On The Importance of Gedolim: R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Remembered.

I just want to write up my thoughts on the passing of R. Aharon Lichtenstein. Unlike many of those sharing their thoughts, I was not a student of R. Aharon in the classic sense, though his writings have certainly helped shape my worldview. I did not attend Yeshivat Har Etzion, and certainly had no personal relationship with him, besides for one question I asked in a Q&A session in 9th grade and the times I shook his hand and said Good Shabbos to him when I stayed in Gush for Shabbos.  He was not my Rebbe. But he was my, hell, our Gadol.

“Gadol?!” I hear you ask, “Gadol?! Does Modern Orthodoxy believe in Gedolim?! Is that not one of the main issues that sets us apart from the Haredi world?! Do we not reject the notion of all-powerful and unquestionable Gedolim in favor of personal autonomy and independent decision-making? By calling R. Aharon your ‘Gadol’, are you not subscribing to an ideology that R. Aharon himself would have condemned (okay, probably politely but firmly differed with)?”

The answer is, no, of course not. Because that’s not what a Gadol should be, and one of the worst outcomes of the debates and strife between the Modern Orthodox and Haredi worlds is the Modern Orthodox world letting the concept of “Gedolim” become a Haredi concept they don’t believe in, because there is truly something religiously valuable in there, once you dig deeper, past the unquestioning obedience and abdication of personal responsibility that’s been piled up on top of the concept over the years.

And that something is this: Every society, especially religious societies, need their role models. Every society needs people who represent the fullest expression of the values it holds dear, if only to show that living a life in tune with those values is a goal that can actually be accomplished, if one dedicates themselves to the task. Every society has to have people who it can point to and say, “this is the kind of person I want to be”, not to imitate, but to emulate. Every society has to have people it can point to and say, “this is the pinnacle of what a human being can accomplish”, in accordance with what kinds of things it believes important for a human being to accomplish. In short, every society has its Gedolim who reflect its own values and ideal self-image. For American society, that means “Gedolim” like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr, figures who fought for democracy, freedom, and equality. For the Haredi world, that means Gedolim known for their accomplishments in Torah scholarship and their personal piety.

And for us, the Modern Orthodox? Our Gadol was R. Aharon Lichtenstein, someone who was an outstanding Torah scholar and also an outstanding secular academic, who was uncompromising in both his Judaism and his Humanism, who was able to confidently and assuredly navigate the contradictions inherent in being both religious and modern, with honesty, level-headedness, and humility and an unwavering moral voice. He served as living proof that the Modern Orthodox life did not have to mean a compromise on either Torah or being part of the modern world, that one could be an outstanding Torah scholar with an outstanding secular education and be an outstanding human being. And in that, he was our gadol, he was that person who perfectly reflected our community’s ideals and aspirations. (Even some of the humorous stories told about R. Aharon being mistaken for a driver or janitor because of his clean-shavenness and unassuming demeanor seem to represent something about Modern Orthodoxy’s self-image, that Modern Orthodoxy believes itself to be just as religiously accomplished even if it doesn’t necessarily look the part)

This is not merely theoretical. I do not remember myself when it was I first heard that R. Aharon Lichtenstein, respected Rosh Yeshiva, also had a PhD in English Literature from Harvard. What I do know is that it was, at the very least, before I was 13, and that this piece of information was, without knowing anything else about R. Aharon, life changing. I was always someone who had loved reading and other activities of a secular nature and was (and still am) quite religiously inclined, and the “Little Medrash Says’s” of my youth presented those two goals as being in total opposition. Either you throw out everything besides Torah, or you embrace godless heathenism. All that changed when I merely heard of the existence of R. Aharon Lichtenstein. One could be religious and one could be worldly, and that need not represent a compromise.

