Parshat Vayishlach: Because Angels Don’t Fight Fair

As a music student in Israel I would often be seconded to different communities to teach music to school children. One school in particular placed me in a town where my father’s cousin lived, someone I came to know well and would often stay with during my placement. My cousin was a wonderful man with a family of grown daughters, and he would proudly mention (often) that he had married them all off and got them out of the house. He told me not to worry, he would find someone for me too.  

Whenever I was there, he would mention the new person he found for me.  The first time he said I don’t need to worry about looking good, since this prospective groom doesn’t really see very well. If I want him to see me at all, I should always stand at a 35 degree angle from his nose.  A few minutes later he’d add that it’s ok if I don’t like to dance, since this prospective groom has one leg significantly shorter than the other, and did he mention that the prospective groom has a hump on one side which blocks all peripheral vision so I would have to drive?  Yes, he’d say, the prospective groom is very tall, but the hunch in his back brings him to slightly shorter than me, so we’re well matched.  The longer I visited, the more physically complex the prospective groom became.  

Needless to say, there was no such person, no such prospective groom.  As the months went by, I enjoyed the humour of it and greatly increased my Hebrew vocabulary for malfunctioning body parts.  He’d always ask me if I had any scars he should tell the groom about and I’d always say no.

But I do have scars.  Many from childhood mishaps of exploring the world – a nail in my knee, a cat scratch on my wrist, a glass breaking while I was washing it –all the usual mishaps that leave the lessons learned on our bodies.  I don’t introduce myself to anyone by pointing out my scars, they’re personal.

So, how is it that the Torah portion this week tells us to commemorate a scar?

In this week’s parshah, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with an angel.  It is the night before he is hoping to reconcile with his estranged twin brother, Esau.  Jacob is alone with his thoughts and worries of the day to come.  The last time he saw his brother was when he tricked Isaac, their father, into giving him the covenantal blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau.  As a result, Esau vowed to kill Jacob and the family broke apart.  The night before they face each other again, decades later, Jacob is alone with a strange man, and they wrestle.

We find out the man he is wrestling is an angel, and Jacob grabs him in order to force a blessing.  The blessing he receives is a name change, from Jacob to ‘Israel’, and the blessing involved is the explanation that Jacob (and those who bear the new name ‘Israel’) will struggle with people, and with God, but they will sustain and prevail.  It’s a beautiful blessing, and certainly one that enters the national consciousness of being Jewish.  But the Torah goes on to note that the angel grabbed Jacob’s sciatic nerve, causing Jacob to let him go and injuring Jacob in the process. From then on Jacob will walk with a limp–angels don’t always fight fair.

Despite Jacob’s name change to ‘Israel’ the Torah will continue to call him Jacob.  He will waiver between these two names so, in fact, the name change is truly an augment rather than an actual change.  At times he is ‘Jacob’ and other times he is ‘Israel’.  There is no permanence to his name.  In fact, at times the Jewish nation that bears his name is called ‘Beit Yaakov’ (House of Jacob) and other times we are called ‘Israel’.  However, something permanent results from this angel encounter, but it’s not the use of the name ‘Israel’.  The singular thing that the Torah tells us to always definitively do from then on is to never eat any meat that has the sciatic nerve in it, the hindquarters, because that’s where Jacob was injured.

Filet mignon and T-bone steaks are not sold in kosher butcheries because they have not removed the sciatic nerve, not because the meat itself is not kosher.  The Torah has commanded us to always remember the wound, always honour the scar.  That particular scar resulted from an angel hitting Jacob’s weak point.

Yet, most importantly, we are told only once that Jacob limps, it is of no significance moving forward.  He remains powerful, effective, in control, and he thrives.  The scar becomes personal, and informs rather than impedes.

Jewish resilience has always understood that covenant never promises we won’t be hurt, it promises we’ll endure.  The province of Quebec recently decided that although Covid is spiking with unprecedented numbers there, it is permissible for families to gather over several days to celebrate Christmas.  When asked about Jewish families gathering for Hannukah, the Quebec government said no, only Christmas gatherings are allowed.  Similarly, I know someone who spent over a year sitting on a university’s Council for Equity & Inclusion trying to convince them that although many Jews may be white, they are still a minority group to be considered in decisions of equity.  They weren’t successful.

The Torah wisely told us that we come out of struggles with scars that don’t fade because they always continue to inform.  They are the marks of endurance–the blessing of Israel.  If we mistakenly believe that the back of a kosher animal is not kosher, we have missed the point that the entire animal is kosher yet we refrain from eating the sciatic nerve because we honour the scar.  Scars do not only mark an injury, they are in and of themselves the stronger skin that forms through the healing. 

Whether your scars are visible, or not, they still exist–we all carry them. We can either see them as a permanent mark of an injury, or honour them as the reminders of endurance that they are.

Interested in more stories about Angels? Wondering if they have rules they live by? Join Rachael for a 4-week shiur course – Am I Ever Without My Angel? Getting to Know Our Celestial Siblings begins Wednesday, January 20th from 7:30-8:30pm ET. Click here for more info!

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