Prayer After Eric Garner
Joseph, Falling With Style

Alone and not alone: a brief d'var Torah on Vayishlach

9-karen-novak-jacobHere's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday morning at my shul for parashat Vayishlach. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

"Jacob was alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn."

Torah just told us that Jacob was levado, solitary, alone. And then Torah tells us that Jacob wrestles all night with an unnamed man, which in Torah usually means an angel. An angel, in Torah terms, isn't a creature with wings who plays the harp on a cloud. An angel is a shaliach, a messenger of the divine.

Jacob was alone -- except for that messenger of the divine, that representative of divine presence. God can't be seen or touched. Maybe that's why God sent that angel: because God knew that on the eve of meeting his brother again after so many years, on the eve of what could have been another fight or could have been a joyful reunion, Jacob needed something tangible.

"Jacob was alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn."

Even when Jacob feels at his most alone, he is never alone, because God is with him. Even when we feel at our most alone, we are never alone, because God is with us. When do you feel most alone: in the middle of the night? When you are grieving? When you lose sight of hope? When you hear terrible news? Camped by the riverside, Jacob must have felt alone in those ways... but he wasn't alone, and neither are we. We are loved by unending love, and that love is always with us.

At the end of the wrestle, Jacob says "I will not let you go until you bless me." In return the angel blesses him with a new name, Yisra-El, the One Who Wrestles With God. God is with us not only as a loving presence, but also sometimes as a wrestling partner. Sometimes we overflow with love and gratitude toward God. Sometimes we struggle with God. And that's okay too. Because in the struggle, there's always the possibility of a blessing, if we're able to open ourselves to receiving it.

"Jacob was alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn."

What do you struggle with most, right now -- and can you imagine finding God in that struggle? Maybe, in the wake of recent news about grand juries choosing not to indict police officers responsible for the deaths of unarmed Black men, it's a struggle for social justice, and the fear that the road to justice is too long and too difficult to tread. Can you find God in that struggle? Maybe it's a struggle with doubt, or with fear, or with illness -- personal circumstances, family circumstances, work circumstances. Can you find God in that struggle?

We are klal Yisrael, the inclusive-community-of-God-Wrestlers. As the Jewish people, the "children of Israel," we take our name from the name the angel gave Jacob on the banks of that river. We too can do what Jacob did: can take our struggles in hand and insist "I will not let you go until you bless me." Imagine saying that, right now, to the thing you struggle with most. What blessing would you receive? What blessing do you need to receive, to give you the strength and the courage and the hope that you need, so that the struggle can become not a grind but a joyous dance?


Image of Jacob wrestling the angel: by Karen Novak.