This past week, I read an article by Dr. Heather Miller-Rubens, the Catholic scholar at the Institute of Christian & Jewish Studies (ICJS), on the subjective nature of history. The article has come across my desk – or more accurately, my laptop -- as part of the reading assignments for this fall’s Clergy Forum, an on-going study opportunity for clergy that ICJS offers. The Clergy Forum always tackles interesting and challenging topics in order to foster intentful while respective dialogue between Jews and Christians. This year, they have expanded their mission to include Islam in the conversation with the welcoming of their first Muslim scholar into the conversation.
This fall Forum’s focus is the Middle East, specifically on what we Jews call the matzav, the “situation” or “condition,” a singular word that in Hebrew conveys the weight of the conflict between Israelis, Palestinians, and the neighboring countries that share borders with Israel.
I have always found this word, matzav, to be an interesting idiom for this complicated, emotionally laden, and often violent, “situation.” The use of such a common, ordinary word to describe it is telling of how Israelis have come to accept This Situation as the normal state of affairs.
But, I digress. Dr. Miller - Ruben’s article is required reading for our forum because it reminds us to question the truth of the histories to which we hold on so tightly. We, Jews, need this reminder when it comes to Israel. A central challenge to the situation, the matav, in Israel is the differing narratives that exist and a lack of cross-cultural respect and validation for those narratives. As I discussed on Erev Yom Kippur this year, our – the Jewish - understanding of Israel and how it came to be is not the only truth, it may not even be the best truth. It is one truth, but our story alone isn’t the full history. There are other peoples who have equally powerful and compelling narratives regarding this sliver of geography that sits between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan, and it is thoughtless and irresponsible of us to dismiss those narratives and the people who hold tightly to them. Of course, Ferguson, Missouri is a stark reminder that we Americans, too, fail miserably in validating the narrative of the other.
Which leaves us with a challenge: how do we honor our own story, one that carries immense power and truth for us without invalidating the story of another human being who shares in the broader history of humanity?
Perhaps, Jacob’s wrestling match can inform us. The assumed, the popular, understanding of this match that takes place in our Shabbat portion is that Jacob wrestles with a representative of God and prevails. And for this gallant effort, he receives, in addition to a bum hip, a new name, Israel, that serves to forge his identity as a patriarch of the Jewish people. But, is that how it happened on the shores of the Jabok? One of my favorite things about studying Jewish commentary on Torah is that here we are comfortable with many truths. The Rabbinic method, at least the aggadic, the story telling, tradition, opens the text to many different understandings, to differing truths.
Louis Ginzburg, for instance, culling a number of earlier midrashim offers a different perspective than the most commonly expressed. His midrashic narrative views Jacob as being subject to bullying, if you will, from God’s angels, who, lead by Michael, ganged up upon him. In this telling, Jacob doesn’t prevail against God; rather, God saves Jacob by assisting him in prevailing against these angels that were going rogue. Scolding one of those angels for harming Jacob, God is clear, “You are my priest in heaven, but Jacob is my priest on earth.” This rendering brings a very different nuance to our history. Instead of Jacob earning his name for his physicality and his ability to vanquish even a Divine messenger from on high, his new name reflects his valued status and his meriting protection in his role as patriarch.
The Torah text itself provides little in the way of detail. Jacob is left alone after sending his family ahead. He wrestled an “ish” until dawn, and when this “ish” didn’t win, he did something to Jacob’s hip. It is the word “ish” that leaves this history open to various understandings. The peshat, the plainest meaning of the word ish is man. But, biblically ish can also denote a distinguished person, someone of rank or a position of public office. It is not, on its own, a word typically used to refer to God, and it is rarely left without further clarification.
As I expect I’ve shared previously from this bema, I like to think that Jacob was wrestling with his own demons. I imagine him faced with a bout of insomnia on this eve before he reunites with his estranged brother. What must have been going through his mind? After agreeing to go along with his mom’s plan in tricking his father, did he feel as though he deserved the wealth and power he had accumulated? Perhaps he was struggling with the reality of his life choices: were his really any better than his brother’s? Did he ever treat his brother with respect, or was the lentil incident just an episode of normal sibling rivalry? He and his brother came from the same place, yet their histories diverged in two dramatically different directions. Was that Jacob’s doing? Is he in part responsible for their estrangement, or Esau’s being shut out of the Israelite line?
I imagine that Jacob tossed and turned on these questions so fiercely throughout the night that he bruised his own hip on the stone filled ground upon which he tried to sleep and later dedicates. “Oh my God,” Jacob uttered, “I have survived this tumultuous night.” But, he did so with renewed clarity, strengthened and ready to cross the Jabok in order to reconcile with his brother before shouldering the responsibility of Israel.
Jacob’s internal wrestling should inspire us to wrestle with our own assumptions about what we consider true about our history. Those experiences that are most significant, most formative to us, may have led to very different, and quite possibly detrimental, consequences for others. We can’t undo the past, but like Jacob, we can work to come to terms with the multiplicity of narratives present in any history so that we can move forward. It is incumbent upon us to consider historical narratives besides our own if we are ever to achieve honest and mutual respect and understanding. Whether it’s Israel, Ferguson, or even Plymouth Rock, we must remember that our story isn’t the only significant story. It certainly isn’t the only truth.