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!

Parshat Vayetzei: The Crown of a Good Name

Parshat Vayetzei: The Crown of a Good Name

Recently, my nephew and his wife had a baby, and we are all looking forward to zooming together to find out the new baby’s name.  Judaism is very sensitive about the names we give our children.  In this part of the world, our babies will usually get an ‘inside name’, the Hebrew one, and an ‘outside name’, the English one.  Often, they are not translations of each other or even referring to the same namesake.  Sometimes the Hebrew name speaks of family ancestry and tradition, and the English name speaks of what the culture around us accepts as a name that blends.  But in Judaism, names are essence…and so we agonize.

I am named after two of my great-grandmothers, both from my mother’s side –it was her turn to name.  I know it was my mother’s turn to name the baby (me) because my older sister has names that come from my father’s side.  My grandmother used to call me her ‘imaleh ketana’ (her little mother) and always follow it up by reminding me that I was named after her mother, so that made me her little mother.  It’s beautiful now, it was confusing then.  It prompted me to ask my grandmother about her mother and so it opened the door to learn  more about  my namesake.  But my grandfather never told me about his life growing up, and so I didn’t have the opportunity to ask him about his mother (my middle name).  She remains a mystery within my identity.

We learn from Genesis that every new creation was not completed until it was named. Adam names the animals (beginning humanity’s partnership with God in completing the creation vision).  There’s a great midrash that asks how Adam knew to name the elephant ‘elephant’, he said he called it that because it looked like an elephant (oh to be a fly in the Garden when all this was going on…), and so we learn that our names complete our births.  The names we are given will mold our essence and begin a dialogue with God about our destinies.  That’s why we agonize.

If someone falls on hard times or is challenged with illness, one of the Jewish choices is to add a name that will bring strength and healing with it.  In very extreme cases we could consider a name change, though we’d rather expand the dialogue and add a name than begin from scratch and change the name.  

It is also traditional to name babies in memory of someone from the past.  Usually, the baby would bear the name of an admired family member, or someone we dearly loved, or a Jewish leader we felt was unique.  In part, this is to keep the memory of that person alive in this world since it will now be carried into the future by a new person.  Also, we believe that since souls are eternal, the soul of the departed loved one will bond with the soul of the newborn, giving it insight and strength.  By naming a baby this way, we believe we have created a blessing that will inform the essence of the baby throughout its life.

In fact, rabbis have commented on the fact that the numerological sum of the word ‘name’ in Hebrew (‘shem’) is the same as the numerological sum of the word ‘book’ (sefer). They both equal 340.  In other words, every name is the beginning of a book to be written and edited and expanded on by it’s writer, the person who bears the name (now embodying those who bore that name in the past).  In Kohelet Rabbah, we are told that every person bears three names: the one his parents give him, the one other people call him, and the one he creates for himself.   Our book is created for us when we are born and is named for us when we are named.  It becomes the story of the name we all create for ourselves.

As beautiful as all this sounds, it can also lead us to dark places.  In this week’s Torah reading, parshat Vayetzei, Jacob, Leah and Rachel are building their family.  The children who will head the tribes of Israel are born and named.  Leah bears the first sons and names them Reuven, Shimon and Levi.  She explains that the names mean: Reuven – God saw my pain, Shimon – God heard my affliction, and Levi – maybe now my husband will accompany me.  I can’t imagine an outing with this young family to the park as Leah calls out: ‘God heard my pain’, go get your brother ‘God saw my affliction’, time to go home!

As the family grows, more and more brothers are added, whose names represent the problems of their parents.  It is of no great surprise that these boys will grow up and plot to kill a despised brother, Joseph.  Knowing their names, what else did we think they would do?

But, as the years passed, these boys, now men, wrote different ‘books’ of themselves.  Each one stood before Joseph in Egypt as a distinct individual with a distinct voice.  The tribes that come from them will likewise each develop its own culture and its own identity within Israel.  We will become a people of diversity, rich with a past that strengthens us, and unwritten books to fill.

Mazel tov to Eric, Michelle, Adina and the whole family on the birth of their new baby – I can’t wait to hear her name.

“Truth Be Told” is Actually an Oxymoron

Parshat Toldot: “Truth Be Told” is Actually an Oxymoron

This week, in one of my online classes, we had a fascinating discussion about Judaism and multiple truths.  In Judaism, we have many debates about whether there is such a thing as absolute truth, or can various truths co-exist without having to determine which is…truly true?

