Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah –Vayishlach
I sat down to read the other night and got so engrossed in the book that I lost track of time. I also lost track of the mendacity of what purports to be our respective realities. With all the challenges with which “news sources” bombard us, sometimes it is hard to escape. Binge-watching a series on Netflix or Prime certainly provide wonderful distractions, but sometimes we need something more lasting. So, I try to read. Honestly, it does not happen enough these days; some days, paying attention to the television takes effort.
That said, I sat down to read a book on “Super Heroes” and science fiction – and how the stories empower us to grow past our own baggage and barriers. Which way do heroes run in the midst of the crisis? How many heroes put everything on the line to rescue or protect the innocent? How many stories witness the antagonist experience a moral epiphany converting them into heroes?
I felt so inspired to do great things – to walk into the fire to save a family pet. It has been a while since I felt that energy. The next morning, I woke up frustrated at our dog, who had to go outside earlier than normal. From bravely willing to enter the fire to begrudgingly waking him out so he could pee. Inspiration can be so fleeting.
Our Torah portion begins on such a note. Jacob reaches the River Jabbok. He knows that his estranged twin brother Esau is coming to meet him. The last thing he remembers about his brother is having cheated him out of his father’s blessing. Esau vowed to kill Jacob. Yes, it had been years ago, but …
After sending out appeasement gifts ahead and segregating himself safely on the safe side of the river, he attempted a restless sleep. In the midst of the night, a divine entity appeared and wrestled with Jacob.
Tradition fills tomes of commentary speculating as to the nature of the entity. The Hebrew uses the term “ISH,” which translates as someone important – not ordinary. Whether it was with the river demon, Esau’s spirit, Jacob’s own conscience, or God, we are unsure. As dawn broke, we know that as the entity prepared to leave, Jacob demanded a blessing. The entity wrenched Jacob’s hip and said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and humanity and have prevailed.”
Our sages can’t miss the seemingly obvious play on words in the text. At the River Jabbok (Yavok), Jacob (Yaacov) wrestles (Yae-a-vek) with God. Everything about the setting and story speaks to a major change in the person and, in some ways, the whole world. The river and event change the patriarch. Jacob is now Israel (Yisrael – one who strives with God – “God Wrestling”). The world changed, but only for the day. In the very next chapter, he becomes Jacob again.
In the chapters that follow, Jacob/Israel continues to exhibit moments of inspiration and moments of being just “Good old Jacob.” Having caused trouble cheating his brother, deceiving his father and father-in-law, choosing favorite and less favorite wives, more and less favored children, he will (on his death bed) favor one grandson over the other. Inspiration can be fleeting.
No epiphany can change the world unless it changes the person (people) who experienced it. “Born again” only counts if it comes with rededication. Lots of people show up for worship and walk out with the spiritual feel good, and as my dear friend, the Late Rev Gil Caldwell put it, “Having gotten your fix, you use, go through withdrawal and show up next week for your next dose.”
In the same sense that people seeking intimacy with others ask, God needs to know, “Will you still love me tomorrow?” Faith can never be one and done. A meaningful engagement requires an ongoing commitment to growth, to wrestling with God in ways that continue to grow one’s vision, understanding, compassion, and hope. Those who struggle in faith expect to walk into uncomfortable places with God, sometimes, as with Jacob’s hip, earning battle scars and blessings.
The real epiphany of faith is not the wake-up call. Rather, it is the ability to wake up every day and exclaim new respect for and awareness of one’s place standing panim el panim – face to face with divinity. Being Israel is not enough, living Israel is the goal of faith.