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Even When We Are Limping

December 4, 2020

This week’s d’var Torah on Vayishlach.

Last week, we learned the origin of one of our people’s names: the words Jew, Jewish, and Judaism come from the name of Jacob’s fourth son: Judah, or Yehudah, meaning “to give thanks.”

This week, we learn the origin of another one of our people’s names, Israel. In parshat Vayishlach, Jacob prepares to reunite with his brother Esau after 20 years of estrangement. The night before their reunion, an anxious Jacob encounters a “man” who wrestles with him throughout the night. As their wrestling match stretches on closer to dawn, Jacob realizes that his opponent is an angel, so Jacob demands a blessing.

The angel says to him: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Yisrael, for you have striven (sarita) with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Gen. 32: 29). This is the origin of the term b’nai Yisrael, children of Israel, which later become the Israelites, and later the State of Israel. We are the people that wrestle with God, and prevail.

There are a few theories as to the true identity of Jacob’s opponent, and whether the encounter was real or imagined. Genesis Rabbah (77:3) tells us that Jacob is wrestling with Esau’s guardian angel. Nechama Leibowitz adds that, “Before encountering Esau in the flesh, his spirit struggled with the spirit of Esau” (Etz Chayim 201). It is also possible that Jacob was struggling with himself: his regret over his past mistakes, his anxiety about the future, and his conflicting desires to do the right thing and to avoid confrontation (Etz Chayim 201). In encountering the angel, face-to-face, and matching him move-for-move, Jacob is transformed from a trickster, who often solves his problems by running away, to someone who stays to wrestle.

This wrestling has become a key part of our Jewish identity, says one commentary: “Through the ages, Jews have struggled to understand what God means in their lives and have contended with God, insisting that God live up to the divinely proclaimed standards of justice and kindness” (Etz Chayim 202).

This year, I am struck by the idea that Jacob does not come out of this encounter unscathed. In the struggle, Jacob dislocates his hip, leaving him with a limp that might be a permanent disability. Even though Jacob prevails over his divine opponent, he comes out of the encounter limping.

As we continue our own struggles against the coronavirus and the strain it has put on our schools, our healthcare system, our families, and our economy, I keep thinking of Jacob’s limp. While the early news of vaccine efficacy is giving us all a much needed booster-shot of hope, I am coming to the realization that, while we will undoubtedly come out of this stronger, we might also come out of this limping.

So this is what I wanted to ask of you tonight: In what ways do you think this time will have made you (or us) stronger? And in what ways do you think that you (or we) might be limping when it’s over?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, once said, “We are as great as the challenges we have the courage to undertake.” None of us, even the most courageous, would have chosen the challenges this year has brought us, but in many ways our lives will be defined, and perhaps have already been defined, by how we respond to them.

To respond to this moment takes a great deal of strength, courage, and compassion. It takes patience, faith, and selflessness. It takes responding to despair with hope. We can’t be expected do this perfectly every day. Some days we will be impatient and selfish, angry and sad. Some days will break us and leave us limping.

But our tradition teaches us that these struggles are what make us who we are, as Rabbi Shefa Gold writes: “All through the dark night we wrestle until our wrestling becomes a dance, and the dance an embrace. At dawn the embrace calls forth a blessing. We are given a new name, and that name represents our true essence” (Torah Journeys 47-48).  

As we enter the season of kindling lights in the darkness, may we be gifted with the courage to embody our people’s name, Israel. May we be blessed with the strength to wrestle another day, even when we are limping.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz