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.

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