And from that point on, R. Aharon became my role model, even if I didn’t quite understand who he was, or even the nuances of the position I found so inspiring. I remember, inspired by the little information, trying to read his collection of essays,  Leaves of Faith, which was in our shul’s library. Being as I was 12 or so, suffice to say it didn’t go quite as planned. When my mother decided that, for our Bar Mitzvah, my twin brother and I were going to write short biographies of Gedolim to be used as centerpieces for the party, there was only one rabbi I insisted be included, and that was R. Aharon Lichtenstein. My Bar Mitzvah speech (yes, I wrote my own), which used Sherlock Holmes as an example of literature that be valuable religiously, approvingly cited R. Aharon’s example.  And when R. Aharon came to my high school and had an open Q&A session with my grade, I sat all the way in the front row (a rarity for me) and asked him about how his English Literature PhD helped him in the service of Torah, he answered in his typical humble and understated manner, and I wish I remember what he said, because I was too busy internally freaking out to actually listen to what he was saying. (I vaguely recall him saying that it helped him understand Tanach much better).

As time went on, and I got to the point where I could understand his writings better, I began to appreciate him as not just “the rosh yeshiva with a PhD”, but as a brilliant thinker with complex and nuanced things to say about the relationship between Modernity and Orthodoxy, one who, let’s be realistic, would have been none too pleased with my using his example as blanket heter for secular pursuits (In one passage in Leaves of Faith, he decries how Gemara now has to compete for attention with the likes of Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson, which hits pretty close to home for someone who, if we’re being really really optimistic, spends as much time playing fantasy baseball as I do involved in Torah, and that’s only if one counts Facebook discussions about Torah on my ledger, and even then its almost arrogantly optimistic).  But it is no exaggeration to say that R. Aharon Lichtenstein is one of the prime reasons I am Modern Orthodox, or, perhaps, Orthodox at all. And looking around the Modern Orthodox world, as it stands now, I see no one who can truly fill those shoes of Modern Orthodox Gadol, shoes with feet planted firmly in both the religious and secular worlds, someone who truly represents the idealized vision of what Modern Orthodoxy can accomplish. We lost more than just a brilliant man, we lost more than just a deeply moral man, we lost more than just our leader, our teacher, our voice of reason, our conscience, though he was definitely all those things. We lost our Gadol. And without him here, I truly feel lost.

Devar Torah for Pesach: Play-Acting Transcendence

There’s a lot to talk about for Pesach, and indeed, I can talk and talk until zeman kriat shema tomorrow morning, but instead I’d like to offer a small insight on a small slice of the haggadah, and maybe I will have shown something about Pesach in general. We read in the Haggadah:

אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה: הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא: שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – הַיָמִים, כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – הַלֵּילוֹת. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים: יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָשִׁיחַ.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaryah said: “I am like a man of seventy years old, yet I did not succeed in proving that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night-until Ben Zoma explained it: “It is said, `That you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life;’ now `the days of your life’ refers to the days, [and the additional word] `all’ indicates the inclusion of the nights! The sages, however, said: `The days of your life’ refers to the present-day world; and `all’ indicates the inclusion of the days of the Messianic Era.”

This paragraph is dealing with the question of when one is required to mention and remember the Exodus from Egypt. R. Elazar b. Azarya and Ben Zoma say the requirement to do so is operative both day and night, and adduce a prooftext for their claim. The Sages, on the other hand, hold that the requirement to mention the Exodus from Egypt is only operative during the day time, and use the proofext offered by R. Elazar b. Azarya and Ben Zoma not to mean that the requirement is also operative at night, but that it is also operative in the messianic era. To summarize, R. Elazar b. Azarya and Ben Zoma think that remembering the Exodus from Egypt is operative both day and night, and the Sages hold that the command in question is operative during the day and in the messianic era. We clear? Cool.
So what I’d like to do is attempt to read this little paragraph as indicative of two different philosophical approaches to the fact of the exodus from Egypt and its significance to the religious life. Let us first, however, define what it is exactly we are talking about. To use a phrase I hate, What do we talk about when we talk about the Exodus? You can offer all kinds of answers to that question, (FREEDOM, ‘MURICA!, ZIONISM! etc etc), but I think a clear and relatively uncontroversial answer to that question is that the Exodus represents the clearest expression of the divine intervention into the historical process. God, through a series of open and astounding miracles, brings the most powerful empire in the world to its knees for the purposes of ending the unjust oppression and enslavement of His Chosen People, culminating in seas being split, powerful armies being drowned, and songs being sung. The Pesach Story is the story of a transcendent God imposing his will upon our earthly reality and showing the path towards a better world order, a flash of transcendence in our ordered world.

