Tag Archives: Jacob

Vayishlach: The Good Fight

wrestlingIn this week’s parsha, our father Yaakov, fresh from his successful escape from Lavan, prepares to encounter his brother and sworn enemy, Eisav. He sends malachim to deal with Eisav before he will actually meet with him face to face. The word malachim signifies two different meanings. One is that it means agents, messengers, human beings who were sent on a particular mission to do Yaakov’s bidding. The other meaning is that the world malachim signifies angels, supernatural messengers of God who were sent to Yaakov to help him in his fateful encounter with his brother.

Rashi cites both possible interpretations in his commentary. When Rashi does so, he is teaching us that both interpretations are correct at differing levels of understanding the verse involved.

-Rabbi Berel Wein
“Human Effort and Supernatural Help”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayishlach
Torah.org

A plain reading of the text suggests (at least to me) that Jacob sent human beings as messengers to his brother Esau rather than supernatural angels. It makes the most sense given the context. However, there is another encounter Jacob has with the supernatural that bears scrutiny.

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.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip. That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.

Genesis 32:25-33 (JPS Tanakh)

A man comes out of nowhere in the middle of the night, encounters Jacob and starts wrestling with him. Amazingly, both fighters have the strength and stamina to sustain their combat for many hours until dawn nears. The intruder then pleads with Jacob to release him because the sun is coming up, but rather than demanding who the person is and why he attacked him, Jacob asks his fellow combatant to bless him.

At least from this translation, we only learn that the “person” who attacked Jacob was supernatural when we arrive at verse 31:

So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”

It is commonly believed that Jacob wrestled with an angel of God, but some believe is was some form of incarnate God Himself, while others believe it may have been a “pre-incarnate Jesus.”

Who knows?

But from Rabbi Wein’s commentary, we can assume, at least on the surface, that the mysterious fellow could either have been human or an angel.

Who was Jacob wrestling with? If it was an angel, why couldn’t the angel defeat a mere moral? When the attacker couldn’t defeat Jacob, why did he injure Jacob’s hip? Why did the “angel” attack Jacob in the first place?

Our problem is that if Jacob is truly alone, who can be wrestling with him? One possible answer is — no one! Jacob is actually wrestling with himself. This would explain the ambiguity in the passage. However, by solving the textual problem (if indeed we are correct), we have raised an even greater problem: Why would a sane man wrestle with himself? A careful reading of the text may give us some insight.

The “man” is referred to in Hebrew as an ish. And we find another verse — a great deal less enigmatic — in which it is apparent that the ish is clearly Jacob.

-Rabbi Ari Kahn
“Vayishlach: The Struggle of Jacob”
from M’oray Ha’Aish: Advanced-level Commentaries on the Weekly Parasha
Aish.com

OK, you’re probably not buying that, but I think the interpretation has merit, even as a metaphor. However, this isn’t the only way to look at this encounter:

Who is this man with whom Jacob wrestled? According to the Sages, he is the “angel of Esau,” and their struggle, which “raised dust up to the Supernal Throne,” is the cosmic struggle between two nations and two worlds — the spirituality of Israel and the materiality of Edom (Rome). The night through which they wrestled is the long and dark galut (“exile”), in the course of which Jacob’s descendants suffer bodily harm and spiritual anguish, but emerge victorious.

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“Wrestling with Angels”
Chabad.org

shoahSo, in this interpretation, the guardian angel of Esau attacks Jacob but is unable to defeat him, presumably because of the blessings of God that rest upon Jacob but not Esau.

I suppose it makes more sense, especially when considering that Jacob realized he had been wrestling with a divine being. This operates as another metaphor and even on a prophetic level. The descendants of Jacob will be attacked by the descendants of Esau and although the Children of Israel, the Jewish people, will be injured, sometimes terribly, and carry the marks of their injury forward through history, they will ultimately prevail.

But let’s get back to the immediate situation Jacob was facing:

The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps

Genesis 32:7-8 (JPS Tanakh)

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.

-Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)

Fictional heroes may face danger and death without fear, but real men and women are afraid all the time. Jacob had a lot of good reasons to be afraid. In fact, fear was one of his primary motivations for leaving his home in Canaan and seeking refuge, such as it was, in the home of his kinsman Laban.