It’s actually difficult to mount a Jewish argument for absolute truth, since our ancient texts clearly describe revelation at Sinai, our Jewish defining event, as one where 600,000 people gathered and heard 600,000 different things — all of them the result of the same revelation experience.  Text after text tells us that absolutes could only apply to God, the human domain is a space of relativity.

To take it even further, the ‘truth’ of a moment is usually decided by the authority in charge, and not the actual truth that might be proved.   As an educator, I learned of a case where a high school English teacher put a poem on the final exam.  The students were asked to write an essay on the central theme expressed.  One student wrote an essay that was returned with a barely passing grade and the teacher commented that although they had discussed a theme, it was not the central theme.  The student wrote to the author of the poem and included the exam question, their answer, and the teacher’s response.  The author supported the student’s reading of the central theme.  When all this was brought back to the school for evaluation, the school decision backed the teacher and dismissed the author.  The ‘true’ answer was what the teacher had taught in class, not the author’s stated truth about the poem.

Once I learned of that incident, any time my kids would ask me a question about their homework, I would always begin my answer by saying: ‘are you asking me this because you’re wondering about it, or are you asking me because you’re studying for a test?’  I felt it important to teach my kids that truth has a context.

Over the years, my kids have brought multiple truths to my attention as they encounter them on social media.  By multiple truths, my family has included what Neils Bohr (famous Jewish Nobel Prize winning physicist) observed: “Sometimes the opposite of a fundamental truth is another fundamental truth”.  (It helps when scientists echo what ancient Jewish texts have said all along…but I digress.)  Social media has fun challenges about multiple truths.  For instance, the famous ‘is it blue or is it gold’ dress:

Some people genuinely see this as a white dress with gold, while others genuinely see a blue dress.  Apparently, they’re both correct.

Or, for the math lovers among us:

Due to the order of operations, there is legitimately more than one answer to the equation.

But I’m not referring to misunderstandings, like this one:

  • though you can’t help but love the student who does that…

Nor am I referring to a ‘made-up truth’ that is the result of denial, like every toddler who blames their sibling for the spilled juice, even though all siblings are at school at the moment…

Jewish multiple truths refers to the honest perception a person has of what they consider the truth, which is then offered in the open arena of Jewish discussion so others can expand their thinking of what they thought was their truth.  Multiple truth encourages humility within us, since everything I think I believe is now open for listening to someone else’s view — it might also be true.  

In fact, there are so many examples of this in Torah, it’s a challenge to list them.  Several of them occur in this week’s parshah, Toldot.  One of the main instances of multiple truth surrounded Rebecca and Isaac in how they built their family.

Rebecca is pregnant but feels something is wrong — too much activity in her womb.  She seeks an answer from God and is told that what she is feeling is two nations that are struggling within her.  She is also told that the elder will serve the younger.  She trusts this answer completely, to the point that after her children have grown, she will actively deceive her husband so that the younger one (Jacob) gets the covenantal blessing.  Total trust in God, no questions asked.

Isaac, however, has a different experience of the world.  The Torah says that he has bonded to his son Esau because Esau is a hunter (Jacob makes vegetarian soups).  It makes perfect sense that Isaac bonds to the son who hunts, the son who uses a knife to provide food for him.  It’s not a coincidence that Issac, whose father Abraham placed a knife to young Isaac’s throat years before…on God’s orders…now bonds with his son who uses a knife to protect and provide.  What was a threat from his father is now the security from the son.  

It’s also not a coincidence that Isaac barely ever speaks to God and God mostly leaves Isaac alone.  According to Isaac’s world view, the relationship with God could turn on a dime, so best not to open too many doors.

Rebecca and Isaac are married and are the second generation of Matriarch and Patriarch.  One trusts God fully and gives herself over to that truth, while the other backs away and bonds with the non-covenantal son.  Both their truths are correct.

There is a beautiful midrash that discusses how before God created humanity, God threw Truth to the earth where it shattered into infinite shards.  After humanity is created, each person embodies within them one of the shards of truth, and together, when we listen, we reveal more and more, and grow.  We discuss and debate so we can combine shards of truth and learn of a greater picture.