So, what do we do with that? How do we as religious Jews relate to that event of transcendence? Let us begin with what I understand to be the approach of The Sages in the paragraph I cited above. The Sages hold that the commandment to remember the Exodus is only in situations of clarity, in the daytime and in the messianic era. The fact of God intervening in history can only be fully appreciated when such moments are clear as the light of day, and in the absence of such clear intervention, it should not be attempted. We should live with the cognizance that we are not in a stage of history resembling the Exodus, that we are in exile in an unperfected world, and should not attempt to pretend that we already live in a paradise. And though the Sages’ opinion is not, in the end, taken, there are still traces of this concept up and down the Haggadah. We, for instance, leave out roasted meat, even though that was what offered in the times of the Temple, as a reminder of our exile. The Holiday of Pesach recognizes that our reality is not a transcendent one, and remains grounded in that reality.

R. Elazar Ben Azarya and Ben Zoma, though, have a different approach, and one that seems to guide most of our observance of Pesach. True, they say, we live in the dark night of exile, a much different scenario than the daylight clarity of the Exodus and the Messianic Era. But, they say, we can recreate that transcendent moment in our own lives by reliving, by play-acting our way through the redemption process. And this, it seems to me, underlies the entire Pesach experience. From the search and destruction for Chametz that parallels the purging of evil from the world, to the Seder where we recreate the experience of going from slavery to freedom, even to the reading of Shir Hashirim, Pesach is about living our lives in a way that parallels and recreates transcendence in our imperfect reality, about allowing ourselves to live life as an allegory. Perhaps that is why, going a little off-peshat here, R. Elazar Ben Azarya introduces his idea with “I was like 70 years old, כְבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה”. R. Elazar Ben Azarya’s opinion, and Pesach in general, is about the “like,” the “as if,” the כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם.

Parshat Shekalim: The Two Sides of The Coin

This week, after reading through Mishpatim, with its laws between Man and Man, Man and God, and Man and Ox, we will read Parshat Shekalim, which is about counting.

GET EXCITED

Wait, wait hold on there Your Excellency, we have to count in a very specific way. We can’t count by numbers, 1 Jew 2 Jew 3 Jew, because that will lead to a plague, apparently. So count by things! Let them bring in, I dunno, sticks, stones, something. No, we have to count them with money. I guess that makes sense, we could raise some money for The Tabernacle Fund, how about a nice round figure of a shekel a person? Nope. Half a shekel.

What I’m trying to say is, this is a weird kind of mitzvah.

Yet, I think it can give us an important insight into how the Torah resolves the tension between two competing values, of the rights of the individual and the good of the community. The tension between these two values animates many philosophical discussions, secular and religious. Of course, such values are only healthy when they are in tension, because an extreme in either direction is a bad thing. And I believe that the way the mitzvah of the half shekel is structured shows how Judaism keeps those two in balance.

How? So let us think this out. How does valuing the role of the community to an extreme become a bad thing? Well, if individuals are not seen as having their own rights and are merely seen as tools for the greater good of the community, it can lead to those rights being trampled upon for the greater good. Such a community would view its members as not individuals in their own right, with their identities, contributions, strengths and weaknesses, but merely as another faceless statistic in the crowd. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is Nazi concentration camps, where inmates were stripped of any identity, their name, their clothes, their appearance, and given numbers, like commodities.

Thus, to counteract this notion, the Torah demands that we not count people as mere numbers from an undifferentiated mass, but as  individuals, each equally valued and each with their own contribution to make to society. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 38 may deepen our understanding of this concept:

אדם יחידי נברא, ומפני מה….תנו רבנן: להגיד גדולתו של מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא; שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד – וכולן דומין זה לזה, אבל הקדוש ברוך הוא טובע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון -ואין אחד מהן דומה לחבירו, 

Our Rabbis taught: [The creation of the first man alone] was to show forth the greatness of the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. For if a man mints many coins from one mould, they are all alike, but the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned all men in the mould of the first man, and not one resembles the other.

