton. Some species, the Blobfish, see below, are so bizarre they seem almost unreal. Here is a list to the 20 weirdest fish in the world.

Fish have developed special senses, too. Because water transmits sounds, disperses chemicals, and conducts electricity better than air, fish rely less on their vision and more on their hearing, taste, and smell. Many can detect motion in the water using a special row of scales with sensors known as the lateral line. Others can find their prey and even navigate by detecting electrical charges.

One reason fish are so diverse is that 70 percent of the planet is covered in water. They live in a variety of habitats ranging from coral reefs and kelp forests to rivers, streams, and the open ocean. The variety of fish is also due to the fact that fish are very old on the evolutionary scale. According to fossil records, they have been on Earth for more than 500 million years! The total number of living fish species—about 32,000— is greater than the total of all other vertebrate species (amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) combined.

I was thinking about the diversity of fish when reading Vayahi, this week’s Torah portion. There Yaakov is at the end of his life and blessing his children and grandchildren. There we read:

And he blessed Yosef, saying, “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day— The Messenger who has redeemed me from all harm— Bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, vayidgo- And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”

Genesis 48:15-16

What is this vayidgo– teeming about? On this Rashi quotes the Gemara:

vayidgo-– like fishes (דגים) which are fruitful and which multiply and which the evil eye cannot effect (Berakhot 20a).

Rashi on Genesis 48:16

Why fish are beyond the glare of the evil eye, is a conversation for another day. The simple meaning is that they should be blessing with descendants that are teeming like the fish of the sea. This gives new meaning to God’s blessing to Avraham: “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes.” (Genesis 22:17) From the shore to the sea. This is evocative of the male Jawfish from the Philippines, see blow. This species is a “mouthbreeder”. After they mate the female lays the eggs in the males mouth.

Genesis 22:17

While we could just stay there and see that our number is the blessing. I think there is something else being conveyed in this blessing. The blessing is not just to have the numbers, but also to have the biodiversity. Like the fish of the sea, the people of Israel should be blessed to behold the divinity of diversity and the dignity of difference. We are an ancient people, but we are still evolving. We should never shy away from being weird.

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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.

Achilles Heel

In Greek mythology, when Achilles was a baby, it was foretold that he would die young . To prevent his death, his mother Thetis took Achilles to the River Styx, which was supposed to offer powers of invulnerability, and dipped his body into the water. But as Thetis held Achilles by the heel, he had a chatzitza and  his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river. Achilles grew up to be a man of war who survived many great battles. But one day, a poisonous arrow shot at him was lodged in his heel, killing him shortly after.

Achilles’ name can be analyzed as a combination of ἄχος (akhos) “grief” and λαός (Laos) “a people, tribe, nation, etc.” In other words, Achilles is an embodiment of the grief of the people. Achilles’ role as the hero of grief forms an ironic juxtaposition with the conventional view of Achilles as the hero of kleos (glory, usually glory in war).

Achilles stands as an interesting foil for the person of Yaakov. In Vayishlach, this weeks Torah portion we read:

25 And Yaakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaks.’ And he said: ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ 28 And he said to him: ‘What is your name?’ And be said: ‘Yaakov.’ 29 And he said: ‘Your name shall be called no more Yaakov, but Yisrael; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ (Genesis 32:25-29)

What is Yaakov’s name? As we learn from Toldot, Yaakov was named for when he was born he was grabbing the heel of his brother Esav. Through his adolescence he seems weak compared to his hunter brother living as a tent dweller. Here, this week, he returns as a warrior having worked hard in the world for many years, confronted his father-in-law, and now wrestling this angel. Having struggled with men and God he is renamed Yisrael. Like Achilles Yisrael is the glory of his  people, tribe, and nation. And interestingly he gets this name when he in injured.  Esav is not his Achilles Heel as his name Yaakov might have indicated. Ultimately his Achilles Heel is he himself  both his physical hip and his own character. Confronting the angel is how he can resolve his years in exile. All to often we  point at other people instead of ourselves as the source of conflict in our lives. In the end when we mature we grow and accept that we are the ones that need to choose to change. What makes Yisrael great is not his being perfect or Godly, but rather his being vulnerable and human.  Our collective Achilles Heel is thinking that there is any glory in war. Yisrael’s glory to be emulated is being introspective and reflective from a position of strength.

 

 

 


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