Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Spirit of Israel

It’s very difficult to open the newspaper these days and not feel depressed and overwhelmed. I recently read how the national economy is inexorably careening toward ruin. By the year 2020, he writes, the United States will need to pay one trillion dollars a year just to keep up with interest on the national debt. The national leadership here in Washington looks forward to years of partisan politics and struggle over basic issues of taxation and healthcare. There seems to be no end in sight for on-going struggles in Israel and the Middle East. What are we supposed do to do when we come up against news like this—on a daily basis? We understand that each of us has a responsibility to do something to help our country, our society, our planet. But in this fast-paced, globalizing world, it’s all coming at us so fast. It’s hard to resist the reaction of simply going numb, into denial rather than face the onslaught of unthinkably frightening prospects for us and for the world. How can we, indeed, respond to the news of so much fear and decline in our society and our world? And, more basically, how can we possibly have hope, and find the strength to face life in any kind of positive way? Is there, in fact, any glimmer of hope at all in such a seemingly depressing world? The answer I want to share is today is, yes: indeed, there is reason for extraordinary hope and even optimism. When we learn and live by the spiritual messages handed down to us by our Jewish tradition, hope truly becomes our birthright.

In this week’s parashah, we read the extraordinary story of Jacob’s homecoming to the land of Canaan. He has spent the past decades living in exile in Haran, having run away years before from his brother Esau’s murderous wrath after Jacob stole Esau’s blessing of the first born from their father, Isaac. As Jacob arrives back home, he is filled with an overwhelming sense of dread and doom, as he approaches his destiny. Finally, Jacob must confront what he has feared his whole life—his brother, who likely will kill him for his past sins. And indeed, he learns that Esau is to meet him with a hundred armed men with him the next day. This is it. “Vayira Ya’akov me’od,” Jacob was filled with dread for what tomorrow is likely to bring. He sends his whole family and all his possessions across the river Yavok, and there, in the darkness of night, Jacob is left all alone, seething with anxiety. And there, he wrestles all night with a mysterious angel. And yet, despite the darkness and dread, Jacob doesn’t give up on this mysterious fight. He is profoundly wounded right in the groin, and still he doesn’t give up. Finally, as dawn is breaking on what might be the day of Jacob’s death, Jacob still won’t let the angel go, until the angel blesses him. And the angel finally blesses him, and says his name will now be Yisrael, for he has striven with beings divine and human, and has prevailed. And this mysterious story ends in an odd way: it says that because of Jacob’s wound in his groin, to this day, the children of Israel do not eat the gid hanashe, the tendon that is right on the thigh muscle in remembrance of Jacob’s wound. And this is why, by the way, the cut of ‘fillet mignon’ beef is not kosher down to this very day.

It’s a dark and mysterious story about dread and fear and doom and wounds that we never forget. And that strange reference to the gid hanashe—fillet mignon. Why is it important for us to remember this moment in this particular way? Our ancient rabbinic sages put forth many different theories about the meaning of that command not to eat the thigh muscle. The Tosafot, medieval commentators on the Talmud, point out that this command is important because Jacob’s thigh wound is obviously a symbol of future offspring of Jacob’s loins, born of wounds and conflicts: we must always remember the struggles and wounds that are our very essence as Jacob’s descendants—that we must never forget our ancient wounds even as we strive to transcend them. Other commentators, however, notice another level of meaning in that command not to eat the thigh muscle. Abarbanel, a medieval commentator, points out that, yes, Jacob was wounded, but let’s also notice that he overcame his wound and lived on despite all his fears! The S’forno similarly writes that we refrain from eating the thigh muscle because indeed, Jacob healed. Ultimately, he won the battle!

There’s an ancient tradition among the Jewish people: ma’aseh avot, siman lebanim: the deeds of the ancestors, the forefathers, are a sign-post of what will be for their descendants. This story of Jacob’s homecoming is a story about fear and almost certain doom, and yet—unexpectedly, miraculously--it is, when it is all said and done, a story about a spiritual victory. After that dark night, the Torah reads: “Vayizrach lo hashemesh ka’asher avar et p’nu’el v’hu solea al y’reicho,” “The sun rose upon [Jacob] as he passed Penu’el (the sight of the wrestling-match), limping on his hip.” Jacob came through the darkness and the dread and the struggle—yes limping, but alive. The sun rose and shone for him in the new dawn. The rising sun is an eternal symbol of new hope, of redemption and renewal, for him, and for all future offspring of Jacobs—despite all evidence to the contrary, despite all darkness, there was the sun, and he would yet live after all! He went forward, he limped on. He met with his brother, and his brother didn’t kill him. Somehow, he went on, however wounded he was along the way.

With this insight, some of our greatest rabbinic commentaries see a message of hope for all future generations. The Shem Mishmu’el, for example, teaches that Jacob’s wound stands as a sign-post for all future times of darkness and despair for the children of Israel: it doesn’t matter how profoundly we will be wounded. The sun will yet shine on us again and we will go forward. Rabbi Samson Rapha’el Hirsch, a great 19th century rabbi, further taught that we don’t eat the gid haneshe as an eternal reminder: despite the wound, despite the pain, Jacob kept struggling! He kept fighting. He kept going forward. He didn’t give up. And so we, the Jewish people, must live this profound message: no matter what the pain, the wound, no matter what the physical limitation, we have within us a spirit to prevail, so long as we remember never to stop struggling toward life and life’s potential for blessing and goodness itself.

Our very namesake, Yisrael, the name conferred on Jacob at this moment, means that he struggled with beings divine and human, and prevailed. Our namesake, our spiritual message to all the world is the very message that we need today in this world of so many overwhelming and depressing headlines: never give up the struggle toward life, toward the sunlight, toward blessing and goodness and justice. Never. You never know: the sun may yet arise, and life will greet us, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This spirit of survival, this very wound on Jacob’s goin, is the spirit that has sustained us and allowed us to survive through century upon century of so much pain and adversity. It is a great light that we, the Jewish people, can bring to this nation and to the world. The newspaper headlines tell us that we may yet face adversity that may even wound us. But we go on. Limping all the way perhaps, we move on toward the sunlight. When we persevere, darkness gives way to blessing. This is how the world truly works. It doesn’t matter what the darkness: be it the economy or politics or war. It doesn’t matter how much we suffer, or how much we fear we may suffer. There is a blessing for us in the future. Struggle for it. Never let go of that faith. May we bring this message, the root spirit of the Jewish people, to be a blessing not just to us, but to all the peoples of this nation, and the world. And may we find the light of blessing in this world speedily and in good time.

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