Each person, created in the mold of Adam HaRishon and in the image of their creator, is a unique coin that is valid legal tender in the economy of Jewish society.

But, on the flip side of the coin (haha), it is possible to lean too far towards the value of individuality. It is possible for a person to see themselves as the only worthwhile end, that they owe nothing to society at large, and they should only be concerned with their own achievements and their own aggrandizement, subscribing to the idea of greed as good and selfishness as virtue. These people do not recognize the validity of other people’s needs, and they view their half-shekel as the only viable gold standard. To those people, the Torah says, you are never truly free and isolated from larger society. You are not a unit unto yourself. You are a half-shekel, you are incomplete and dependent on others, and you have no identity that exists totally independent from the world around you.
Thus, the Torah strikes a delicate balance between the competing ideas of the rights of the individual and the needs of the community. People are not mere numbers, and we value each individuals unique qualities and contributions, and do not see them as mere means to an end, but at the same time, each person must recognize that they do not exist independently of society, that they are necessarily incomplete and debt to those around them.

To end off, I’d like to quote an interesting/weird midrashic statement (Megillah 13b) and explain it in light of what we’ve been saying:

אם על המלך טוב יכתב לאבדם ועשרת אלפים ככר כסף וגו’ אמר ריש לקיש: גלוי וידוע לפני מי שאמר והיה העולם שעתיד המן לשקול שקלים על ישראל, לפיכך הקדים שקליהן לשקליו.והיינו דתנן: באחד באדר משמיעין על השקלים ועל הכלאים.

“If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver”, Reish Lakish said, “It was revealed and known before the One whose word created the world, that Haman would weigh out shekalim in order to attain the consent of Achashveros to destroy the Jewish people. He [G-d] therefore preceded their shekalim to his, and for this reason we learn that on the first of Adar an announcement is to be made concerning the shekalim. (Megillah 13b)

So, Reish Lakish says that God knew that Haman would weigh out shekalim, so he gave B’nei Yisrael the mitzvah of shekalim to counteract that. How does that make sense? If we look at Haman’s case for the extermination of the Jews, one of the thing he says is that they are מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים, “scattered and dispersed among the nations,” which seems to be not only a statement on the Jewish people’s place in Diaspora, but a statement about the Jewish community itself, that it is scattered and and lacking in unity, full of different factions and competing agendas, each believing that the larger community should simultaneously accommodate every aspect of their agenda and deny the place of other agendas in their community. And the antidote to this observation of Haman is this mitzvah of the half-shekel, and the lesson contained therein.

Devar Torah Shabbos Shira: Songs, Songs of Songs, And Our Educational Mission.

I’m going to attempt to keep this relatively short. I find my divrei torah suffer when I try to stuff too much stuff in. Think of this as an exercise in brevity.
This shabbos is traditionally known as Shabbos Shira, on account of the Song at The Sea that occurs in this week’s parsha, sung by B’nei Yisrael after they crossed the Yam Suf and watched their tormentors drown in the sea. R. Hutner, in a number of places, most notably Pachad Yitzchak Pesach Maamar 15, observes that song, throughout Tanach, is always sung upon the downfall and defeat of evil. There is, however, one exception: Shir HaShirim. Shir HaShirim is in fact not about the defeat of evil, and is rather an allegory concerning two lovers. R. Hutner, later on in Pachad Yitzchak Pesach, sees this as a reflection the era Sholomo lived in, one of peace and quiet in which the Temple was built, one relatively uninterrupted by war and discord. In such an era, the focus is not on defeating evil, as that has already been accomplished. Rather, the focus is on imbuing every aspect of one’s life with holiness, such that even one’s mundane activities become an allegory for divine ideas. Thus the name of the book: Shir HaShirim, The Song of Songs, the song sung not because evil is defeated, but beyond that, when good is victorious.
It is worthwhile to consider to what extent we focus on, in Jewish education, defeating evil, ie, staying away from sin, refuting bad ideologies, drawing lines against modernity, at the expense of focusing on building a positive Judaism, articulating a bold vision of what Judaism can contribute to the modern world. May we sing that Song of Songs speedily in our days.

