Wrestling God to a Draw

This is a d’var Torah (a brief interpretation, literally a word on the Torah) I gave at Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta on December 13th, 2019. As the relevant Torah portion is coming up again this week, I’m posting it now.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Eugene Delacroix, 1861

We read: Vay’taver Yaakov l’vado—and Jacob was left alone; vaya’avek ish imo, and a man wrestled with him, ad alot hashachar—until the dawn.

The ish grappled with him, grabbing the hollow of his thigh—which the Midrash says means his descendants. The Midrash also calls the ish a sar, a protecting angel sent by God. The Angel begs release, but Ya’akov says, Lo ashalaychachah, ki im berachtani—I will not let you go unless you bless me. What blessing?—a name change: Ya’akov will now be called Yisra-el—ki sarita im Elokim v’im anashim, vatuchal—because you struggled with God and with men, and you prevailed.

His grandfather had a verbal wrestling match with God. What if there are 50 good people in Sodom and Gomorah? What if there are 45, surely you won’t destroy them for a difference of 5? And so on from 45 down and down to 10, Avraham apologizing but insisting every step of the way.

Now, God knows how this will turn out, right? So it’s not for God’s edification; it must be a lesson for Avraham: Yes, you can question God; you should question God.

When God says to Noach, I think I’ll destroy the world by flood, go ­­­build an ark. Noach by his silence says, How big?

For Avraham, the first Jew, it’s, You want to destroy two whole towns? That’s not like You!

A tradition begins. His grandson Ya’akov wrestles an angel to a draw, and pays a price, but gets a blessing.

Moses at first comes back from Pharoah and tells God, You have only made things worse, You have done nothing for this people! And God replies, Now you will see what I will do to Pharoah!

It’s almost as if God was waiting for Moses to get angry.

Jeremiah says: You will prevail, O Lord, if I bring charges against you. yet I will speak judgments. Why does the way of the wicked prosper?

Psalm 44 asks, Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awaken, do not reject us forever!

And Lamentations laments, You have not forgiven. You have clothed Yourself in anger and pursued us, You have slain without pity. You have screened yourself off with a cloud, that no prayer may pass through.

Christianity does not encourage questioning God. Yet on the cross, Jesus asks, Eli Eli lamah sabachthani?—the only thing he says in his mother-tongue: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Even Jesus, knowing all he knows, has a Jewish side that questions God.

A medieval Hebrew poem, “The Poet’s Commandments to God” has 22 lines, & every one begins like commandments 6 to 10: Lo Tirtzakh, Lo Tinaf, & so on:

Thou shalt not despise the wretch who begs for mercy.

Thou shalt not scorn the lowly poor before Thee…

Thou shalt not rage at thy people for generations.

Thou shalt not forsake them, for their suffering is great…

Thou shalt not recoil from me, my Rock, my God, my refuge…

It goes on and on, and you can feel the love in the complaints.

One last story. Chasidic master Rav Levi Yitzhak asked Yankel the Tailor to speak to God from the bima on Yom Kippur. Yankel spoke: “I am a poor tailor who has not been too honest. I have occasionally kept leftover scraps of cloth, and I have missed Mincha. But You, O Lord, have taken away babies from their mothers, and mothers from their babies. On this Day of Days, let’s be quits. If you forgive me, I will forgive you.” The rebbe sighed, “Oh Yankel, Yankel! Why did you let God off so lightly?”

Even in accusations, the love of God persists; Jews cannot seem to let God go.

Yaakov after all was in a wrestling match, and it ended in a grip that was also an embrace. He would not let the Angel go without being blessed.

And so with anyone who is Jewish, by birth or by choice: Jews are destined to strive with God in an embrace, because Jews are the people who were blessed with the name Yisra-El.

Balak and Balaam in India

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, has new meaning for me since our recent trip to India. We visited two synagogues in Kochi (Cochin) that are not currently active and two in Mumbai (Bombay) that still are, and these visits were deeply moving. But it was a museum visit in Kochi that made me see this week’s parshah in a different way.

We followed a guide through the Hill Palace, the royal seat of the kings of Kochi for centuries. The Palace crowns a hill with a long wide terraced flight of steps through exquisite gardens. The museum within has scores of valuable artifacts, but my attention was arrested in a semi-darkened room by what turned out to be a six century old Torah scroll.

The parchment too was darkened, and there were only four columns visible, Continue reading

The Life of Isaac

Another D’var Torah I delivered Friday evening at Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta. It touches on the Torah portions Vayera, Chayei Sarah, and Toledot.

To understand Isaac, we have to go back to the beginning, when his mother Sarah laughed at the idea that she could have him—before her pregnancy. She’s too old. She thinks it’s funny. God says, Why did you laugh? I can do it. She lies to God: I didn’t laugh. God says, No; you did laugh.

Then after his birth and bris, she says, “God brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Kol hasomeya yitzchak li. So that’s his name: Yitzchak. You could say that he was conceived in a kind of doubt of God’s power, followed by a silly lie to God. But he was born in joy. How happy she must have been, after a lifetime of wanting to be a mother. How glad to have been proven wrong. How much she must have loved him.

So he grew up with a name that meant something between a joke and a joy.

Fast forward to the Akedah. Dad says, Let’s go up the mountain and make a sacrifice. Isaac says, Okay, where’s the sheep? Dad says, God will provide. Okay, now he’s tying me up. Now he’s holding a knife over me. I think I’m supposed to just lie here quietly.

Isaac lives. But some rabbis think Abraham failed that test. Continue reading