Becoming Ourselves: Parsha Vayishlach

Gustave Doré: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855)

In this week’s Torah portion, an angel comes to Jacob at night, and they wrestle until daybreak, dislocating Jacob’s hip in the fight. When the angel says “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” Jacob says “I will not let you go until you have blessed me.” The angel asks “What is your name?” “Jacob.” The angel says “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have power with God, and with men, and you have prevailed.” This is where Jews get one of our names – Israel, in Hebrew, Yis-ra-el – which means “wrestlers with God.”

I’ve always loved this idea that Jews are wrestlers-with-God – that we are encouraged to question, to wonder, disrupt, and struggle with all things human and Divine. But I also can’t help noticing that Jacob – and the Jews – aren’t renamed “prevails over God.” The angel says Jacob will have a new name because he has prevailed, and then renames Jacob – and all future Jews – for the wrestling. We are, from that moment forward, called strugglers-with-God.

The word that is most often translated as “you have prevailed” is “tuchal,” from the root “yachal,” which means “to prevail over, overcome, endure,” to “have power,” “be able to gain or accomplish, to have strength.” The story of overcoming struggle is wrapped in the story of the struggle itself, and in the wrestling, we become the ones who can endure.

When has one of your own struggles come to define you? Have you ever wanted to release this part of your story and redefine yourself based on something else? What about a struggle where you ultimately prevailed, as Jacob did? After you prevailed, was the struggle still part of your identity?
As we enter Shabbat, I invite us to question the personal narratives behind each identity we hold dear. Have we been shaped by our struggles, our triumphs, or both? How does your perception of the struggle change when you see it as a sacred part of who you are?
Shabbat Shalom, Everyone. May the struggles we face reveal the strength in each of us as we learn to become ourselves.

The Dancing Circle: Parsha Chayei Sarah

“Sometimes a group of people happily dancing together take hold of someone who is standing miserable and depressed on the outside. They pull him into the dance circle despite himself, forcing him to rejoice with them. Similarly, when a person is happy, his pain and sadness may move to the sidelines. But a higher level is to pursue the sadness itself and pull it into the dance circle.”

– Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, on bringing your sadness with you 
In this week’s Torah portion, Sarah dies and her son Isaac marries Rebecca. Abraham, Sarah’s husband, marries a new wife named Keturah, and Abraham dies at the end of the chapter. This is a story that includes two weddings and two burials. Isn’t it always this way? Isaac takes Rebecca to his mother’s tent and she comforts him in his grief.
 
In December 2015, I officiated my grandmother’s funeral the day before I officiated my brother’s wedding. Loss and love, celebration and grief, crammed up beside one another in Torah, and in life. We can try to compartmentalize; we can pretend to leave the losses behind before we jump into joyful celebration. But at the wedding it felt like she should have been there, and we danced with her memory, grateful and grieving all at once, as the night turned to morning, and a new day began.
 
The shooting last weekend took place on Shabbat, a day of rest, joy, and gratitude. A family at the synagogue had also planned a brit milah for that day, a celebration welcoming a child into the community. Trauma rends the fabric of our narrative and tells us that things are not as they seemed. Our story is disrupted, we are not as safe as we believed, we are no longer immune or invincible. We are supposed to be celebrating, but we’re grieving instead. Suddenly, we have nothing to ground us, nothing we can trust.
 
And yet, since Saturday, I’ve seen so many people congregate, bringing their sadness and joy, their anger and love, their fear, their compassion, and their hope. It’s not supposed to be like this, but here we are, with all of these raw emotions colliding, just like they did in the dancing circle at my brother’s wedding almost three years ago. And just like they did for our ancestors, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca, in this week’s Torah portion.
 
As we enter another Shabbat, the first since the tragic massacre that tore our stories apart, I invite you to fully experience and honor each of these emotions, with all of their complexity and their contradictions. And when joy and sorrow collide in the dancing circle, may your memories and community be a source of strength and healing, and may you be comforted, like Isaac, by the love that surrounds you.
 
Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. May be it truly be a Shabbat of peace, love, and wholeness.