Vayishlach: we all struggle with who we are to become our best selves

 

Genesis 32:25

(25) Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

בראשית ל״ב:כ״ה

(כה) וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃

What happened at the Ford of Jabok was critical in Jacob’s life leaving  him physically marked for life and with another name. He was alone, yet a ‘man’ wrestled with him till dawn. Who that ‘man’ was is open to interpretation but Jacob is in no doubt – he names the place P’niel because he has met God face to face.

The Bible gives a dubious etymology for Jacob’s new name, Israel, but what is important is the meaning given – one who struggles with God and with other people, and is able to do so.

We take this name for ourselves; we are Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, and our defining characteristic is that we too must wrestle with God and with our world and make something of ourselves in that struggle.

Judaism is a religion of enquiry; questions are met with more questions, not with definitive answers. Despite the systematizing work of Saadiya Gaon and Maimonides who responded to the doctrines of Christianity and Islam, Judaism remains a religion of deed, and not of creed. We must keep on engaging with ideas, imagining possibilities, wrestling with God and with our world, in order to be truly alive.

This dynamic tradition of enquiry and analysis has kept us going over the centuries, adapting where necessary, accepting knowledge from outside sources and bringing it into our world view. It is the life-source of progressive Judaism, as we keep our minds open to the world and its knowledge while grappling with our texts and their questions.

Jacob at Jabok is a metaphor for us in so many ways – fearful of the unknown future, struggling with the temptation to run back to the familiar, yet ultimately moving forward carrying the wounds of our struggle with us. I’m proud to belong to a tradition that eschews doctrine and dogma, demands we struggle with God and with ourselves, and helps us aspire to be our best selves.

 

 

 

Parashat Balak: Prophecy and Leadership can come from the most unexpected places, OR Female Donkeys have much to teach us

Twice in Torah an animal speaks. The first is the Nachash, the serpent in the Garden of Eden whose conversation is instrumental in Eve eating the fruit from a forbidden tree (Genesis 3); and the second is the donkey who three times tries to protect her owner (Balaam) from the wrath of God before her mouth is opened by God to challenge his behaviour. (Numbers 22)

Interestingly both animals speak in the interrogative as they initiate the conversation. The serpent has its own agency, approaching the woman without prior recorded interaction, and it clearly understands the reality of the situation they are in rather better than the woman does. The serpent asks her “Has God said that you should not eat of any tree in the garden?” and on being told that the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden was forbidden lest they die, the serpent says, quite truthfully – “you shall not die, for God knows that in the day that you eat it, then your eyes will be opened and you shall be like God, knowing good and evil”.  He does not seduce her to eat the fruit or even recommend that she eat it – he simply points out that the punishment she believes will follow is not the case, and instead a different outcome will emerge – the humans will have godlike qualities that currently they do not possess, the ability to make moral judgments.  The tree itself is beautiful, the fruit looks delicious, and the woman – now clear of her fear of death – eats and gives to her partner. There is nothing to warn of danger in the presentation of tree or fruit, and the intervention of the serpent seems a necessary catalyst for the human beings to take the next step.

In contrast, the donkey does not speak at first. She is simply trying to get out of the way of the angel by any route possible, squeezing herself and her rider into increasingly small spaces, and bearing the cruel punishment by Balaam in silence until eventually, when Balaam’s beatings of her become unbearable, God opens her mouth and she asks “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”  When Balaam answers “because you mocked me, I wish I had a sword in my hand for I would kill you”, she asks two more questions: “Am I not your donkey upon which you have ridden all your long life until today? Have I ever done this sort of thing before to you?” To which Balaam answers with one word: “No”.

Only then does God open Balaam’s eyes and he sees what the donkey has seen all along – the fiery angel standing in the way, who DOES have a sword in its hand. Balaam bows down and falls prostrate to the ground, and the angel of God asks the same question the donkey did – “Why have you beaten your donkey three times?” before going on to explain that the angel is there as an adversary (le’Satan), “because your way is contrary to me”

The serpent is “arum” – subtle or cunning (though it has another meaning of cautious and prudent). It is its own self, beholden to none.

The donkey ‘s personality is not described in the same way, but we understand her by her behaviour. Firstly, she can see the angel when no one else can – she is a perceptive animal. She only speaks when God ‘opens her mouth’, rather than from her own initiative, she has been Balaam’s donkey for many years and served him faithfully. Her questions are personal, immediate, and relational. “What have I done to you that you hurt me?” “Am I not your long term and faithful donkey?” “Have I ever done this before?”

She is a faithful servant, dedicated to helping and protecting the person she sees as her master – quite unlike the serpent who is an individual with agency, dedicated to – well who knows what? Truth? Mischief? Action?