For twenty years, Jacob labored under extremely difficult conditions, married, raised a family, went from being in poverty to becoming very wealthy. He, his family, his servants, and his livestock had all just survived the pursuit and threat of destruction represented by Laban, but now Jacob must face his oldest foe and his greatest adversary: his brother Esau.

Jacob's-Ladder1Jacob had done everything he could think of, everything humanly possible to appease Esau and to create a circumstance between them that wouldn’t immediately result in armed conflict when they finally met, but Jacob had a bigger enemy than Esau: this own fear and perhaps even guilt.

No matter which way you look at it, Jacob not only removed Esau’s birthright and blessing from him, on both occasions, he had done so by guile and trickery, even to the point of deceiving his own father Isaac. Such a thing for the grandson of the sage and tzaddik Abraham to do. One dream about angels at his exit from Canaan, and he’s gone.

What results from Jacob’s fight with the stranger in the dark?

  • Jacob is permanently disabled, walking with a limp for the rest of his days.
  • Jacob is blessed with the name “Israel” because he combatted with the divine and was victorious.
  • Jacob not only survived the encounter with Esau, but was welcomed by his brother back into Canaan.

And [Esau] said, “Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.” But he said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”

Then Esau said, “Let me assign to you some of the men who are with me.” But he said, “Oh no, my lord is too kind to me!” So Esau started back that day on his way to Seir. But Jacob journeyed on to Succoth, and built a house for himself and made stalls for his cattle; that is why the place was called Succoth.

Genesis 33:12-17 (JPS Tanakh)

Alright, Jacob also didn’t trust his brother Esau as far as he could throw him, so he lied. Instead of following Esau at a slower pace, he detoured to Succoth, avoiding any future meeting with his brother.

All night long, Jacob struggles with his success. His spiritual self and his physical self collide as he tries to determine his true identity. But Jacob is unable to resolve this conflict.

In the resolution that is finally achieved, the physical realm is forced to yield. Laws, like that of the hip tendon, Gid HaNashe, will create spiritual boundaries within physical experience, making possible the elevation of the physical world to a spiritual plane.

-Rabbi Ari Kahn

Rabbi Kahn sees the struggle as the conflict between the physical and spiritual forces within Jacob. Would he join with his brother Esau and combine wealth, denying his spiritual destiny as the inheritor of Abraham and Isaac, or would he defeat his baser self, and become the true father of Israel?

Kahn says the outcome is obvious and reflected in Jacob’s refusal to accompany Esau and rather, to pursue a higher destiny.

Rabbi Tauber sees the victory a little bit differently:

It is a long and difficult struggle till dawn. But in the end we triumph over men and prevail over the divine as well. For this is the essence of Israel.

Rabbi Tauber sees Jacob defeating both the forces of evil that Esau’s angel represents and the divine itself, illustrating that it will always be Israel’s destiny to contend, even with God. This may sound like a bad thing, but it has merits.

A relationship with God always involves struggle. The worst thing a person of faith can do, even worse than becoming an apostate, is to take faith for granted and become apathetic.

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.

Revelation 3:15-18 (NASB)

coastSometimes it takes a crisis to shake us out of apathy. Like the church at Laodicea, Jacob had become rich. He was in danger of taking God’s blessings for granted. The angel of Jacob delivered the same message as the angel to the church in Laodicea (although the message of the Master may have been delivered by a human messenger rather than an angelic being). Do not be lukewarm. It would be better if you were cold than lukewarm. Do not let your material wealth fool you. You are miserable, poor, blind, and naked. Only through God can you be rich with true riches.

So what was the ultimate achievement attained by Israel’s struggle with God?

God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him, “You whose name is Jacob, you shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.”

Thus He named him Israel.

And God said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Be fertile and increase; a nation, yea an assembly of nations, shall descend from you. Kings shall issue from your loins. The land that I assigned to Abraham and Isaac I assign to you; and to your offspring to come will I assign the land.”

