Posted on November 14, 2013 by Dita Ribner Cooper
During a hike outside of Jerusalem on our first Pardes shabbaton I found myself walking behind two people that had just met. Like all first meetings go, they each introduced themselves, asked where the other was from, and where the other person was living during his/her year in Pardes. It was the beginning of what was bound to be like the myriad other small-talk conversations that occur at the start of any program. And then, it took a turn for the different. One of the people in the conversation, instead of proceeding to ask about favorite books or movies, turned to the other and said, “So. Tell me about your Jewish journey.” Safe to say, this conversation was not going to be about small-talk anymore. This person was cutting through the nicety of small-talk and getting straight to the point of what the other was about.
I’ve frequently wondered why the term “Jewish journey” is used so frequently in references to our Jewish experiences. Why on this hike did one of the people in front of me ask about the other’s “Jewish journey” and not, for example, his/her Jewish life? Would it have not been more appropriate and timely to ask instead to know about the other’s thoughts on Judaism, or to tell him/her something about where he/she stands now in his/her Jewish experience? When we think about our personal Jewish practice, why is it so commonly considered within the framework of a journey if we’re essentially addressing the here and now?
There are few better examples in Tanakh of those who embark on “Jewish” journeys than the patriarchs and matriarchs, particularly Jacob. When we first encounter Jacob in Tanakh, we read that he was an “Ish tam yoshev ohalim,” a “Simple man and dweller of tents” (Gen. 25:27). The beginning of Jacob’s life is characterized by his stationary nature, in contrast to his twin brother, Esau, who frequently leaves the homestead to hunt and pursue. Jacob seems to love the comforts of home and is content to stay in his tent and lead his life in that way. And yet from the moment Jacob tricks his father into giving him the blessing associated with Esau’s birthright, Jacob’s life is suddenly and consistently set on a path of many tumultuous and difficult journeys. When the text at the beginning of Parashat Vayetzeh recounts how Jacob left Be’er Sheva for Haran, Jacob begins a new life void of his family, his land, or his home and instead is fated to endure an extremely trying journey until the end of his life.
We meet Jacob in this week’s parasha at a crucial point along his journey. At the beginning of Parashat Vayishlach, the text tells us of Jacob’s preparations to protect and save his family from an attack by Esau and his army. After years of fleeing from Esau, the inevitable has occurred, and Esau has sought out Jacob to seek his revenge. The night before the anticipated battle, however, a strange incident occurs in which a mysterious man comes and wrestles with Jacob until the break of dawn. Unable to overtake Jacob, the man finally relents and begs Jacob to release him to which Jacob replies that he will only release the man if he offers Jacob a blessing. The man thus responds, “Lo Ya’akov od shimcha, ki im Yisrael, ki saritah in Elohim v’im anashim, va’tuchal,” “Your name is no longer Jacob, but Israel, because you wrestled with G-d and with men and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29). It is after this encounter, that Jacob finally lets the man go and he returns to his family.
In reflecting on this verse, I can’t help but wonder about one fundamental textual problem. Jacob asks the man for a blessing, yet how is this obscure name change at all sufficient for Jacob to release the man? How does this name change in any way signify blessing for Jacob especially since it centers on the wrestling that lies at the core of his difficult life journey? Where is the blessing in these words about struggle?
Jacob receives this “blessing” in the eve of a battle that represents much more than that moment in time. For Jacob, this meeting with Esau is the first time in many years that he is forced to confront his past, recognizing how far away he is in life from the home he once loved, and simultaneously thrust into a threatening present and unknowable future. In addition to addressing an existential threat, Esau represents the life Jacob led before embarking on his trying journey through life up until this moment. If there’s anything that Jacob needs at this point that will lead him in victory against Esau, it will be the ability to overcome this past, embrace the journey he presently finds himself on, and welcome the future unafraid.
This is the blessing of the mysterious man. Recognizing Jacob’s wrestling and the threat he will face when the dawn breaks, the man offers Jacob the best blessing he possibly can. The man changes Jacob’s name from Jacob, his birth name, one that he received for literally holding on to Esau, to Israel, a new name that represents the struggle he is experiencing in the present. In essence, the man is saying to Jacob, “Jacob, you have wrestled and struggled since you left home until this point. Leave the past behind you, overcome Esau and all he represents, and embrace the struggle, embrace Israel, because you have already wrestled with G-d and with men and have prevailed. As Israel, my blessing is that you will prevail against Esau as well.” With this, the man blesses Jacob to move forward from the past and find blessing in struggle as Israel.
We can derive many things from this moment in Jacob’s life, yet perhaps the most important thing that we may learn is about the nature of the “Jewish” journey itself. When we ask each other about our Jewish journeys, we’re not asking about how we practiced as children or even how we practice now. We’re asking about the transitions and struggles, the questions and phases that have been an intrinsic part of our religious growth. We don’t want to know each other on the level of Jacob, about where we started off about the things in our lives that make us comfortable and content. We want to understand each other on the level of Israel, in the scope of years of grappling with Judaism and with our evolutionary places in our own religious lives. The challenge and the beauty of a Jewish journey is one and the same, fraught with struggle and imbued with blessing as a result.
In the vein of blessing, then, I wish to end with one of my own. May all of our Jewish journeys, this shabbat and this year, be blessed with struggle. May we continue to ask, to question, to wrestle with those parts of our Jewish selves that propel our journeys forward into a richer and more meaningful reality. And, may we continue to meet others not in a place of niceties and the things that simplify our lives, but in a deeper place of understanding representative of the entirety of all of our respective journeys.