This week we will be reading from Parashat Vayishlach. It is the Torah portion where Jacob, once again all alone in the wilderness, wrestles with a creature all night. In the Torah text this creature is described as an “ish” a man. We are not sure if this ‘ish’, an angel, God, or possibly even Jacob’s own conscience. What we do know is that Jacob was forever changed after this encounter. First the ‘ish’ wrenched Jacob’s hip, and he walked with a limp ever since. And secondly, Jacob’s name was changed from Ya’akov to Yisrael. As the text says, “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel … for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed.”1
This is an important moment in our history as Jacob, the person, now becomes Israel, the nation. It is also important because it sets forth one of the foundational principles of what it means to be Jewish. To be Jewish, according to our sacred text, means we are to wrestle with matters of justice, ethics, holiness, mercy, and so many other areas of concern.
This is why Jews ask so many questions and have so many opinions. This is why our interpretive literature from the Mishnah all the way through to modern commentaries, are filled with contrary ideas and notions. For Jews, it is less about the definitive answers, and more about wrestling with the questions. Hence the old joke, ask two Jews a question and get three opinions.
However, there is a vital concept when it comes to sacred arguing, and that is, everything should be for the sake of heaven. What this means is that when we wrestle and when we struggle, it is not about personal edification or glory, but instead it should be for a greater understanding of what can and should be sacred and holy.
As Jews, it is not about merely having opinions on any given topic. It is about seeking greater understanding as a means of uncovering more glimpses of the Holy that abounds in the world. It is no easy task, and every time we struggle to find greater understanding, it has the potential to leave us forever changed, like Jacob.
That being said, we are the ones who have inherited this tradition. And may we, like those who came before us, continue to wrestle, struggle, and fight for greater understandings of tzedek (justice), chesed (compassion), kedoshim (holiness), and most importantly, of Torah.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Genesis 32:29