Genesis 35:9-12 (JPS Tanakh)

It may seem disrespectful and even dangerous to struggle against or contend with God, but remember, in the example we have with Jacob, God started it. Jacob was alone in the dark. He was afraid. He was uncertain. He did everything humanly possible to deal with his fears and to protect his family, but he didn’t know what was going to happen.

God knew all of this and challenged Jacob. It doesn’t look like Jacob had much of a choice. He could either fight off his attacker or surrender. Jacob chose to fight. He couldn’t afford to be “lukewarm” in this situation. He fought back and he won, not because he literally defeated God, but he defeated the challenge God set before him, the one Jacob had to defeat in order to overcome his fears; in order to become Israel, father of a nation, patriarch of an empire.

poured_outMost of us aren’t going to be the father or mother of a nation, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges we must overcome in order to advance God’s plan and to grow spiritually. We can take from Jacob’s example that our challenges aren’t always easy. We can also see that God doesn’t always step in and overwhelm our challenges for us and in fact, sometimes He is the challenge, and we must contend against Him.

Even when we don’t escape such struggles unscathed, in the end, if we persevere, the injuries are worth the blessing.

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.

2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NASB)

Good Shabbos.

A Line as the Unending Horizon

horizon-at-nightWe live as exiles. We’re called to be pilgrims.

As he sent Adam and Eve into exile, God promised redemption and offered protection. But toil, pain, relational struggle, sin and death went with them as well, marking them and their descendants as refugees from Eden. Consider the ways in which your everyday life is not at all like the perfect paradise of that Garden. Take a few moments to list the markers of your existence as an exile by naming the broken things in your world, the brokenness in you.

The sorrow or anger that you may have felt as you named those broken things? The sinking recognition that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be?

Those are marks of the exile experience, but they also contain a clue, a compass of sorts. Deep in our DNA, beyond rational thought or extravagant imagination, is a longing for home. Adam and Eve had it or it wouldn’t have taken sword and cherubim to protect Eden. We have it, too. This longing contains our invitation into the new identity and life direction God longs to give to his beloved exiles. This longing is designed to transform us into pilgrims.

Which word resonates with your life experience more: exile or pilgrim? Why do you say so?

-Michelle Van Loon
“Pilgrim’s Road Trip #1”
MichelleVanLoon.com

Since becoming aware of the reality of God, my existence has been one of searching, traveling on a journey, walking along a path, striving toward a destination…God doesn’t promise that we’ll always be well or even safe, just that regardless of what happens to us, he will be with us, as he was with Jacob when Jacob and his family descended into Egypt. Sometimes we’re slaves. And we wait until God lifts us up again. Even if he doesn’t, blessed be the name of the Lord. I’m still walking as a pilgrim on the trail.

my (edited) response

I’ve admitted before feeling abandoned by God, an exile in the desert, but I suppose in reality, I was the one pushing God away and not the opposite. Frankly, encountering God is scary and there have been long periods of time when I thought I’d rather not hear from Him. Ultimately though, once a person has become aware of God’s presence, avoiding such encounters is impossible. God has ways to get our…my attention and He calls us…me out of exile and into relationship.

O God before Whom my forefathers Abraham and Isaac walked – God Who shepherds me from my inception until this day…

Genesis 48:15 (Stone Edition Chumash)

Although Jacob suffered greatly over his lifetime, and before Pharaoh, King of Egypt, Jacob said of his life that “few and bad have been the days of the years of my life,” (Genesis 47:9) yet he calls God his “shepherd” who has guided the steps of Jacob “from my inception until this day.”

We Christians have a shepherd, the same shepherd actually, though we access God through the “good shepherd” who once walked among men and who will walk among us again.

I am the good shepherd, and I know what is mine, and I am known to those who are mine, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father and I give my life for the flock. I have other flocks that are not from this sheepfold, and I must lead them as well. They will hear my voice, and there will be one herd and one shepherd.

John 10:14-16 (DHE Gospels)

While Jesus admittedly came for the “lost sheep of Israel,” (Matthew 15:24), the “good shepherd” verses are widely believed to express his desire to also bring in the people from the nations, that is non-Jews, into his “flock,” though this wouldn’t begin to occur until some years after his death, resurrection, and ascension. While Israel has many covenants with God that establish their relationship with Him, it is only through Israel’s first-born son, the Moshiach, the “Notzri,” Jesus that we who are from outside Israel have been brought near to Israel and to God.

