Vayishlach: The Wrestler

In this week’s Parshah (Torah Portion), in Bereishit/Genesis 32:25-33 the night before Yaakov is reunited with his brother Esav, he encounters what the Torah strangely refers to as “a man”. The man and Yaakov wrestle together until the break of dawn. What is this wrestling about and who is this man? Before I attempt to answer this question, I think it is important to note that the theme of wrestling in the life of Yaakov did not begin with this story. In reality this has been a theme of Yaakov’s entire life.

We see Yaakov figuratively wrestling throughout his life. From the time we are first introduced to Yaakov in Chapter 25 of Bereishit/Genesis until the end of the book of Bereishit/Genesis, Yaakov is presented as a “wrestler” of sorts. Yaakov “wrestles” with his twin brother Esav in a losing attempt to come out of the womb of their mother first. He “wrestles” growing up with his brother. He “wrestles” with his brother in ascending to the leadership of the Jewish people. He “wrestles” in escaping his brother, who was angry at him for taking the position of leader away from him. He “wrestles” with his father-in-law Lavan who tricks him many many times. He “wrestles” when he returns to Canaan to reunite with his brother. He “wrestles” when his daughter Dina is raped and his son Shimon and Levi take bloody revenge. He “wrestles” when his son Yoseph is in conflict with his brothers and for many years Yaakov believes his beloved son to be dead. However, Yaakov’s ultimate wrestling is with this man. Now, let us return to our original question. Who is this man and why is Yaakov wrestling with him?

Many commentators including Sforno, Rashi and Ramban say it is a Malach, an Angel. However, in my opinion Yaakov is wrestling with God. At the conclusion of this story Yaakov names the location where the wrestling took place, Bereishit/Genesis 32:31 “So Yaakov called the name of the place Peniel – I have seen the Divine, face to face.” It would seem in this line that Yaakov has an awareness that he just wrestled with God. What does it mean that Yaakov is wrestling with God? It means that he had to wrestle with what it means to have a relationship with God and to try to understand the nature of God. Perhaps all of the wrestling that Yaakov engaged in, whether it was physical wrestling, political wrestling, family dynamic wrestling or business wrestling, that went on through out Yaakov’s life was a metaphor for wrestling with God. Bereishit/Genesis 32:29 points out that from this wrestling with God Yaakov receives a new name: Yisrael, “the one who wrestles or struggles with God”. This becomes our name, because we, as descendants of Yaakov must follow this legacy. We must wrestle with God. In other words, we need to struggle to understand God and Judaism.

Struggle is inherent to the daily experience of Judaism. This can be seen in the commandment to study Torah, which we are obligated to do everyday. Every morning when we recite the Bracha, the Blessing on learning Torah. We say, “Laskoe bidivray Torah.” That we should involve ourselves, busy ourselves, exert ourselves in the words of the Torah. Thus, accordingly to my Rebbe, Rav Bronspiegel, such language denotes the fact that to fulfill the mitzvah of learning Torah, we must toil. That one who learns Torah easily and whose understanding comes without effort does not fulfill the mitzvah of learning Torah. However, those who struggle, and toil, and labor over Torah, and still do not fully understand their studies, have fulfilled the mitzvah. Why? Struggle must be involved in the learning of Torah. Rav Bronspiegel used to say, “You boys think you will become a lamdun, a scholar, by studying Torah while sitting back in your chairs, eating a nice big piece of cake and drinking a nice tall glass of Coca Cola, but you will never become a lamdun unless you toil, unless you struggle.”

I would like to suggest that this is why Judaism does not have dogma. We have no list of principles we have to believe in to be Jewish. Yes, we have a variety of Jewish philosophical texts, which describe a variety of theological ideas. However, it is not uncommon for these texts to conflict. Yes, certain parameters exist to define Jewish theology; however within theses parameters we have tremendous diversity.

The same is true with Halacha, Jewish Law. Halacha has certain boundaries but the distance between these boundaries is fairly wide, and within these boundaries, we have a variety of acceptable positions. Why do we have such diversity in both Jewish theology and Jewish law? Would it not be easier to have a simple list of what we should believe and do? Yes it would, but that would conflict with what I think is one of the central ideas of Judaism: the struggle to understand Judaism. If Judaism were only a list of rules and beliefs, we would have no struggle. It is the diversity that forces us to struggle, to learn, and to grow.
We must grow constantly. One must never say, “This is what I am, and this is what I do. I am not going to change. I am not going to do anything differently from what I do now. I am not going to challenge myself.” This is a problem amongst Jews of all levels of observance and of all philosophies.

