Saturday, December 6, 2008

Vayishlach 5769 - Demanding Blessing

[Written for Congregation Ner Shalom Malakh Newsletter, December 2008]

This month's batch of Torah portions furthers the tale of our patriarch Jacob, whose life seems riddled with difficult dualities. He is a twin -- the younger one who, by law, will receive neither property nor blessing. But he suckers his brother out of the birthright and engages in an elaborate ploy to nab the paternal blessing that might have been his by Divine intent, but certainly wasn't his by custom. After reversing the balance of that sibling duality, he flees his furious brother and comes to his uncle's house where he's presented with another duality -- the sisters Leah and Rachel. Here he tries, and fails, to upset the expected order. He wants the younger, he gets the elder, and has to pay dearly to change this. The price tag on this reversal -- ultimately 14 years of labor -- perhaps exceeds even the exile and estrangement (and lentil stew) that the first reversal cost him.

But one more struggle of duality awaits Jacob. On the eve of his reunion with his estranged brother, Jacob is accosted by an ish (איש) - a man - who wrestles with him. Our sages understood the ish to be an angel, and in fact some saw it as the Archangel Michael. Michael, in Midrash, declares his jealousy: the angels are God's firstborn, yet humans are God's favorite. Michael is God's first priest, but Jacob-come-lately is God's special one.

This time Jacob fights back. After all the injustice of having to struggle and steal and toil to achieve what he understood to be God's will, to gain what God could simply have granted, he demands God's blessing. He pins the angel and won't let go until he gets it. He is blessed and renamed Israel -- the God-wrestler.

Perhaps this is in some way a parable, or an ancient memory, about change itself. The new idea does not peaceably inherit from the old idea. It struggles, it fights, it hangs on for dear life. And, ultimately, it wrenches away the blessing. So for us too, with our new ideas -- about God, about love, about how to live, about how to save the Earth -- all these require struggle. But our struggles can unleash untold blessing. As we do our work in this world, let us balance persistence (Gevurah in our mystical tradition) with love (Hesed) so that we may arrive at Tiferet -- the splendor of resolution and integration that our tradition ultimately associates with Jacob...and all Israel.

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