I don’t mean to imply that there are two roads to salvation, one for the Jewish pilgrim and one for the Gentile, and in fact, as he was dying, Jacob explained everything to his sons about the centrality of Messiah, and because of the Torah, we hear his voice, too.

The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a scholar from among his descendants until Shiloh arrives and his will be an assemblage of nations.

Genesis 49:10 (Stone Edition Chumash)

Perhaps a slightly different translation will be more illuminating.

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the lawgiver from his descendants, until the Moshiach comes . . .

king-davidThese words are widely believed in Judaism to be the primary source indicating that the Messiah will come to restore justice and that even the nations will pay homage to him with gifts. As the midrash states:

…the word Shiloh is a composite of the words “a gift to him” (in Hebrew), a reference to the King Messiah, to whom all nations will bring gifts. This verse is the primary Torah source for the belief that the Messiah will come, and the rabbis always referred to it in the Middle Ages…

…the sense of the verse is that once Messiah begins to reign, Judah’s blessing of kingship will become fully realized and go to an even higher plateau (Sh’lah). At that time, all the nations will assemble to acknowledge his greatness and pay homage to him.

This is quite similar to how Christians believe that Jesus will return and establish his Sovereign rule over all the earth. Remarkable how none of this paints a portrait of the faithful in exile but rather a people who are following a King.

They led the boat to the land, and they left everything and followed him.

Luke 5:11 (DHE Gospels)

Our existence is one of searching, traveling on a journey, walking along a path, striving toward a destination. Although most of us don’t literally leave everything behind, home, family, job, to follow him, when we commit our lives to pursuing holiness by walking in the footsteps our Master left in the dust, who we are and how we live are never the same again. Our every sin is illuminated by a stark, white light, our imperfections are covered in dripping scarlet, we are always aware of our faults and our shortcomings, and maybe it is out of that awareness we sometimes feel exiled from God’s presence, for how can the pure and the impure co-exist?

But through repentance, we are offered a way out of the darkness, through teshuvah we are once more made clean. God offers us a path that we may journey from the mundane to the magnificent. Each day we have the opportunity to travel with a companion. He is only far off when we push him away, and he draws near the instant we call with sincerity.

…but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Proverbs 18:24 (ESV)

…the LORD is near to all who call upon Him; to all who call upon Him with sincerity.

Psalm 145:18 (from the siddur; weekday morning and afternoon prayers)

Although many times when we desire God the most, we don’t get a sense of His presence. But putting the limitations of our perceptions aside, God is as near to us or as far from us as we want Him to be. If what we want most in our lives is God, He is there. If we have other more pressing priorities, God will stand aside. If we are in exile, it is one of our own making. God has already made the path for us to be with Him. All we have to do is decide to walk on it.

Vayishlah: Crossing the River

crossing-the-riverMany people are discouraged from even beginning a spiritual journey because they think it needs that huge leap of faith. They cannot see themselves reaching a degree of religious commitment which to them seems otherworldly.

-Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“A Ladder to Heaven”

Worshipping G-d in a foreign land is apparently very difficult. “Whoever lives outside the land it is as if they are worshipping idols” (Ketuvot 110b).

-Rabbi Jay Kelman
“Vayeze: Searching for G-d”
both articles found at
Hasidic Waves blogspot

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.

Genesis 32:23-25 (JPS Tanakh)

I actually hadn’t planned to write a commentary on this week’s Torah Portion Vayishlah but apparently my intentions don’t always dictate what I end up doing. Actually, the first two commentaries I quoted above are more related to the previous week’s Torah reading where Jacob leaves Canaan to escape his brother Esau and becomes an indentured servant to Laban, all for the sake of winning Rachel for a wife.

But if worshiping God in an alien land is like worshiping idols, what is it like to forsake that foreign land and return to the Land of Promise; the Land God was to give to the descendants of Jacob generations hence?

What is it like to return to community with God’s people in the church?

It ain’t easy.

