Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayishlach

People hear me teach that the Torah is rooted in relevance. Our job as the readers is to figure out how to fill in the blanks left in the text back then, with words, ideas, and lessons that teach us important lessons, today. Written thousands of years ago, the document exists in a way that demands a rewriting in each generation. As Heschel put it, “We are a people in who the past endures.” We read and re-read the text each year hoping that the new insight we gain will help us to bring closer a time when the world makes more sense. The sages teach that in the days of Messiah, we will no longer need the Torah, as we will have found a way to co-exist with each other in peace. Until that time, we acknowledge that the world is still messy, and that we have a lot of work to do. We use each week’s text as a way of bringing the past and the present into conversation, so that we can gain a sense of continuity in tradition.


This reality could not be more poignantly demonstrated than in this week’s Torah portion. In one short week, we face corrupt business practices (Jacob and Laban), dishonesty in trust relationships (Jacob, his wives and their father), rape (Dinah), and murder (Simeon and Levi). In sardonic irony, one has to scratch the head and wonder why this is one of the most well known and most spiritually engaging texts in the Torah. My take away, this year, is that with all of the horrific happenings, in the end, the actions of two people change the face of the world. Jacob wrestles with God and finds, even in his injury, the blessing of faith, and the realization of his responsibility to and for the world … he becomes Israel (literally – the God wrestler). Esau forgives his brother (and embraces him), and in doing so, demonstrates an amazing appreciation for faith and restoration.


In not one, but in several cities across this country, white police officers have killed unarmed people of color, including children. Certainly there is dispute as to whether or not the officer felt justified, but these cases just reek.  In Ferguson, MO, the district attorney protected the officer by giving the grand jury law that had already been declared unconstitutional, as the current law for deciding a police officer’s criminal liability in a shooting. In New York, an unarmed Black man is choked to death by a White police officer, and there are no ramifications, other than chastisement offered the choreographers of the unfortunately timed Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting featuring the song, “White Christmas.”


In response, across the country, protests (some of them horribly violent) against the presumptive racial profiling by the respective officers and the system’s failure to hold them liable are blocking parades, shopping malls, office complexes, major traffic arteries, and interrupting any normal flow of life in big cities.


At the same time, our most beloved icons are falling from grace. There was no more beloved father figure than Bill Cosby, who, if the allegations are true, has a horrific dark side. The wholesome image of the NFL is gruesomely bludgeoned by the several very public abuse situations that have now opened the door for many others to come forward. We now “openly” know that (according to ESPN) 21 of 32 NFL teams have at least one player with a domestic violence or sexual assault charge on his record, and according to, domestic violence accounts for 48 percent of arrests for violent crimes among players, compared to the estimated 21 percent nationally.


Where is there hope? No differently than the violence (physical and emotional) that exists in this week’s Torah portion, the news in our face has to make one weak. Here is my prayer and my prophecy: This nation needs to wrestle with God. I did not say obey God, and I did not say bludgeon each other with God. We need to each wrestle with the Source of our own humanity and moral composure. Lots of people are screaming about what God wants. A pastor has spoken nationally that killing Gay people will please God and save America. Who in God’s grace thinks that he represents God’s love and grace (or even God’s thoughts on homosexuality for that matter)? I am so tired of being told what God wants and does not want. We need to wrestle with God, and in doing so, we need to be prepared to be injured, just as Jacob’s hip was wrenched.


I know we will find that if we are serious in this struggle we will find all sorts of things that we have espoused to be true, relied on as truth, that just do not exist … and it should and will wrench our soul and maybe shake us to the core. We need to struggle to make sense of the dichotomy we have created of a loving source of creation that creates all sorts of miraculous life … who then wants to destroy it in hate.


After wrestling with God, we need a national day of forgiveness. If Esau could look past his the many times his brother broke faith and cheated, we have to get past the many places where we have failed each other and “reboot” the system. The atmosphere in this country is growing in toxicity and we run the risk of tearing apart the fabric of a great society that has been built on the promise of justice. I am not playing politics here; I am saying that the system is running amuck, and the protests … today blocking Times Square will shut this country down at best, and spark the revolution or next civil war, at worst. I do not care what color, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin one is. We come from the same source of creation, and right at his moment, our inability to appreciate this equally shared unique blessing puts the entire enterprise in jeopardy. We are at the River Jabbok America. Shabbat Shalom.