Shabbat shalom, everyone!
This week our parahsah is Vayishlach. Ya’akov is returning to the Land after twenty years in Haran, where he has acquired wives, children, sheep, goats and considerable wealth. Before crossing the river Yabbok, night falls, and again, in a famous sequence, Yaakov has a dream/vision/encounter with – whom? A man? An angel? His conscience? The text can be confusing:
“Now Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the rise of dawn. When [he] saw that he could not overcome him, he struck his hip-socket, so that Jacob’s hip-socket was wrenched as [he] wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go; dawn is breaking!’ But [he] said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me!’ The other said to him, ‘What is your name?’ and he said: ‘Jacob.’ [He said,] ‘No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed'” (32:25-29).
We can get lost in the “he’s” in this paragraph – but clearly Yaakov was engaged in a lengthy and life-changing struggle. How do we bring this wrestling into our lives?
There are many ways to “read” text – sometimes we may even absorb text into our bodies. This week I was helping my mother at the dentist. Mum is less able to follow instructions these days about how to move her body, so getting her into the dental chair involved me guiding her and then lifting her – and then it happened. I felt a searing pain in my own hip-joint! So this week, as I have considered the implications of Yaakov and his actions, I have also had pain in my own tuchus!
Pain can slow us down. Pain can make us consider our moves more carefully, it can even allow us to see the world from a different vantage point. This week in my Rabbinics class, one of my classmates introduced us to the work of Rabbi Kula – a 7th generation rabbi who sees himself as an innovator within the Jewish world. Pain met innovation!!
Rabbi Kula wants us to consider using the tools and instruments of Judaism in new and innovative ways – otherwise, he warns, our Jewish institutions will wither from neglect. He suggests, I would venture, that like Ya’akov, Judaism is injured, and to heal, needs to innovate from within – we need a vision, a dream.
Our very name, Israel, comes from this night of wrestling and of demanding questions, and like Ya’akov/Yisroel, many of us continue to wrestle. R. Kula suggests, I believe, that such wrestling must continue and is an essential element of innovation from within. We need to use the tools and technologies within Judaism to build stronger connection and community– in ways that will be meaningful to people who have stepped out of Judaism.
It can be difficult to formulate specific strategies from a generalized ideology, but I think we need to try. We need to ask more questions – and we need to develop some answers. And to help us, we turn to that timeless technology, Torah.
Let’s come back to Vaysihlach. Rachel, Leah, Ya’akov, Esau – what were the building blocks of their flourishing and their connection? As Ya’akov became Ya’akov/Yisroel what happened to his nature, his inclinations, his desires? Text is a technology – our Sages taught us often about the power of the words on our tongues. What can we learn today from these ancient teachings?
When we take Torah and absorb these stories into our own bodies, when we wrestle with these teachings, we build connection. Let’s build community together. Shabbat shalom.