In both cases the intervention of the animal allows their human interlocutor to perceive and know what the animal already knows. They seem to mediate divine revelation, albeit in different ways and with different outcomes. The serpent is punished, lowered, put in opposition to humankind. The donkey is defended by the angel who asks the same question she asked of Balaam, and it is made clear that while the angel might have killed Balaam, it had no intention of hurting the donkey.

I find it interesting that the donkey is not “Chamor חֲמוֹר” but an “aton  אֲתֹן” – very specifically she is a female donkey, her verbs are in the feminine, this is the deliberate presentation of a female protagonist.

I find it interesting too that the donkey is contextualised in relationship; her interventions are not grand or self-centred but to do with the bond and connection between her and Balaam. She doesn’t feel the need to tell him of the angel in the road, but to ask about what has happened between them that their rapport has failed and he is beating her.

I don’t see this as subservience, even though the donkey is clearly of low status in human society. Instead between the two stories I see two models of change. The first is hierarchical, the shrewd and calculating “catalyst figure” knows the information and by their line of questioning is leading the other person towards the information it wants them to know. The question is asked and the answer is challenged with the facts. The change happens but the outcome is not really happy for either protagonist.

In the second story, while the “catalyst figure” knows the information, it makes the assumption that the other also holds information, and it takes care of them and uses their relationship and the trust built up between them to allow the other to learn.  Even when there is a further intervention (when God opens the mouth of the donkey) she does not discuss the revelation in front of them but formulates her response around the relationship between them.

While it may be unfair to say that the first model is the “male” one and the second model of leadership the “female” one, it is I think true that generally female leadership is characterised by being more transformational, task focussed, collaborative and often indirect, whereas generally male leadership is characterised by being more transactional, hierarchical and focused on the achievement of the preferred outcome.  It is no surprise to me that the serpent is masculine but the donkey feminine.

The donkey provides a voice of gentle sanity in a story that describes testosterone fuelled attempts to increase power and demonstrate status in the world of the king and the prophet – and all the time the reader knows the added irony that the Children of Israel know nothing of what is going on, so that the grabs for more status and power are irrelevant to them. The great Seer Balaam proves to be a comically less able prophet than his donkey, the great King Balak’s frustration grows to almost laughable boiling point as he tries again and again to have his enemies cursed – paying a fortune to no avail. Again and again we are invited to understand that there is much more to the world than we can easily see; that the apparently important figures are in fact not so important in the larger scheme of things; that if we only pay attention to the surface or believe the publicity of those who claim leadership rights, then we are missing the complexity and connectedness, the way relationships and shared values organise or world.

There are many variants on the theme that behind every great man is a person supporting them selflessly to enable that greatness – usually a woman. But my two favourites which both speak to the story of Balaam and his female donkey are from popular culture.

John Lennon wrote (though not about Balaam) “As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot.” And Harrison Ford opined “Behind every great man is a woman. Telling him he’s not so hot.”

The bible seems to agree. And the prophet Zechariah reminds us

גִּילִ֨י מְאֹ֜ד בַּת־צִיּ֗וֹן הָרִ֨יעִי֙ בַּ֣ת יְרֽוּשָׁלַ֔ם הִנֵּ֤ה מַלְכֵּךְ֙ יָ֣בוֹא לָ֔ךְ צַדִּ֥יק וְנוֹשָׁ֖ע ה֑וּא עָנִי֙ וְרֹכֵ֣ב עַל־חֲמ֔וֹר וְעַל־עַ֖יִר בֶּן־אֲתֹנֽוֹת:

Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion, shout O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king is coming to you, righteous and redeeming, poor and riding on a donkey (chamor), and upon the foal of a (female) donkey.

Come the messianic times, the child of that donkey who protected and supported her rider Balaam, will have the honour to bring the anointed one into Jerusalem.  The line of Balaam’s donkey will ascend into the service of the messiah. The line of the serpent in Eden will be lowly and in opposition to humankind.  Very different outcomes from the different interventions of the animals who speak.

 

 

Parashat Vayishlach: a bite or a kiss? a messenger or an apology?

In parashat vayishlach we see the moment where Jacob the trickster, the one focussed only on himself and his own needs and aspirations, is able to change. He is on his journey home, a wealthy and powerful man. However he must first encounter his estranged brother Esau whom he had dispossessed from his birthright and from whose terrible pain and murderous anger he had fled all those years ago.