The Return of the Devar Torah: On Bathrooms, Leaders, and Judaism’s All Encompassing Religious Vision.

The other day, I was scrolling through my newsfeed, when I saw a rather striking link someone had posted about an art exhibit depicting various world leaders sitting on the toilet.  Besides for being quite obviously visually provocative, it occurred to me that in a bit of “hashgacha pratis”, this link was actually very relevant to a medrash on this week’s parsha.
To introduce the first of the 10 plagues, that of blood, Moshe is told by God (Shemot, 7:15):

לֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה בַּבֹּקֶר הִנֵּה יֹצֵא הַמַּיְמָה וְנִצַּבְתָּ לִקְרָאתוֹ עַל שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר וְהַמַּטֶּה אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לְנָחָשׁ תִּקַּח בְּיָדֶךָ

Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold, he is going forth to the water, and you shall stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile, and the staff that was turned into a serpent you shall take in your hand.

So, we may ask, why is it important that Moshe go to him in the morning, by the river? Additionally, the language is a little interesting. Go down to the river and, behold! Pharoah’s gonna be there! There seems to be an element of the unexpected in Pharaoah being there at that particular time.

Rashi, quoting the medrash, is sensitive to these linguistic nuances, and puts forth this interpretation, which seems to me a justifiable peshat:

הנה יצא המימה: לנקביו, שהיה עושה עצמו אלוה ואומר שאינו צריך לנקביו ומשכים ויוצא לנילוס ועושה שם צרכיו

behold, he is going forth to the water: to relieve himself, for he had proclaimed himself a god and said that he did not need to relieve himself; so, early in the morning he went out to the Nile and there he would perform his needs. — [from Mid. Tanchuma, Va’era 14; Exod. Rabbah 9:8]

Many of you no doubt have heard this explanation before, because its a favorite of grade school teachers desperate to get the fickle attention spans of 8 year olds. It also made its way into “The Interview” as a running gag about the mythology Kim Jong-Un puts up around himself, which makes me think there was some Jewish guy in the writers room. But it seems to me that there is actually an interesting point to be made about this interpretation.

Let us ask, why would it be a problem if Pharaoah, as an alleged deity, went to the bathroom? Certainly our own objections to such an idea as impossible for an incorporeal God would not have applied to the polytheism of Ancient Egypt. Nor would such an idea be particularly morally troubling, either because going to the bathroom is a morally neutral act, (and possibly a positive one, if health is considered morally positive), or from the fact the Egyptian gods particularly moral individuals.

Rather, the problem raised by going for the bathroom for Pharaoh is that it is unseemly for a god, a religiously significant figure, to be involved in activities so mundane and so human. Religion, to Pharaoh, is primarily concerned with the greatness and awesome power of the gods, and devotion and worship thereof. For religion to get involved in the mundane and nitty-gritty details of daily life, of going to the bathroom, and perhaps, by extension, the way one treats one’s slaves, is immaterial to the religious pursuit. Religion, to Pharaoh, is an obligation primarily to Gods that is discharged on special occasions, not something that guides the way one acts in his daily life. He can go to the temple, offer his sacrifice, and order the subjugation of an entire people without any contradiction.

Moshe, by surprising Pharaoh during his morning bathroom break, is not just breaking the mythology around Pharaoh, he is making an ideological point about religion. Your religion may see your mundane activities as incommensurate with religiosity, your religion may allow to enslave and oppress an entire people as long as it does not impede your worship, but in our religion, there is no such divide. Your daily life is not just religiously relevant, but it is of the primary importance that you not just come to Shul on shabbos and hear a sermon, but live your life guided by religious principles and religious law, including, yes, halachos of going to the bathroom. You cannot hide yourself from the nitty-gritty details, you cannot have a split personality of your religious self and your day-to-day self, you cannot secretly go to the bathroom in the morning and proclaim yourself divine in the afternoon.
There is a quote attributed to the Kotzker that was apparently a favorite of R. Yehuda Amital’s, on the passuk, (Tehillim 115:16) ” הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם, לַיהוָה;    וְהָאָרֶץ, נָתַן לִבְנֵי-אָדָם, The Heaven belongs to God but the earth belongs to humanity” The Kotzker speaking for God, says: “Angels, I have enough of. What I want is human beings!” God wants us not to be angels, not belonging to this earth, with a religion that concerns itself only with matters of spirituality. He wants human beings, with all our flaws and all our temporality, both our physical and spiritual selves, to involve themselves totally in the work of perfecting the world he placed us in.

