Parshat Vayishlach: Because Angels Don’t Fight Fair

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!

C’est La Guerre

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a great week.  My week was filled with classes winding down and celebrations winding up.  My weekly Torah and Mussar classes are taking a break for a few weeks and, as Chanukah is approaching, some of the schools and shuls are starting to have Chanukah inspired events.

In one of those moments, I was walking through the halls of a Jewish day school in Toronto. I had the pleasure of standing next to a line up of kindergarten kids waiting to go out for recess.  They must have just finished a class in Torah, since they were all talking about God speaking to Abraham and Sarah. They were wondering what language God was speaking. Intrigued, I stood a little closer.  One of them said God spoke Hebrew and English. They all agreed and stood quietly for a minute. Then one kid said they forgot one language that God was speaking. They forgot that God was speaking French to Abraham.  I stood quietly as they all agreed that, yes, of course, God was speaking French!

The kids ran out to recess and I was left in the hallway wondering how, on earth, they had such unanimous agreement that the Almighty Creator of the Universe was speaking French to Abraham and Sarah.  Then it hit me clearly. God was speaking Hebrew, English and French because we teach them Hebrew, English and French. For non-Canadian readers, quick reminder that Canada has two official languages: English and French. Both are taught starting in elementary school.  The beauty of the conversation in the hallway was that six year olds were reflecting what we all feel: why would we learn something if it’s not relevant to us?

So, I can’t help but think about a moment in this week’s parshah, Vayishlach.  We read the text where Jacob wrestles with an angel and is renamed Israel. It’s beautiful, it’s meaningful, it’s mystical…but when’s the last time you wrestled with an angel and got a new name?  How is it relevant to me in anything I do?

But, the Torah doesn’t say Jacob is wrestling with an angel, it says he’s wrestling with ‘a man’.  Jacob, himself, isn’t sure who he’s wrestling with and, in the end, concludes he wrestled with God.  Hosea, the prophet, says the man was an angel and we have accepted Hosea’s understanding. There are midrashim and commentaries that discuss which angel Jacob struggles with, while others explore the idea that Jacob is actually wrestling with himself – we are witness to a primal, internal struggle of identity and transformation.  And there lies the relevance.

The incident occurs the night before Jacob meets his twin brother, Esau, after years of estrangement.  Jacob tricked his brother out of his birthright and will now face Esau and be held accountable for his actions.  Everything is on the line and Jacob must now confront his past. He struggles with the entity no one is able to name.  

There are moments in all our lives when we face things we’ve done in the past. Choices we ourselves may not fully understand or be proud of.  Things that occurred in the past, yet somehow lay in wait for us in future moments. Things we continually revisit and struggle with. It doesn’t matter if the moments are embodied within an external angel, or within our internal subconscious, because the wrestlings with these moments are real.  In fact, we have all been Jacob on a dark, quiet night, struggling with an unknown being.

And then the resolution is powerful.  The ‘angel’ blesses Jacob with a new name: Israel.  The word itself is explained as struggling with God and humanity with the ability to prevail.  It is an understanding of the nature and strength of the man, and the nation, who will bear that name.  But the word ‘Israel’ is also the initials of all the ancestors: the 1st letter is for Yitzchak and Ya’akov, the 2nd for Sarah, the 3rd for Rebecca and Rachel, the 4th for Abraham and the last for Leah.  In Judaism, names are essence and so the essence of our ancestors lies within the name of our people, within our identities. It is who we all have been and where we all come from.

But the very same word speaks of the future and authenticity of how we express.  The word that tells us who we were is the same word that tells us we have the strength to be anything in the future.  We have been blessed with the strength to argue and defend the journey we choose, even if the argument is directly with God.

In that light, the text in this week’s parshah is possibly one of the most relevant.  In our dark moments, when we face ourselves and our unknown beings of struggle, we remember that we will always meet who we were, we will struggle, and then we will move forward to continuously shape ourselves into who we choose to be.  The blessing is in the struggle.

So, who am I to deny that in the midst of some ancient moment of angst and doubt, Abraham or Sarah turned to God and asked why things have to be so hard.  Maybe in the complexity of an ancient Divine explanation of the metaphysical workings of the universe…maybe somewhere in that moment… maybe God spoke French.

The Oy of Peoplehood

Hope everyone had a great week.


This week’s parshah, Matot-Masei, might as well be titled: ‘oy’. It talks a lot about war and
booty and prisoners and revenge. All I can say is to remember we are never commanded to do
that, we are reading about warfare in the ancient world – it’s a slice of hell.
But there’s a defining moment in there that talks about two tribes telling Moses they prefer to
live outside of Israel and not set up their homes within the borders of the land.
Every time I read this section, I am taken with the fact that from the moment we had a nation
of Jews enter the land of Israel, we had a group within the nation saying that life in Israel is not
for them. In other words, there are no Israeli Jews without simultaneously having Diaspora
Jews.


And now I arrive at today.