No, it’s not like I’ve been “worshiping idols” in a “foreign land,” but we all cross thresholds and transverse boundaries.

“For you have wrestled with G-d and man, and have prevailed.”

Genesis 32:29

In ancient Near Eastern understanding, the crossing of a river was a symbol of new beginnings and a new start – a sort of rebirth. That is why there is a purposeful connection with the name of the river (Yabok) and the word vaye’avek – to wrestle/struggle. It was here, at the river of a new beginning in Jacob’s life that he also received a new name – and a new identity – Israel.

-Rabbi Joshua Brumbach
“Wrestling with the Divine”
Yinon Blog

I suppose moving an unmovable rock could be considered a “new beginning” but in reality, it’s just one step in a process. Sort of like how Rabbi Goldman describes it:

There is a ladder, a spiritual route clearly mapped out for us; a route that needs to be traversed step-by-step, one rung at a time. The pathway to Heaven is gradual, methodical and eminently manageable.

Many people are discouraged from even beginning a spiritual journey because they think it needs that huge leap of faith. They cannot see themselves reaching a degree of religious commitment which to them seems otherworldly. And yet, with the gradual step-by-step approach, one finds that the journey can be embarked upon and that the destination aspired to is actually not in outer space.

One way some Jewish sages look at Jacob’s Ladder is as the process of prayer. I’ve also mentioned prayer recently, and all of this seems to fit together. Learning to pray is a process but it is also part of a larger process of learning to draw closer to God. A relationship with God, in some ways, is like any other relationship in that its development is not linear. There are closer times and farther apart times. There are sudden rushes of heat and long periods of icy cold. Then there is just tons and tons of lukewarm.

Jacob's-Ladder1Jacob was terrified of the changes he would have to undergo and for good reason, both in leaving Canaan and in returning. In each case, he was facing the unknown. He left Canaan with nothing, and returned with a fortune and a family. Then, he had a personal encounter with God and did not escape it unscathed. As Derek Leman said recently, “The unthinkable can happen. The faith of God’s people will not prevent hard times.” Just because you’re doing God’s will or believe you are, doesn’t mean bad stuff isn’t going to happen.

Where did we get the idea that a life of holiness was also a life of safety?

And yet a life of faith isn’t always immediately fatal, either. Jacob lived to a good old age and died in comfort after blessing his sons, though he died in an alien land, so perhaps worshiping God there was as “dimmed” for him in Egypt as it was in Haran (although God did promise He would go down into Egypt with Jacob – Gen. 46:1-4).

In returning to church, some might say I have returned to the “Holy Land” and others would say I was “worshiping idols.” I suppose both opinions are extreme and reality is somewhere in the middle. But in the middle (and everywhere else), there is God.

Do not forsake me. I am crossing a river. I am wrestling with I don’t know what. I am carrying that which belongs to me. I can’t see what is up ahead.

What do you think is a rabbi’s fantasy? A guy walking into my office and saying, “Rabbi, I want to become ‘frum’ (fully observant), now tell me what I must do”?

Is that what I lie awake dreaming of? And if it did happen, do you think I would throw the book at him and insist he did every single mitzvah from that moment on? Never!

Why not? Because a commitment like that is usually here today and gone tomorrow. Like the popular saying goes, “Easy come, easy go.” I’m afraid I haven’t had such wonderful experiences with the “instant Jew” types.

The correct and most successful method of achieving our Jewish objectives is the slow and steady approach. Gradual, yet consistent. As soon as one has become comfortable with one mitzvah, it is time to start on the next, and so on and so forth.

Then, through constant growth, slowly but surely we become more knowledgeable, committed, fulfilled and happy in our faith.

-Rabbi Goldman

yeshiva1While this commentary is directed as Jews, with just a few adjustments, it can fit the rest of us as well. In pursuing any endeavor, there’s a desire to jump from “A” to “Z” as quickly as possible, but even if it can be done, this quick hop, skip, and jump method might not be the best. Getting there too quickly doesn’t allow us to experience what we need to learn along the way by taking each step slowly and deliberately. Of course, there’s also a matter of direction as Rabbi Goldman tells us.