In preparation for the encounter he sent out messengers in order to both impress Esau with his power and wealth, and in order to try to find out what was likely to be ahead of him. The messengers’ report on their return distressed him – they had met Esau on his way to meet Jacob, accompanied by four hundred men. His response – to try to save what he could of his family and possessions by dividing them into two groups, and then he prayed for help, invoking the merit of his ancestors and the promises God had made to him regarding his descendants. Following this, he began selecting groups of animals that he could send ahead as gifts to Esau, in order to appease him before their meeting. Then he says a particularly curious sentence, given what is about to happen:

וְאַֽחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי”

And after this, I will see his face, perhaps he will raise my face/accept me”

Having taken his family, divided into two camps, across the ford of Jabok and over the stream, Jacob was left alone, yet in the same sentence that tells us  וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ that he had been left behind and was completely and utterly alone, we are also told

     וַיֵּֽאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר:

And a man wrestled with him until the morning dawned.

He was alone, but he was not alone. He was in the dark of the night. He was wrestling. His struggles through the dark night of his soul changes him forever. He is in liminal transitional time after which he will be transformed and given a new name – though not so transformed that he would lose his old name forever….

Who is Jacob wrestling? The narrator of the text tells us it is “ish- a man.”

The wrestler himself is more complex telling Jacob that he has struggled with God and with men and has prevailed:

כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל:

Later in the text Jacob seems to believe the fight was with God, as he names the place Peniel, the face of God:

וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי:

And he continues “for I have seen God face to face and my soul is preserved”

Traditional explanations are that Jacob is fighting an angel, in particular the guardian angel of Esau who is attempting to weaken Jacob before the meeting, or that ‘the’man’ was Jacob himself, struggling with himself and his own feelings and needs, with the two inclinations all humanity possess – the yetzer ha’ra and the yetzer ha’tov, the inclination to be motivated primarily for one’s own self-interest versus the inclination to be motivated for the good of the community and of others, battling it out for charge of his soul.

There is, I think, a clue to this critical and iconic night of struggle in another part of the sidra. When Jacob meets Esau we find that Esau was coming with a welcoming party not a gang of ‘heavies’, and we are told that far from there being a clash between the brothers there is instead from Esau’s side real emotion and warmth at their reconciliation. We are told that he ran to Jacob and embraced him and fell upon his neck and kissed him:

 וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו [צַוָּארָ֖יו] וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ:

But written in the Masoretic text over the words “and he kissed him” וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ are dots, and these are understood in the midrash to be there to draw attention to the word and to add to its meaning. Rashi quotes midrash (Sifrei) and comments that the dots are there to show that the kiss, while it seemed whole hearted, was actually insincere. But the weight of rabbinic tradition goes even further. In Midrash Genesis Rabbah (78:9) we are told that R.Yannai plays on the word ‘vayeshakei’hu’ and by changing just one letter in the word while keeping the sound, one can translate it as Esau biting Jacob. From this midrash comes the stream of Rabbinic traducing of the biblical Esau, to develop him into an enemy of the Jewish people, eventually becoming Edom, the code for the Roman oppression.

 

I do not like this interpretation, being in fact a big fan of the biblical Esau who just couldn’t somehow get it right, but who clearly loved his parents and who wanted to be the son they wanted. However, I would suggest that what was good enough for R.Yannai is good enough for us – so let us look at another word that could be available to the midrashic technique of creating a homophone with a meaning that can alter our understanding of what is happening. ‘Vayishlach’, the name of the sidra, comes from the root שָׁלַח ‘to send’

One homophone, a letter different, is the root סָלַח ‘to pardon or to forgive’

When Jacob then is sending out messengers, maybe we could see that he is in the beginning of the process of searching out for forgiveness, something he clearly needs to do as he has achieved so much of the material possessions he has desired but has not yet matched this achievement with the facing of what he did that had brought him to Laban as a young and frightened boy, alone in the world after having betrayed his father and brother, effectively excluded from his father’s house and inheritance.

So what happens if we bring this word play back into the text? When Jacob wrestles with a man while all alone, while he recognises that the man is in some way both God and human, he is indeed wrestling with himself and his own inclinations. But what he is wrestling with is not so much his two natures but his desire for pardon and his desire not to have to ask for it, not to have to climb down from his arrogance and his power and admit his wrong doing. In Jungian terms, Jacob is fighting with his Shadow side, the darker side of his own self, the irrational and instinctive and unknown aspect of his personality where a perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else.

 

We all know the phrase that ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’. For some people it is so hard that they will do almost anything not to have to say it. They will pass on the blame to others, project their feelings so that they see the reconciler as the attacker, reconstruct their narratives of the past so that they will appear the blameless ones, or even the victims of others. They will blacken the name of someone else in preference to owning up to their own mistakes. They will put obstacles in the way of meeting and encountering the other, so as not to have to face up to the humanity and reality of the person whom they have wronged. They will see the ‘admission’ of an apology as something that makes them vulnerable, lose power, or lose their status and become in some way the loser. Saying sorry might mean taking some responsibility for a problem, diminish them in some way, give others the right to judge…

 

We see this everywhere, from individual human interactions to workplace politics to the way that nations in conflict will absolve themselves from the problem and blame it all on the other side. The midrash that claims that Esau bites Jacob rather than kisses him is a manifestation of it. So the idea that Jacob is wrestling in order to say ‘selicha: I am sorry, please forgive me’, is a nice counterpoint.