As the Jewish people, we are a diversity of view and opinion which each of us believes is truly what Judaism means to us.  We learned this approach at Sinai, and we celebrate it as foundational.  

As one rabbi put it: Just because I’m right doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

Parshat Vayigash: The Human Family Blood, Sweat & Tears

I was on vacation with my family for 10 days, together, 12 of us, in one house with one virus we all shared.  Like dominoes, one by one, each of us developed a cough, a fever, aches, pressure in the sinuses…and lousy moods.  Innocent questions of ‘how did you sleep’ were often met with variations of responses from ‘how do you think I slept’, to ‘what did you mean by that’.

We struggled to understand why medicines we can get on the shelf at home were only available by prescription where we were.  In moments of respite, we played games together in one room until someone started to cough at which point we all pulled our shirts over our mouths and noses.  People were sent into their rooms for the duration as others dreamed of bathing in hand sanitizer.  

In the midst of the roller coaster of vacation get-away and sickness overload, I heard someone ask a sibling why they were moody.  The question was posed as: isn’t blood thicker than water? And because we were all stuck in a house together and had already talked about anything interesting, and because…we are who we are… we argued about whether or not that phrase makes any sense.

If it’s a declaration of fact, then of course blood is thicker than water…big deal! (Amazing how being sick robs you of any sense of nuance or compassion).  But the phrase is used to indicate that family is more important than other things. How do blood and water mean that? We all agreed that ‘blood’ is family, but then how does ‘water’ mean everything else?

In my family there are history buffs and the historic phrase ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than water’ was volunteered as a source.  Pooling the information people had, as well as a quick check on the internet (which, by the way, doesn’t know much about the phrase), here’s what we came up with:

  1. The ‘blood of the covenant’ is an image of warfare. Those who spill blood together with you on the battlefield are more your family than your biological family – ‘water’ being the waters of the womb.  Your brothers-in-arms should come first.


  1. The ‘blood of the covenant’ is the blood of the New Covenant, the blood of Christ.  When women would join a convent they were taught that the ‘blood’ of Jesus as redeemer is thicker than their biological families.  The church family should come first.

So, it actually never means that family should come before all else.  It clearly means the opposite!

Yet, there’s no question that it is ALWAYS used with the intention of saying that family should always come first.  But, in a way, it opens the possibility of defining families as those with whom we strike a covenant. It is not the womb alone that defines a family and the pull we feel toward it.

A friend of mine is adopted and she knew from her earliest memory that she was adopted.  Her parents put it to her that she was ‘chosen’. In fact, they explained to her that they felt bad for other families because other parents were stuck with what they got but her parents felt lucky because they got to choose her.  She was told that she was born of their hearts.

This idea of family by choice speaks clearly in this week’s parsha, Vayigash.  Jacob and his family have been brought to Egypt to reunite with Joseph. In fact, it is Pharaoh who commanded that they all come to Egypt.  Pharaoh is not unbiased in this matter. In essence, Pharaoh adopted Joseph when he renamed him, gave him a wife and a job as second in command.  Pharaoh has heard that Jacob, the biological father, is still alive. As the head of an empire family, Pharaoh knows ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’.  Jacob must appear before him.

When Pharaoh and Jacob meet, they both realize they represent different families to Joseph.  Jacob is the family of birth, while Pharaoh is the family of choice. Why else did Joseph never send for his father in all the years of Egypt?  One of Pharaoh’s first questions of Jacob is to ask how old he is (in other words, how much longer do I have to worry about you). Jacob answers by saying ‘I’m old but I come from a line of people of longevity’, (I might be old now, but I’m not as old as I’m going to get – I’m not going anywhere fast).  Interesting response, since earlier Jacob stated that he only wants to live long enough to see Joseph, then he can die. Now, with Pharaoh in the picture, he suddenly indicates he’s got a lot of living to do.

There are many relationships in our lives and we build many families around us.  Some feel the commitment of blood should surpass all else while others feel the commitment of loyalty should define.  The Torah commands us to behave a certain way toward family, without stating that the family of birth is of preference to all others.  Family is a foundation from which we build more families and we define and navigate peace within our families – all of them.

As Pharaoh and Jacob stand facing each other, I can’t help but think each of them, in their own cultural language, is looking at the other and thinking ‘but blood is thicker than water’ and they’d both be right.