When my father was in yeshiva, his teacher once asked the following question: “If two people are on a ladder, one at the top and one on the bottom, who is higher?” The class thought it was a pretty dumb question — until the wise teacher explained that they were not really capable of judging who was higher or lower until they first ascertained in which direction each was headed.

If the fellow on top was going down, but the guy on the bottom was going up, then conceptually, the one on the bottom was actually higher.

And so my friends, it doesn’t really matter what your starting point is or where you are at on the ladder of religious life. As long as you are moving in the right direction, as long as you are going up, you will, please G-d, succeed in climbing the heavenly heights.

Like Jacob’s ladder, it is not only important to make sure that we carefully place our hands and feet upon every rung, but that we verify we are traveling in the direction that will lead us higher. Like “Jacob’s river,” we must know when in our “new beginning,” we are leaving God’s desired place for us, and when we’re returning, for God sometimes sends us in either direction. How much we have, what we’ve accomplished, and what hardships we must endure after the crossing won’t always tell us where we are and where we’re going. We can only know by keeping our eye on the path…and the goal.

Struggling to Pray

On today’s amud we find that one should have intense kavanah when saying uva l’tzion. The gemara tells us that since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, the world rests upon the careful recital of this kedushah. Unfortunately, many people fail to maintain proper focus during prayer in general.

One day in the beis medrash, as the prayers were drawing to a close, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev zt”l seemed to be observing a group of his chasidim. While everyone was busy wrapping up their talleisim and tefillin, he made his way over to them. To their surprise, he approached them with a hearty greeting. “Shalom aleichem!” he thundered.

They looked somewhat puzzled to hear their rebbe offer the greeting traditionally given only after returning from a journey of at least three day’s duration. “But Rebbe,” they protested, “we haven’t been anywhere! We’ve been here in Berditchev all along!”

Rav Levi Yitzchak continued to make the rounds, shaking their hands vigorously, as if they were newly-arrived travelers, all smiles.

Suddenly, he turned serious and said, “From the way you were praying, it was clear that your minds were elsewhere! So, welcome back from Odessa, welcome home from the market in Lodz! Since none of you were actually here while you prayed, I was glad to welcome you back upon your return!”

Mishnah Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“Shalom Aleichem!”
Siman 132 Seif 1

Ouch. That’s embarrassing. I suppose God always notices when during prayer, our minds wander, but if we’re so obvious about it that someone watching us knows as well, then where is our kavanah; our intention? OK, I’ll admit it. During lengthy sessions of prayer (and some not so lengthy), it’s hard to keep focused on God or at least on honoring God in the manner He desires (not that anyone is perfect at this). Often, my mind drifts into a sort of monologue as if I were “talking” to God rather than entering into formal prayer in the presence of the King. I catch myself and try to redirect my thoughts but after another small bit of time passes, my mind starts to wander again. I suppose that’s one reason why praying with a siddur is an advantage. The prayer-book acts as a compass and a guide, directing prayer to where it is supposed to be traveling.

I know Christians tend to criticize the use of liturgical prayer as “lifeless” and “rote”, but I’ve just described the dangers in both liturgical and extemporaneous prayer. In either situation, we must strive to stay within the light and to pray with intention and dedication. Letting yourself “wander” in prayer is as if you are talking to your spouse about an important topic and little by little, you begin rambling about whatever thoughts happen to enter your head at the moment. Imagine what would happen if God were talking to us about something important (and when He “speaks”, it’s always important) and our minds started to wander, recalling the events of the day or planning out our tomorrow.

So how should we pray?

Luke 11:1 records such a request from Christ’s disciples.

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

In contrast, Matthew 6:1-4 gives us a teaching of the Master on prayer and without any intervention from the disciples, Jesus launches into instructing them (and us) how to pray (Matthew 6:5-15).

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

In either case, Jesus is providing the disciples with something they apparently lacked: a template for how to pray to God. I can only conclude (this is just my opinion) that human beings need some sort of “form” to prayer to keep us focused. Adding on to that concept, we must make sure not to allow the form to take on a life of its own and become our intension. It’s a structure or a framework to help us from wandering, but it can, if we let it, substitute for our intension in prayer, as we see in Rav Levi Yitzchak’s criticism to his Chasidim.

