[JOI Word of Torah] Big Tent Judaism: Vayishlach
Kerry M. Olitzky
KOlitzky at joi.org
Tue Dec 5 20:10:24 GMT 2006
"Big Tent Judaism" Word of Torah
December 9, 2006/ 18 Kislev 5767
As Jacob prepares to meet his estranged brother, he wrestles through the
night (Genesis 32:23-26). He survives that harrowing experience and emerges
a different person with a new name, impacted upon by the experience (the
text describes Jacob having wrenched his hip that causes a permanent limp in
32:26). Some suggest that he wrestled with an angel. Others say he struggled
with the dark side of himself and the problems that had plagued him, such as
his estranged relationship with his brother Esau. As it says in the Talmud,
a name change is one way to change your destiny (Rosh Hashanah 16b), and
Jacob-now Israel-has become someone who is ready to reconcile with his
While this is a description of one of the most powerfully spiritual of
Biblical narratives, the essence of which causes us to be continuously drawn
into Biblical drama, it might as well be the description of the dynamics I
encounter day-to-day when working with families that have been affected by
intermarriage-and those families now make up the majority of the North
American Jewish community.
In many families, a distance grows between its members, particularly between
parents and their children but often also between siblings-as a direct
result of even the glimmer of an interfaith relationship. This distance can
deteriorate into an estrangement. It might begin subtly, almost
imperceptibly, but eventually the distance is palpable. When Jacob hears
that Esau "will be coming to meet [him] with four hundred men with
him,"(Genesis 32:7), he is fearful. He doesn't really know how his brother
feels about him. At this point, the four hundred men represent a real
threat. Sometimes it takes years, and it is often the birth of a child-a
grandchild-that effects any measure of rapprochement among family members.
Imagine the pain that Jacob could have prevented had he not sought to
undermine his brother earlier in their lives (remember the birthright
incident?). Perhaps he could have tried to understand his brother and love
him even more, rather than try to take advantage of him. This might have
brought them closer together rather than pushing them further apart. Imagine
the pain that could have been prevented had Jacob's mother not been
complicit in Jacob's deception of his father, thus bringing the brothers
closer rather than driving yet another wedge in their relationship.
At the end of Jacob's wrestling (the darkness of the night was broken by the
dawn at the morning), he names the place where he experienced his personal
transformation Peniel, explaining: "I have seen Gd face-to-face and my life
has been preserved" (Genesis 32:31). What more could anyone else wish for?
Is this not what we seek in our personal journey of the spirit, especially
after successfully staring down the angel of death? The light of the Divine
has a unique way of allowing us to see ourselves-and our relationship with
Relationships move us along our life's path. Somehow we survive these
struggles with family members even when we disagree. The struggles actually
have the potential to bring us closer together. And often it is the very
interfaith relationship that family members discourage-after a relationship
has already been established-that jump-starts spiritual journeys. It is also
through interfaith relationships that those who are born into Judaism
sometimes reclaim their roots-and those who were not born into Judaism
willingly cast their lot with the Jewish people.
Esau accepted the gift of his brother's love in a beautiful moment of
reconciliation: "And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his
neck, and kissed him; and they wept." (Genesis 33:4) That was all that he
ever wanted. May we all come to understand that is what sustains us, as
Dr. Kerry M. Olitzky
Jewish Outreach Institute
1270 Broadway, Suite 609
New York, NY 10001
<http://www.joi.org/> www.JOI.org <http://www.joi.org/>
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You are welcome to use these ideas in your own work and writings as long as
you would be so kind as to credit Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and the Jewish
Outreach Institute, thank you.
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