Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Vayishlach Visions of Life’s Struggles

          Visions of Life’s Struggles



          Visions at night hold a special place in the Torah, as it is seen as the most common way that the ancients received their teachings from G-d. Last week, we had Jacob’s dream of the ladder, next week, Joseph dreams, and in the following week, Pharaoh dreams.

          But this week, for Jacob, the vision he sees at night, in our Torah reading, is one he sees while fully awake, hardly in a trance.

The story is well known. Jacob is about to meet his brother Esau once again and he is filled with tremendous anxiety as he is about to cross the brook of Yabok, which is the boundary for Esau's territory. Jacob losses no time in taking every precaution imaginable as he is about to confront Esau's army of 400 armed soldiers. He sends messengers with very humbling and modest words. He sends gifts. Not counting on that alone, he prays to G-d for help. Not being sure that G-d will help, he splits his camp into two, so that if one half of his family is captured and killed, the other half can escape.

Finally, he is left alone at night, making final preparations; a man struggles with him and, while Jacob is wounded in the thigh, he nevertheless prevails and only at the mornings light, does he discover that he has wrestled some divine creature and demands a blessing from him.

It comes in the form of a new name, one that is to be the designation for all his descendants, Israel, for “ You have struggle with human and divine, and you have prevailed.”

          How are we to take such an experience? Are we to believe in night demons? Did Jacob, as the text boldly states really wrestle with G-d f ace to face? ”For I have seen G-d face to face?

How do we interpret this event in the context of meaning for ourselves and still be true to the text itself?

          First we ask, where does this event take place? We are introduced to the location by an unusual designation. Geographically it is a stream, but it is called specifically, maavar-a crossing place, a ford. A crossing place can be a place on a map where one crosses over; it can also be crossing place inside the soul. If we were to translate it as  “Passages”, then we would have the title of a pop psychology book on the theme of change as one grows. Jacob is about to change; he is at a maavar, a  crossing point in his life.

          Significantly, the crossing place is a stream. In all literature, people change, world history changes inexorably, when a body of water is crossed. Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and by his irreversible action, changed not only his own future, but that of the entire Mediterranean world for the next five hundred years and with it the rest of world  history. Moses and the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea and only then were they truly free. Elisha becomes the heir to Elijah only at the crossing of the Jordan and so it is in other lore as well. We have to expect at this point that Jacob will be a forever transformed individual.

          Even the brooks name is significant-Yabok. Word play is central to the language of the Torah. Change a vowel or a consonant, and new meanings appear that are still related to the original word.

יבק  יעקב אבק  מעבר
          Yabok is a river over which Yaakov traverses-it is, in a sense, his river, as he and the river share much the same consonants. At this moment of Maavar, crossing over, at this river,  Yabok, Yaakov is engaged in an action  described by a word that appears only once, here, in the entire Bible “Vayeavek”.He wrestled ! Nowhere else do we Jews wrestle! The Hebrew word for wrestling has almost the same consonants, as both the river and the man: Avak, Yabok, Yaakov. The changes  that take place in the Hebrew are common interchanges of vowels and consonant order that show a common meaning. If we tried to read the passage in the sense of which all the words allude, it would read: At the place of transformation, the river of struggle, Jacob, the one who grabbed the heel to struggle with his brother before he was even born, must now once again struggle through the night.

          Jacob emerges from the conflict both stronger and weaker. He gains a new name, which also incorporates the theme of struggle in it-Yisrael.  Jacob is now confirmed as one who fights and struggles, " for you have striven[sarita] with both G-d and man". Conflict is to remain a part of Jacob, but it is now a blessing, not a burden. The ford, too, gets a new name, “Peniel”- “For I have seen G-d face to face and yet survived.”

          Jacob emerges weaker as well; he is struck on the thigh and limps. The thigh represents sexual vigor, drives, desires, passion. Jacob is a man whose drives led him to work for fourteen years for the sake of one woman but also led him to deceive his brother. The change has taken place, then, in his ability to control his drives, his urges, his Yetser Hara, the tendency to let his passions control him.

          What kind of person then, does Esau , the embittered brother see in front of him?

          No longer is it Jacob the schemer, Jacob the clever tricky one. It Is a Jacob who is limping, much wiser, humbled who is now presenting himself. It is to this new Jacob that Esau can relate in harmony.

          How do we understand the event? Is it then with an angel or demon that Jacob struggles?

          Maimonides, ever the rationalist, explained it away as a vision, a prophetic vision, in which Jacob confronts not Esau his brother but the future generations of Esau with whom his descendants will strive.

          In countering Maimonides, Nachmanides then asked the rhetorical questions: "If it is just a vision or a dream how can he be crippled?

          To this, sometime later, Don Issac Abarbanel, postulated a contemporary answer: “When somebody in his sleep experiences a painful sensation, he may dream of being locked in struggle with an opponent which causes a twinge in some part of his body. Jacob, as a result of his travels and toils of preparing for the meeting with Esau, must have had twinges during his sleep in the sciatic nerve,"

          This much is clear: when Jacob meets Esau, he tells him: For I have seen your face as if to see G-d face to face and you have accepted me. The wording is very similar to the wording Jacob uses to describe his night vision. It is not a slobbery buttering-up of his brother here; it is a recognition that what he has confronted in his night vision is his fear. In facing his fear, embodied in his brother, Esau, he has come face to face with the Divine, and he has survived, been  accepted.

          What we have in the vision of Jacob, consequently , is a very human occurrence, one which I am sure may have happened to each and every one of us. We are continually wrestling with something, whether awake or asleep; we always have some aspect of ourselves that we are trying to overcome or grapple with as did Jacob. What is in the mind affects what is in the body. When we overcome the obstacles in our mind and soul, we see the Divine.

          That is part and parcel of the psychology of the Bible.

          None of us can consider ourselves fully finished or complete because we have reach Bar Mitzvah age or 18 or retirement. The record of the Bible is that of individuals constantly struggling with themselves and with others, and in the process, growing.

          Moses, for example, cannot set out on his career as leader of Israel until he first sees an Israelite being struck. We aren't told what Moses went through but we can imagine the struggle with in Moses: whether to stand aside and say “It’s none of my business, why should I be involved, I'm a prince after all," or on the other hand, the realization that "there was no one else there" to take action and prevent evil. It is at the point of decision, that he lashes out at the taskmaster; in turn, he can no longer be Moses the prince, but instead Moses the liberator.

          Elijah is the fiery fury, until he too learns, after prolonged fasting and praying on Mount Horeb, that G-d is in the still small voice. Jonah starts as a fiercely loyal nationalist and only with a struggle  begins to understand the need to look beyond the confines of his own people’s boundaries. So it is with all of the figures of the Torah; they move, progress, grow taller, and sometimes shrink in stature as well.

We all change, and the Bible asked us to be aware of it. Hence, we have in our Bible no models who are born perfect, no models who go through life without faults. Noah is a drunk.Jacob is a trickster, David an adulterer and killer. Solomon lets his wisdom get the better of him. We are not told to be perfect; rather we are told to be like our forebears, to wrestle with the angel as Jacob did, grow and change, to strive towards perfection. Perhaps, in our struggles, we may be crippled, we may be hurt, but in the end we become blessed for it as was Jacob. The horror that comes in our deep subconscious is transformed into the presence of the Divine.


I want to conclude with the words of one Jesse Sempter:

Each one of us alone with God / Behind the mask of face and deed/ Each wrestles with an angel.

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