To illustrate this problem, I would like to share excerpts of a speech. To help you understand this speech, I need to explain two terms. The first is Baal Teshuvah. Literally, Baal Teshuvah means “a keeper of repentance,” a person who is involved in repentance. In Jewish pop culture language, the term describes someone who was not raised in a religious home, but who, nevertheless, became religious later in life. Often, such people are referred to by the initials B.T., Baal Teshuvah. The second term is Frum From Birth or F.F.B. This term refers to people who always have been religious.

For the speech to convey its full effect, I must tell you something else. The speech was given by a man named Hillel Gross. Mr. Gross is a member of Lincoln Square Synagogue, a large and successful Synagogue in New York City. In the early days of Lincoln Square Synagogue many of the people who attended the synagogue were Baalei Teshuvah (plural of Baal Teshuvah). The speech was given at a Synagogue dinner. Mr. Gross is not a Baal Teshuvah. He is an F.F.B. This is what he said.

I am here tonight on what I fear is a totally vain effort to restore some perspective to this orgy of self-congratulations that you have staged for yourselves this evening. Because I think that somehow it’s important that you beginners, B.T.s, leave tonight with at least a sense of how we, the F.F.B.s, as you call us, the frum-from-births, the “lifers,” day-by-day Lincoln Square everyday congregants, feel about you–we don’t like you!! And if you’ll just indulge me for two to three minutes, I will tell you why it is that we don’t like you–aside from the fact that you won’t talk to us during davening! (Prayer) For ten years now, you have been coming to my house [on Shabbat and Holidays] just this once, try to see it from my perspective. I am what the sociologists and the demographers would call the “tired Jewish businessman.” My fantasy of the ideal Friday night is to daven (pray) as fast as I can, eat as fast as I can, jump under the covers, assume a pre-fetal position, and conk out until Shacharis (the morning prayer service). . .

[But what happens when you come over to my home for Shabbat Dinner? You want to sing Shalom Aleichem (a special pre Shabbat Dinner Song), it is a tradition to sing this song but it is not obligatory, there is also a tune in which each verse is sung three times, and that is the way you want to sing it, because it says so in the Siddur (Prayerbook).] Fine, Shalom Aleichem three times. Then, you want Ayshes Chayil (Ayshet Chayil, a prayer of devotion to the woman of the house, that is also not obligatory) read in English–because it’s more meaningful. Fine. Then one of you has a question — “We just made Kiddush (the prayer on the wine) in shul, why are we making Kiddush a second time?” . . . “How . . . do I know why we’re making Kiddush a second time?” After Kiddush, one of you decides you’d like to make your own Kiddush, because you forgot to ask me before my Kiddush if I had you in mind. Fine, make your own Kiddush–at the rate of three Hebrew words a minute! Then, after washing (the ritual of washing hands and the accompanying blessing before reciting the blessing on the Challah, bread) we sit down, and during the course of conversation, usually mine, one of you will interrupt with undeniable sincerity and politeness and say: “Excuse me, but isn’t what you’re saying Loshon Hara (gossip)?” Yeah, I suppose you could say it’s Loshon Hara. Fine, no more Loshon Hara! Then you want to sing Zmiros, (Zmirot, Shabbat Songs) the ones with eight verses–all of them! Fine. Then you want to do D’var Torahs (Divrei Torah, talks about Torah); every D’var Torah you ever heard up there you want to do. Fine. Then you want to bentch (recite Birkat Hamazon, the Blessing After Meals), singing each verse . . . Fine.

At this point, I bleary-eyed excuse myself and again, with unfailing politeness you say, “Thank you for having us, we’d love to come back next Shabbos!!” You’ll be back next Shabbos all right . . . But you see, it’s not that we dislike you, Chas V’shalom (G-d forbid), it’s that you make us uncomfortable. We’re uncomfortable because after 20-30-40 years of saying Shemoneh Esrei (the silent devotional prayer) three times a day, when we’re with you we sense that perhaps our Shemoneh Esrei has become flat, routine, mechanical, while yours is vital and exuberant. We’re uncomfortable because in the solitude of our souls we ask ourselves (and don’t believe for a second that we don’t ask ourselves), we ask ourselves if we could do in our 20′s and 30′s and 40′s what you’ve done. Could we uproot the habits of a lifetime . . . just to commit ourselves to our Judaism? And if we articulate this question, few of us dare to answer it. So, I suppose in the last analysis, we’re uncomfortable because you practice what we preach. By your enthusiasm, by your embrace of everything that’s Jewish, you challenge us. By your insatiable thirst for knowledge, you provoke us. And by your open-hearted love affair with Judaism and everything about it, you ultimately shame us. . .

