Shabbat shalom. In this d’var torah, I want to talk to you about the possibility of meaning and gratitude and love in our complex and sometimes frightening world. As we reflect on the story of Jacob and his choices, and Leah her choices, I want to take muscular hold of our twin legacies as God wrestlers and God praisers and explore how we can live them out most fully in community.
I read this parashah, Vayishlakh, in partnership with last work’s portion, Vayetzey, because of the narrative parallels between the two. Vayetzeybegan with Jacob fleeing home after stealing his brother’s birthright, tricking their father into giving him a blessing. Jacob is on the run, worried about murderous revenge, unmoored from family and tribe, unsafe. He is heading through the desert toward his mother’s land when night falls. He makes a pillow out of stone, falls asleep and has powerful dream. There is a ladder set in the ground and reaching to the heavens, with angels going up and down it. In his dream, God is standing beside Jacob and giving him a blessing, that he will receive land and progeny and protection.
וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֙יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ…כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ׃
Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go…I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. (Genesis 28:15)
What a blessing! Isolated and vulnerable, one small man on his own in the desert under an immense canopy of stars, Jacob dreams a vision of a multi-directional connection between the everyday affairs of humans and the mysterious realm of the ultimate. Alone, without connection or protection or wealth, he receives a blessing of continuity and safety.
This week’s parashah, Vayishlakh, builds on this story. By this week, parts of the blessing have been fulfilled. Jacob has a large family and extensive wealth. He is again on the road, again because of his dubious actions in acquiring his large flock. Returning home and fearing confrontation with Esau, he worries will there be payback for his earlier duplicity? Again he has a nighttime encounter, where he wrestles with a man, perhaps an angel, and wrests a blessing from him.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃
Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29)
From this wrestling, in this blessing, we, the Jewish people, receive one of our names, Israel. From this story, Rabbi Arthur Waskow dubs us God wrestlers.
In between these two intense night time encounters is the story of Jacob falling in love with Rachel, Lavan tricking him into marrying Leah first, the birth of most of Jacob’s many children through Leah and her concubine Zilpah, through Rachel’s concubine Bilhah and finally Rachel herself. Ultimately Jacob sires 12 sons, plus one daughter. I want to pause on the names of his children. In these two parshiyot, all the sons are named, with explanations for their names. Not so for Dinah. In this week’s parashah, it’s Rachel’s two sons, both desperately longed for. There is the eldest, Yosef, may God grant more (30:24), and Ben-Oni, son of my misfortune, recast as Benyamin, son of my good fortune (35:16-18) (There’s an alternative translation as song of my might.
But our collective names come from Jacob/Israel wrestling with the angel in this parashah, and from last week’s parashah. Leah bears four sons to Jacob, and the names of her first three reflect her bitterness and loneliness. But her fourth son she names Yehudah, from odeh yah.
ותהר עוד ותלד בן ותאמר הפעם אודה את־יהוה על־כן קראה שמו יהודה
She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This time I will praise Adonay.” Therefore she named him Yehudah (Judah). (Genesis 29:35)
This is the source of another of our names, Yehudim, Jews. We are God wrestlers and God praisers.
In our parashah, we have much complexity and pain. Jacob is established as a patriarch. He is wealthy, well-regarded, rich in sons. Yet we also see Rachel’s barrenness. We see so much jealousy—between the sisters Rachel and Leah, between brothers, Jacob and Esau, and Jacob’s sons. We have the rape of Dinah and the resulting massacre, and Rachel’s heartbreaking death.
We know, and our parashahdemonstrates, that life is not perfect. We can raise up Leah as a model for responding to pain and imperfection. In the Torah, Leah moves from bitterness to praise. Rabbi Shai Held teaches:
A Jew is, ideally, a human being who, like Leah, can find her way to gratitude without having everything she wants or even needs…Disappointment need not preclude gratitude, nor need gratitude crowd out the very real possibility of disappointment. Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other but rather makes space—indeed seeks to teach us to make space—for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience. Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness. (insert cite)
This is the core of my teaching today: We can choose wonder and gratitude and love, in so doing, we can cultivate resilience as we live out our values.
We do this most powerfully in community, a community like JCA, 50 years strong. It is in community that we are celebrated and supported, educated and challenged, embraced and, at times, corrected. It is in community that we learn to think and act beyond our individual desires and needs. It is in community that we willingly submerge our individual interests to join ourselves to something larger. We Reconstructionists are part of a movement that was founded on a commitment to diversity, we are building communities that honor difference and make space for it. This is profoundly Jewish and at the same time profoundly countercultural to the American commitment to individualism, which, in the digital era, is growing ever more radical and ever more isolating. JCA is a gorgeous and powerful and moving example of community.
To remember our interconnectedness, to be open to awe, to choose love and praise—this is essential to our humanity. Jewish living, Jewish practice, Jewish teachings, Jewish community are all pathways toward deepening our humanity, deepening our connection to the divine and to each other. Reconstructing Judaism is here to help you do this, to mirror it back to you, to amplify your experiments, your hopes, your successes
I am not a big fan of proclamations of fearlessness. In my experience, I and most other people are full of fear, some of it in our minds, some of it all too real. We are vulnerable and full of pain, disappointment. I am a huge admirer of people who acknowledge their fear and act in spite of it. Like our patriarch Jacob in our parashah, returning to encounter his estranged brother and fearing death, we can walk with the fear and open ourselves to a larger vision and the possibility of transformation. Like our matriarch Leah, we can set aside pain and orient ourselves toward gratitude.
We are God wrestlers and God praisers. We are heirs to a liturgy that proclaims every morning “b’khol yom tamid mekhadesh ma’aseh berashit,” which Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg interprets as “every day creation is renewed.”
Let us open ourselves to the possibility of awe at this blessed reality. Let us know how small we are in a way that cultivates our humility and our sense of interconnection. Let us act on the immense power we do have and rise up to praise, as did Leah, and to wrestle and pray and build, as did Jacob.
Let us choose—with full awareness of our fears and the precarious randomness of the universe and yes, even the hate-filled actions of some—let us choose courage and love and connection. Let us know awareness of the divine, let us make it manifest, in our actions, in community.