That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” –Genesis 32:23-29 (JPS Tanakh)
I wrote The Difference Between Night and Day as today’s “morning meditation” but I’m really dissatisfied with it. It’s too long, too unfocused, and just doesn’t say what I want it to say. In fact, I didn’t really know what I wanted to say until I started reading Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ book God Was Not in the Fire this morning. Then in finishing up the first chapter, I read this:
The Jewish tradition recognizes that to be a human being is to perpetually ask questions, to wonder without ever fully satisfying our wondering. Frustrating though many of our deepest and most personal questions are, we cannot put them aside, no matter how hard we try. Judaism teaches, in fact, that we ought to not even try. Jewish tradition suggests that to be human is to wonder and to ask, to dream and to cry. To be human means resigning ourselves to the inevitability of not completely understanding the world in which we live, but at the same time committing ourselves to persisting in trying. Judaism does not demand that we have the answers; instead, it validates our struggles and encourages us never to give up.
Rabbi Gordis is defining not only Judaism but admittedly, humanity. Ironically, this isn’t how I experience Christianity. Christianity is the arrival at the answer that Jesus Christ ends all of our struggles of faith. In becoming “saved”, we are supposed to lay our burden down at the base of the cross and let Jesus pick it up for us. There is no weight upon our shoulders (supposedly) as believers and the church is the answer to everything.
I’ve never found that particularly satisfying. The church might say the reason Rabbi Gordis defines Judaism as he does is because Jews are without Jesus and without Jesus, they will always be missing something. However, I believe that even with faith in Christ, the church engages in a type of denial of experience and pretends that struggles of faith never happen to the “true believer”. If a Christian ever is tempted to “wrestle with God”, it is because our faith is weak and we have not taken our sorrows to the cross and “bathed them in prayer”.
And yet my entire existence as a person of faith is completely captured by Rabbi Gordis’ description, as the proverbial fly in amber (and this isn’t the first time I’ve used Jacob’s wrestling match to illustrate my thoughts). He continues:
Rather, being a Jew is about struggling to understand our place in the world, working to become more fulfilled human beings, and recognizing throughout that the process may be more important than the final product.
I suppose another way of saying that is the old traveling adage, “getting there is half the fun.” Actually, it’s like getting there is the whole point. Arriving will take care of itself. Even Paul, near the end of his life, said:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. –1 Timothy 4:6-7
He goes on to speak of the “crown of righteousness” that is awaiting him, but the whole point of his life wasn’t the final reward, but the race he ran against history and religion to carve an indelible notch in the substance of time that would allow the commandment of the Master to make the nations into disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) to be fulfilled. Although Paul’s struggle ended in Rome and he is now at peace, he paved the way for the endless struggles of countless generations of the peoples of the world to become reconciled to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses.
Anyone who has an encounter with God in any fashion carries on that struggle today as we wrestle with God to try and understand who we are, why we are the way we are, and what we can do about it. The minute you arrive at a final conclusion and say, “this is it” and put down the burden, you have lost something. Sure, you may have established your relationship with God through Jesus Christ, go to church on Sunday, and celebrate Christmas and Easter, but you more than likely have a stale and lifeless existence. It’s like getting married, settling down into a pattern of life, and then completely ignoring your spouse, except for the niceities of asking for the salt across the dinner table or what movie you should see together on Saturday night.
If Christianity could more fit the description of Judaism offered by Rabbi Gordis, would that constitute “revival?” Rabbi Gordis in his book, attempts to re-energize “spiritual Judaism” but I read it as re-energizing “spiritual humanity”.
We are all struggling to find God and for those of us who believe we have had that encounter, we must never stop struggling. It’s the “wrestling match” that defines us, not who happened to win the match on any given day.