 

It takes him the whole night and he is physically damaged in the encounter, leaving it with a permanent limp to remind him of both the struggle and the outcome. He is also changed – he can become Israel, the one who struggles with God- while sometimes reverting to Jacob, the heel and the trickster. Saying sorry isn’t a one-time thing – we can find it hard to repeat the word, or to say it in the next situation we should be saying it having made another mistake.

 

And yet apologising when we are at fault is the beginning of redemption. It is about recognising the effect of our actions and taking responsibility for them in order to change our selves and out behaviours. It is at the root of the idea of teshuva, of return to God, of return to the right behaviour that we would want and expect from ourselves.

It is the moment we can turn from Jacob to Israel, the moment when we stop focussing on our pride in our possessions and begin focussing with empathy on others and their needs.

 

Saying sorry is the pivotal moment when we change, when we notice our negative impact and begin to heal it. It is a lifetime process, a skill we need to practise again and again, the moment when we stop being obsessed with our own power and status and rightness and look around us with empathy and compassion and try to care more about others than about ourselves.

When Jacob wrestles and the dawn breaks, he realises that his struggle has meant that his soul is preserved, the sun comes up, the dark night of the soul is over. How did he preserve his soul? He learned of the importance of recognising his own responsibility in what he had done, he said ‘selicha’ he made his peace with the part of him that didn’t want to admit to any flaw or vulnerability. He took his place in the world and limped out, damaged by the encounter but also blessed by it, into the future.

Vayeshev

Two different approaches to life can be found in this sidra – the first being when Joseph is seeking his brothers in Shechem, “And a man found him and he was wandering in a field, and the man asked him: ‘what are you looking for?'” (Gen 37:15). Had he not met this person and been told that his brothers had moved on to Dotan, he would have returned safely to his father and his life in Canaan would have continued uneventfully, though with continued sibling friction we assume. Having met him however, the train of Joseph’s life was inevitably altered, he went down to Egypt and so opened the way for the whole people of Israel to travel to Egypt and to settle there.

 Who was the man he met who so changed the course of Israelite history? Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Yitzchak (1040 -1105) suggests that this pivotal figure must have been important and suggests it is the Angel Gabriel. Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) is more pragmatic and suggests that this is truly an ordinary passer-by who just happened to be there with information at a critical moment. And Ramban (Moses ben Nachman 1194-1270) beautifully marries the two ideas by suggesting this is truly an ordinary human being, but acting as a messenger of God, a malach (the Hebrew word for messenger, also used for describing what we might call a divine messenger or angel).  So possibly this could be the divine plan in action, or it could be a coincidence with ramifications, but either way, Joseph is the passive recipient of the event – his life is radically transformed without any active intention of his own.

The second approach to life can be found in the actions of Tamar who, through no fault of her own, finds herself waiting for release from her status of childless widow.

 When it becomes clear that the family who can liberate her are choosing not to do so, she takes matters into her own hand. Never mind that she has to dress as a prostitute, nor that she has to waylay her own father in law in order to progress her cause. Never mind that she suffers the charge of adultery when her condition becomes known – Tamar chooses this path rather than find her life unfairly stopped by the refusal of others to do what is required. And she succeeds in her task, eventually acknowledged as a woman who has behaved with righteousness What can we learn from the two stories? – that sometimes our lives can be changed by random events, that we may have no power over what happens to us sometimes, but the outcome of these events IS still something we can exercise control over. Whether we choose to see the turning points at all, whether we choose to see them as entirely random or as part of a divine plan is up to us, but either way Joseph uses his talents to make a success of his life in Egypt having arrived there in very unpromising circumstances, and we too can turn discouraging experiences into better ones by using the various skills we each possess. And sometimes life is unfair and people are obstructive to what should rightly happen, and then we have to be more proactive ourselves, as Tamar risked everything to be.

 It so happens that Joseph is the precursor of the leader to be known as the Mashiach ben Yosef, while Tamar’s twins include Perez the ancestor of David and of the Mashiach ben David. (see Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 52a) Whatever these leaders known as ‘messiah’ may also be, they embody between them righteous behaviour and good leadership.  Rav Kook (1865-1935) described them as the universal and the particular leaders, Joseph took care of the physical needs of the people and spoke the languages of the world, whereas Judah was responsible for the special holiness of the Jewish people. We need both aspects – the universal and the particular, the making the best of what we have and the go-getting to make the best world we can – in order to fulfil our lives and make them the richest we can.