However, according to Rabbi Moss at be-true.org, perhaps our difficulties in prayer are exactly what’s supposed to be happening.

Prayer can be a confronting experience. And that is exactly what it is supposed to be. Prayer is an inner battle waged between two distinct sides of your personality. Your spiritual self and your physical self, your body and your soul, are each vying for control over your mind. And it is not a quiet confrontation.

In yesterday’s meditation, I wrote:

We see that happening all of the time, even within the context of the Talmud itself. Judaism isn’t always about “getting it right” but rather, it’s sometimes about struggling with the Torah, other Jews, and God.

I was talking about the struggle in understanding God from the perspective of study, but here we see this struggle can be applied to prayer as well. Although we have the famous example of Jacob wrestling with the Angel (Genesis 32:22-32) as an illustration of how Jews in general struggle in their relationship with God, I think this can apply to anyone who encounters God through faith. As much as we may not want to admit it, we do struggle with God in a “wrestling match” that pits our humanity against our holiness, as Jacob was perhaps pitted between those two aspects of his existence (and I commented on this about a month ago when studying Torah Portion Vayishlah).

According to Rabbi Moss, the more difficult the struggle in prayer, the more effective our prayer actually is.

On the contrary, the more intense the distractions, the more effective the prayer must be. Your soul is being fed, and your body is getting nervous. Don’t give the body the attention it seeks. Rather gently tell it that now is not the time. You are feeding your soul, and there will be plenty of time to feed the body later.

Is there a dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual? This is a common theme in Christianity but it’s not always presented as such in Judaism. A person who is very advanced spiritually should experience virtually no dissonance between his day-to-day life in the world and his life with God. Most of us aren’t that advanced, and so, like Jacob, we “struggle with the Angel”, so to speak, but without a clear-cut winner in the contest. Jacob “won” not because he was so strong as to literally, physically defeat a supernatural being in hand-to-hand combat, but because he was (this is interpretation and midrash) able to defeat his yetzer hara or “evil inclination.” Holiness won and as a result, Jacob became the father of Israel; a man bridging heaven and earth (Genesis 28:10-19) as evidenced, not only by his dream, but by his dual names of Jacob and Israel.

Every time we pray, we build a bridge between heaven and earth and we struggle to keep it stable enough to maintain the connection between us and God. Sometimes building that bridge is like trying to construct a span made of bamboo across a mile wide canyon during a typhoon. Other times, we seem to be able to create the Golden Gate Bridge out of solid steel on a calm day in late spring. Most of the time, for me, my “bridge building” experience is somewhere in-between.

As with all other aspects of our faith, the struggle itself is not the failure. That we have difficulty concentrating and keeping our mind on Him is not the problem. Only surrendering and ceasing our prayers is the failure. If, like Jacob, we continue to struggle against impossible odds, we too will see our dawn…and receive a blessing.

Splinters in the Soul

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.

Walking Together to the House of Prayer

Walking TogetherUnfortunately, intolerance among Jews can be found in all directions. Shortly after Kristallnacht, a Reform synagogue in Rhode Island conducted a special service to which they invited recent Jewish refugees from Europe. Many of those refugees came to the service wearing hats or kippot, which at the time was against Reform practices. A prominent member of the congregation demanded that everyone remove their head coverings. Although the rabbi of the congregation was extremely upset by the man’s behavior, he felt too intimidated to do anything.

Similarly, there are some Orthodox Jews who too easily brand their less observant coreligionists as “heretics” or “non-believers.” Yet, prominent sages such as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the Chazon Ish have ruled that we live in a time of God’s concealment and therefore cannot apply the religious laws concerning heresy to modern-day Jews who question their faith. Furthermore, it is wrong to harm those who deny even Judaism’s most basic beliefs. Not only should we not hurt such people, we should help them if the situation ever presents itself.

from the Lev Echad blog
“E Pluribus Unum”

While blogger Asher aptly illustrates how different groups of Jews can be less than generous toward each other, this isn’t exclusively a Jewish issue. Certainly different groups in humanity have distrusted and harmed each other throughout history, and this can also be seen in various faith groups, including Christianity. The difference here is that, as I mentioned the other day, being Jewish isn’t just a matter of holding to a collection of beliefs or a certain faith. Jews are tied to each other and connected to God in a way no other people group can claim. Any Christian can renounce his or her faith, but a Jew is always a Jew.