I am the generation born into a world where there is a modern state of Israel. I can’t imagine a
world without Israel, though my parents lived in a world that produced the Holocaust so that
answers that question.


But I struggle with the relationship Jews in Israel have with Jews outside of Israel and visa versa.
I’m not sure we’ve figured out how to do ‘peoplehood’. Our realities are so vastly different and
while we share Jewish history and culture, those of us outside of Israel have mastered living in a
different culture as we layer our identities. Where can we connect?


A few weeks ago, I visited Israel. There were days I struggled with what I saw and there were
days of such connection words fail. At one point, while talking with an Israeli about Judaism,
they listened to my views and then said, ‘so you’re a Reformit.’ I was a bit confused and
explained that I am not a Reform Jew as some of my Jewish choices wouldn’t fit that
community. They explained that I seem liberal, but I also keep commandments, so I have to be
‘a Reformit.’ I could see there were no other categories of Judaism possible in this discussion,
so I said nothing.


By the way, this week’s parshah clearly states what the Talmud later repeats as a Jewish
precept: silence is agreement. I said nothing and therefore chose to agree with him at that
moment. You choose your battles.


My thoughts go back years ago to when I was saying Kaddish for my father. I was also leading a
trip to Israel at that time and was strategically finding a minyan every morning so I could say
Kaddish. We were in Tel Aviv for a few days and I found a minyan in a small shul on a main street not far from my hotel. It was a group of men on their way to work stopping in quickly to
pray. It was ten men with no rabbi or chazan leading them.


The first day I walked in, I went to the women’s section which was on the same floor as the
men, a pretty flimsy mechitzah that allowed us to see each other and hear each other. They
definitely knew I was there because I had to climb over all the stalked chairs, tables and books
filling the women’s section. Actually, I was happy to find a place where I could sit alone with
my thoughts, so I didn’t mind the clutter.


One morning I was delayed and ended up running to get to the minyan in time. As I ran in, the
men were already finished and were putting away their Tefillin, ready to go to work. I
remember standing there and saying: ‘you’re finished??’, in English and then starting to cry.
These were not quiet, subtle tears. I mean sudden, anguished sobs. It was the first time I had
missed Kaddish all year and I didn’t expect the pain I was feeling. The men stopped and one
man asked me what happened. I told them I was saying Kaddish for my father but now I missed
it.


In Hebrew, I heard some of them ask each other why I’m saying Kaddish, don’t I have brothers.
One man quietly asked if it was allowed. Only one man asked the group who I am. All of these
comments were happening at once as these men are standing there, late for work, watching a
strange foreign woman crying.


The man who first spoke to me said to the group, ‘she’s saying kaddish. She needs a minyan, so
no one is going anywhere.’ Before I knew it, they all put down their Tefillin, stood around me in
a circle while one of them handed me a Siddur and said ‘Read!’ The page was already opened
to Kaddish and I quietly recited it as they all answered me.
That was peoplehood.


I have no doubt that most of them walked away confused by what I was doing. I’m also pretty
sure some of them agreed to be there so I would stop crying. The reasons don’t matter, we
created holiness together and fulfilled an ancient intent of unity.
O this week’s Parsha, when the tribe of Reuben tells Moses they don’t want to settle in Israel,
Moses argues. Actually, Moses threatens them. They stood their ground and the two sides
worked out a mutually agreeable arrangement. It strained the relationship of peoplehood then
and by the end of the book of Joshua it almost causes a civil war. The challenge of
understanding our peoplehood remains with us today and we inherit the challenge honestly.


A few weeks ago, when I was in Israel, I argued with some people I met and after I left, I missed
it. Like any family visit.

Thresholds

Hope everyone had a great week. I’m home from Israel and I realized I’m not a great traveller so I won’t dwell on the passive-aggressive woman sitting next to me on the flight home – it wasn’t pretty.

I had an interesting Shabbat in Jerusalem though.  I went to the Shira Hadasha minyan, which is an orthodox egalitarian service.  A few things caught me by surprise. In Israel the Cohanim bless the congregation every Shabbat.  They stand covered entirely with their Talit (looks a bit spooky). Under the Talit their arms are raised and their fingers form the letter ‘shin’ in Hebrew.  The power of the minyan is said to draw the energy of the Shechinah through their fingers and onto the congregation. It is one of the most mystically powerful moments in Judaism.  

Because it is so holy, tradition tells us not to look directly at a Cohen when being blessed.  But at Shira Hadasha, for the first time in my life, there was a Cohen standing in front of the woman’s section covered in a Talit chanting the blessing.  I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman and I had never had anyone stand in front of me doing this. Wanting to blend, I held the Siddur up to my face to cover my eyes – but I had to know.  So…I slowly moved the Siddur away from one eye and quickly glanced at the person enveloped in the Talit. My eye moved to the feet where I clearly saw the hem of a dress. It was a woman. I heard her voice and watched her sway.  Instantly, without my knowing, this woman led me to a moment of holiness. She was so close to me, she sounded like me. She was my threshold.