Scattered Personal Thoughts On Cooking, Anxiety and Channukah

Since my years in yeshiva, I have found that, for me, one of the most effective modes of therapy for the times I find myself in a troubled state of mind is cooking myself some dinner. Somehow, during the times in yeshiva that I fell into deep depression, cooking myself a simple dinner of pasta, often served with a sauce of my own invention (butter, garlic, paprika, salt and pepper) that I called “Yeshiva Noodles”, and it would make me feel better. When I went to YU, during dark days in my freshman year, living in a dorm without a kitchen, I found myself lost without my preferred method of coping, and the promise of a kitchen to cook in was one of the motivating factors that led me to move off-campus. During that time, I branched out from Yeshiva Noodles to, well, other kinds of pasta, and then other stuff as I challenged myself more and more. French Toast I recall being one milestone. Simple stuff, but I was having fun. Now that I’m married, I’ve expanded my repertoire considerably, and it still comforts me on the rough days I still have on occasion.
Why does it work? Back in yeshiva,  I figured the reason this worked was “I may be a failure at everything else, but at least I can feed myself”, which I think tells you more about why I kept getting depressed than it does about why that made me feel better. I think it can be partially explained by one peculiar feature of my cooking hobby, which is my stubborn refusal to follow recipes. I love nothing more than just making something up from the ingredients I have at hand. Sure, I look up recipes occasionally just for inspiration and basic direction, ie, what temperature to set the oven to and stuff like that, but I always insist on adding something of my own, and I rarely, if ever, measure out spices to conform to a recipe. (Obviously, baking is not my forte.) Part of this is a healthy non-conformist streak, the same instinct that, for instance, decided that if I was going to throw a baseball, I was going to throw it sidearm because it was weird to throw sidearm.

But part of this, I think, is a rebellion against the rest of my life which is conducted in the opposite way. I constantly worry about whether what I’m doing is objectively correct and good, be it in the papers I write, due to my desire for scholarly objectivity, in my interactions with other people, where my Asperger’s makes ascertaining the “correct” way to interact with people an object of intense scrutiny and investigation, or in my religious life, where the goal is to follow the precepts of a detailed and immense code of law governing every area of one’s life. This is absolutely not necessarily a bad thing. People should absolutely be careful around truth, around other people’s feelings, and about religious law.  But it can be taken too far. It feels like in my life I’m constantly trying to find the right recipe, the absolutely perfect set of ingredients, in order to achieve my desired goals, and I stress constantly about whether I’m going to turn out just like that perfect picture that accompanied the recipe. Often enough, I decide that if I can’t do it perfectly, if I’m just gonna mess everything up, its not even worth trying. But in actual cooking, not in the above metaphor cooking, I get to relax a little bit, even have a little bit of fun, get a little bit daring, try something new, and do the best with what I got. And the only judge is whether the food tastes good in the end, whether I cut the onions exactly to size or not, whether I use the right type of pan and the right type of oil. Sure, those things would help make the food better, and I do watch cooking shows and read food blogs to pick up tricks and tips for making stuff even better. But the point is to make good food, not perfect food, and to take joy in the process, not worry incessantly about the result. And if it turns out bad, its not such a big deal, because I’ll get to try again next time.

Obviously, this attitude cannot be applied in totality to the religious life of an Orthodox Jew. Ours is a religion which cares about the small things, which believes in humanity enough to charge it with living a life totally infused with Godliness. But perhaps we can learn a little bit from it. That we should take joy in the process of being a religious Jew, and not just be worried about the results. That we can take a step back from being crippled by an anxiety over whether we got the recipe exactly right, and do the best job we can with the ingredients we have, and trust that God will appreciate our best attempts, even if they’re not objectively perfect. Perhaps this is one lesson we can take out of Channukah. The Chashmonaim came to the kitchen with a recipe for Menorah Light, serves 8 days, and they only found enough oil for one. They could have just stopped there and decided to order takeout. But they pressed on, because it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has give it its best shot. And God recognized it as good enough.