The Ger Rebbe, one of the great Chassidic Rabbis of Jerusalem, once met a young man who was learning at a Yeshiva called Ohr Samayach. Ohr Sameach of Jerusalem caters mainly to Baalei Teshuvah. However, this young man was not a Baal Teshuvah, he was an F.F.B. So, when the Ger Rebbe met the young man the Rebbe said, “What do you do?” The young man responded “I’m learning at Ohr Samayach, (but quickly added) but I’m not a Baal Teshuvah,. So, the Rebbe responded in Yiddish. “Favorst nit?” Why not? What was the Rebbe’s point? We all should be Baalei Teshuvah. It does not matter how we grew up, or what we are like today. All of us have to struggle constantly to strive and to grow in our commitment to Judaism and in our relationship with God. All of us have to struggle to grow in our spiritual lives.

In the past, when I have touched on the concept of struggle in Judaism, many people say, “Rabbi, I thought the whole idea of Judaism, the whole idea of religion, is to bring peace and harmony to our lives, and you talk as if Judaism commits our lives to utter turmoil.” Now, don’t get me wrong.
Judaism is therapeutic, and it does bring inner peace. However, we also have this element of struggle. As Rav Soloveitchik explains in his classic essay, “Sacred and Profane: Kodesh and Chol in World Perspectives,” “The religious experience…is beyond granting…spiritual complacency. To the contrary, the religious experience is [about] continual challenge: God, if [humanity] finds [God], does not relieve the God seeker of [questions], but [rather] imposes new ones. Religion enriches life, gives it depth and multidimensional visions, but does not always grant [humanity] the comfort and complacency that nearly always [spells] superficiality and shallow mindedness.”

So you see, struggle is good, struggle is important, struggle is absolutely necessary. What are our struggles as a people today? Without question, everyone will agree that assimilation stands out as one of the greatest struggles we face. We must realize that there are no easy solutions to this problem. Whenever I attend some type of Jewish organizational meeting, invariably the agenda turns to what we should do about assimilation. Those present at the meeting always say something like, “If only we could get every child to go to a good Hebrew school, Day school, Jewish camp, Youth group or Israel program-then, all of our problems will be solved.” The solution is not that simple. Yes, all of these programs will help, but the only strategy that will ensure Jewish continuity in an individual’s life is for each person to find meaning in Judaism. The only way to do that, is to become engaged in spiritual struggle. Therefore, the Jewish community must make spiritual and intellectual struggle part of our various youth and adult Jewish educational programs. It is not enough to teach people; we have to inspire them to struggle.

In Bereishit/Genesis 32:30, after the “wrestling match” Yaakov says to “God”, “Please tell me your name”. In the Torah, a name is not just a name; it defines who a person is. Therefore, when Yaakov asks this question, what he is really asking is, what is the essence of God? “God” responds to Yaakov’s question, “Why do you ask me your name?” The conversation ends there, as if God is essentially saying, you can never truly understand the total essence of God. Perhaps, all you can do is struggle to understand God and by so doing you will come to some understanding, but never a total and complete understanding of God. However, there is more to this. Struggling with God does not come without challenges. Bereishit/Genesis 32:26 points out that Yaakov was injured by the wrestling. His hip socket was dislocated. In other words, struggling with God can take a toll on us. In Bereishit/Genesis 32:33 we are told that we are not supposed to eat the Gid Hanasheh, the sciatic nerve of the hip socket of kosher animals. Perhaps, this prohibition is a reminder and a warning of the challenges of struggling with God. Therefore, we must approach struggling with God very carefully. We should not tell those first learning about Judaism that they must struggle. First, we must expose them to the warmth, the love, and the joy of Judaism. However, eventually, every Jew has to struggle. I bless you all that each of you struggle with God and with Judaism in powerful and meaningful way.

The following is excerpted from the song “The Wrestler” by Bruce Springsteen:
These things that have comforted me, I drive away. This place that is my home I cannot stay. My only faith’s in the broken bones and bruises I display. Have you ever seen a one-legged man trying to dance his way free? If you’ve ever seen a one-legged man then you’ve seen me.