I thought about the parshah that Shabbat, Chukat, which is the portion we read this coming Shabbat outside of Israel.  This is the parshah when Miriam dies and Israel has no water. God tells Moses to gather the people and speak to a rock to bring water from it.  Moses, angered by the mob, hits the rock instead and as a result is told he will never enter the land of Israel. It is one of the most frustrating moments in Torah and as much as Moses will plead with God to enter the land, it will never be.

I’m struck by the fact that Moses’ fate is set so close after Miriam dies.  I’m struck by the fact that his pronouncement of death occurs through an interaction with water – these things cannot be coincidental.  Miriam’s actions as Moses’ older sister was to protect him. In fact, it is she who stood by the Nile and watched him as he floated toward Pharaoh’s daughter.  It was she who protected him from the waters that were killing all the baby boys of Egypt. She is his guardian who kept the dangerous waters at bay. She changed his destiny and as long as she is alive he is safe.  As soon as she dies, his original destiny returns and water will now be the cause of his death.

We owe everything to Miriam because without her there is no Moses.  She creates the window of time within which Moses will live his life.

I thought of a pluralistic minyan I’m working on in Toronto.  Some of the decisions about parts of the minyan are not my personal preference and I was uncomfortable.  I struggled with the question of creating an expression of holiness that might not fit the nuances of my own expressions.  But I think of these two women, one from the ancient world and one from the modern world. They both show me that at times our choices move beyond ourselves and build the doorway for someone else. 

Thank you Cohen who stood so close and blessed me.

Thank you Miriam.

The ‘Holiness Competition’ Fallacy

            Welcome to the renewal of my blog.  It’s been a few years since I posted anything and I’m excited to get back to sharing my thoughts.  Right now, I’m in Israel for a week, some personal stuff and some work meetings.  The trip got off to a roaring start when I got to the airport and lost an earring I was very fond of.  I had a very comfortable seat on the plane but accidentally managed to get gum on my headphones which then stuck in my hair.  After we landed, apparently some innocuous machine prints out your tourist visa, a small piece of paper that no one tells you is important and will save you taxes.  Needless to say, I lost that piece of paper getting into the taxi and didn’t have it for the hotel, so I was charged taxes as an Israeli, the default visa.  Jet lagged, exhausted, confused about the time difference, I went to bed hoping everything would be better in the morning.  Unfortunately, in the middle of the night I was awakened by a very large cockroach in the bed.  I was done.  Zionism will only take me so far…

            A few hours later I sat quietly enjoying an Israeli breakfast and the incredible flavours of the fruits and vegetables grown in this country.  I felt a bit better.  I went with my daughter to Ben Yehudah street and we shopped for a purse.  I walked into a store and tried on a bag that goes across the body and noticed the strap in the front is cutting a tight line between my breasts.  It was clearly not designed for a woman but the bag was so comfortable.  I turned to my daughter and asked if it looked funny.  She was laughing too hard to answer.  There were three other women there including the store manager.  The other women were clearly very observant and I was standing there in pants and no wig. 

            But I was beyond caring about my appearance and tired from no sleep.  I boldly asked them if the strap drew too much attention to ‘the girls’.  They asked if I meant my breasts and I said I did.  For a moment they were quiet so I turned to each of them with a front view so they could give me an honest opinion.  The store manager said she often wondered about women who buy these bags and how they wear them.  One of the women said she’s seen so much worse while the other woman said she liked it and ‘the girls’ seemed okay.  With everyone staring at my chest we forgot about my exposed hair and my pants.  Or maybe it never mattered to them in the first place.

            The lost earring, the gum in my hair, the missing visa and even the midnight cockroach didn’t matter anymore.  My thoughts went to the parshah this week, Korach.  In it, Moses’ leadership is challenged by his cousin, Korach.  Ultimately, Korach and his followers are literally swallowed by the earth.  A plague is sent by God against Israel and Moses tells Aaron to offer a sacrifice.  When he does, the Torah says “he stood between the dead and the living and he stopped the plague.” To me, this is Aaron’s greatest moment. 

            The issue is huge.  The problem with Korach and the people was their determination to create divisions of holiness within the people.  They presumed to speak for God, rather than to God.  They claimed to be as holy as Moses, as spiritual and as worthy.  They introduced the ‘holiness competition’ into the nation – who can outdo whom in this holy race – the one who ends up closer to God wins. 

            Rather than competing with each other in an effort to be holier than our neighbour, the Torah reminds us again and again that it is our individual and unique voices that are needed.  Since God is an Infinite Being, we are invited to explore infinite roads and relationships with God.  The Torah guides us with boundaries but allows us to define the content of our spirituality. 

            Now, as I walk around Jerusalem, I no longer see the differences in the Jews on the street with worry about conflicting views – I’m enjoying the sight and sound of our differences.  The women in the purse shop responding to me in a mundane moment as we each stood there with our differences. I see one nation of individuals, I feel the potential of our diversity and the importance of Jewish pluralism.

            I can’t wait to shop again.