Devar Torah Vayishlach (From 2013. The Best One I’ve Ever Written.)

So, my thoughts on this parsha are rather thin, but I’m going to attempt to advance my own understanding of the story of Yaakov and the Man who he wrestles with. It’s probably more my peshat than peshat, but sometimes, that isn’t a bad thing.

The story starts with Yaakov left alone. Suddenly, a man appears out of nowhere, and wrestles with him, until dawn. We are given no reason for this assault. We have no idea who this person is (and the midrashim aren’t so sure he’s a person). Yaakov is at the mercy of absurd and senseless violence, caught in the dark alone.
Yet, he wrestles until dawn, and when the man sees that he is unable to overcome Yaakov, he hits him in the thigh. He then asks Yaakov to let him go, because day is about to break, but Yaakov won’t let him go until he blesses him. The man asks him his name, Yaakov gives it, and then the man says his new name is “Yisrael” for he has striven with man and god and overcome. Yaakov then asks him what his name is, the man says “why must you know my name”, blesses him and leaves.

Weird story for all sorts of reasons. I don’t know what peshat is. I think Chazal’s reading actually makes the most sense. But let me offer my own.
I see this story as a good metaphor for the life of a religious person.
As religious people, we see the world with certain axioms. God exists. God is good. The world was created by a good God. But sometimes, we find ourselves alone in a world that makes no sense, that doesn’t fit with the religious notions we have, and we are assaulted with doubts and questions and problems. How can God allow evil to happen? How do we know God exists? Why would a good God create this place?
And we struggle with these questions. We come up with proofs of God, and answers for theodicy, and justifications and explanations and deep philosophical thought. We struggle with the questions, we wrestle with them, and we fight them to a draw. We may even think we are “winning”, that we have fought off all the questions and made a rational and coherent system of Judaism that explains everything.
But, there’s an issue. The very presence of those doubts, the very existence of those questions, mean that any of our answers is flawed from its inception. If everything in our religion was rational and self evident, there shouldn’t have been any problems to begin with. The questions do not disappear because of the answers. They’re held off, kept at bay, fought to a draw. But you can’t defeat them entirely. This realization paralyzes us, and makes us unable to completely defeat the doubts that plague us.
Thus, they ask to be let go. And its tempting to abandon the struggle and accept that it all doesn’t make sense. Let the problems go, let them walk away somewhere else, and when the dawn comes, they’ll be gone.

But no! The religious believer demands that he come out with something, anything from this struggle. He refuses to let go, demanding a blessing, something he can salvage from this experience.
The response: Your name is Yisrael, one who strives with man and God. What defines you is the struggle, between man and God, between the finite slice of reality you have and the infinity of God. Some allege that religion is about comfort, about certainty. I doubt it. For how can a thinking person be comfortable with the state of the world when it’s supposed to be the creation of a perfect God? How can someone be certain about God’s goodness and existence in the face of evil? Are those things so easily reconcilable? Religion means you allow yourself to be pulled in two different directions, the divine ideal and the human real, to allow that tension to bother you, to agitate you, until you have to wrestle and struggle with attempting to reconcile the perfection of God’s creation with its corruption, to strive with both man and God.
But still, we still want to know, why those questions and doubts exist, what their purpose is. What is the name, the essential purpose of this force that assaults us? The answer: Why must you know my name? Why must you know everything? None of us can possibly be all-knowing, and each of us only has their small slice of reality. Uncertainty, doubts, and questions lets us know that there is an infinite, unknowable reality that we don’t have access to by ourselves, and spurs us to discover more of that. Certainty, on the other hand, means remaining static, comfortable that your slice of reality is all that exists. We need to not know things to have any hope of progress.

There are many stories in Tanach, many of which are open, public miracles, showy spectacles that make it abundantly clear that there is a God who is powerful and present. But I believe its siginifcant that what defines our people is not the certainty of Egypt or the fiery spectacles of Elijah, but the valiant, uncertain struggle of Israel.