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.