I suppose it’s rather tragic for me to say that “any Christian can renounce his or her faith”. It makes it sound as if our commitment to Christ is too easily ignored or broken, and we see this sometimes. We also see, as Asher points out in Judaism, that the different denominations or groups of Christians cling to their own specific religious views and can take shots at each other, believing that if you don’t believe, say, and do as they believe, say, and do, you are not really a Christian and you are not really saved.

Christianity can be very “tunnel-visioned” in its approach to God and the Bible, especially for those groups that have a very literal understanding of what the Bible says (in English, ignoring the original languages and contexts involved). How Asher ended his blog article suggests another way that we Christians can look at each other, at Jews, and at the rest of humanity:

It takes a considerable amount of humility and tolerance to refrain from forcing our beliefs upon others, but that’s exactly what we should strive for. To do so, objective ethical standards must be upheld, while the more subjective areas of life can be left to the individual. It’s ironic that people tend to focus so much on the subjective when it is really the objective that matters most. For example, some regard those with whom they disagree politically or religiously as bad people, instead of simply judging their overall behavior to determine what kind of person they are. This needs to change if we are to produce a better world.

One of the unique aspects of Judaism is learning about all the different roads people take that lead them to God and a life of goodness. While this is certainly a fascinating phenomenon, it can also be a great impediment to how we treat one another. Therefore, our goal in life should not be to turn all our fellow Jews into ideological and/or religious replicas of ourselves. Rather, it should be to guide – not force – others into a life of serving God and His children in a way that best matches their individual personality.

Christians tend to look at the world as made up of two groups: saved and unsaved, us and them. While we are mandated (see Matthew 28:19-20) to go and make disciples (not converts, disciples) of the unbelieving people around us, we also sometimes see the unbelieving people around us as “the enemy”. It’s pretty difficult to convince a non-believer of the love of Christ if we don’t even like non-believers. It’s even harder to show the unbelieving world Christ’s love if they see that we don’t even like each other due to our different theologies.

Asher might suggest that we try to put our differences aside, both between different groups of Christians and between Christians and everybody else. Try to look at people the way God sees people:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. –John 3:16-17

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. –Romans 5:9-11

The opportunity to be reconciled to God is universally applied to all people everywhere. All we have to do is accept it and start living the life that God designed for us. He didn’t offer reconciliation to only a favored few and He didn’t extend His love only to a select group. It is true that God chose the Children of Israel, but it wasn’t because they were the best, the brightest, or the most numerous:

The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments. –Deuteronomy 7:7-9

House of PrayerWe also know that God’s love is not limited to Israel but extends to the whole world (John 3:16) and that what He created in Israel was to be a light to the nations, so that we could all call the House of God, a house of prayer:

In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. –Isaiah 2:2-4

And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” –Isaiah 60:6-7

So here we are, fighting and bickering with each other without considering how God sees us all. He’s like a Father who watches His small children argue and fight about who He loves the best, but in truth, He loves us all, just as we love all of our children, even though they are different from each other, and even though they sometimes act foolishly.

I read something written by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman which he applies to the Jewish people, but I think we can also adapt it for the rest of us:

The sages tell us that our father Jacob never died. “Since his children are alive, he is alive.”

Each and every Jew is the personification of his father Jacob, and the heart of each and every Jew is alive and beating strong. To say about any one of them that he is spiritually dead is to pronounce our father Jacob dead. If to you it appears that way, the fault is in you, not in the Jew you observe.

G-d sees only good in them. He will make great miracles for them and they will be safe.

We could say that our “Rebbe”, Jesus the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, lives in the heart of each of his disciples. He died but has risen and he sits at the Father’s right hand. He is alive in us and he makes us alive in him so that through him, we can be sons and daughters of the Father. We absolutely must remember though, that God sees the good in all people and He will make great miracles for everyone, and accepting God, we will all be safe in Him.

Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song. –Psalm 95:1-2