December 3, 1998
Secular and Sacred
Parashat Va-Yishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)
Recently, an analysis appeared in the press about the Jewish elements in American popular music. Discussing musicians such as Gershwin and Berlin, the author noted that these composers included melodies from synagogue and Jewish folk music in their compositions.
The interaction of sacred and secular poses a problem in Jewish philosophy. Can we apply sacred to secular or secular to sacred? Does one preclude or include the other? This week's Torah portion suggests a solution.
The Torah reminds us that 20 years have passed since Jacob ran for his life from Esau, his brother. Now he prepares for the reunion, hoping that time has cured Esau's wrath.
As the story unfolds, the Torah recounts every strategy that Jacob uses for his encounter with Esau. Suddenly, however, the story abruptly ends, and a new story seems to begin. The text records: "After he had taken them across, he also sent across all of his possessions. Jacob remained alone, a stranger wrestled with him until just before daybreak" (Genesis 32:24-25).
In trying to explain what happened prior to the famous wrestling match, we must ask why Jacob crossed the river once again, alone, in the middle of the night. What was so urgent that required a dangerous trip without any escorts?
Rashi, quoting the Talmud in Hulin 91, suggests that "he had forgotten some small jars and he returned for them." Rashi's response, however, raises yet another question: Why would Jacob risk his life to fetch trivial small jars?
Perhaps a comment by the late brilliant Jewish philosopher, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, can resolve this puzzle. Rabbi Soloveitchik noted that Jacob and Esau's encounter isn't simply a story about a reunion of two brothers after a long separation. Rather, it is a paradigm for Jews to follow in their relationship with the non-Jewish world. This, Rabbi Soloveitchik noted, is the reason for Jacob's exact instructions to his messengers, emphasizing the specific words that they were to utter when meeting Esau.
Jacob anticipated that Esau would ask three questions. The first was, "Whose are you?" which implies, "To whom do you pledge ultimate loyalty?" The second, "And where are you going?" means, "What are your spiritual goals?" In other words, Esau wanted to know who is Jacob's god, and what path he has chosen.
To these inquiries, the reply was bold, clear and precise. The response was simple: "They are your servant Jacob's." Just as Jacob did, so, too, do we enunciate our commitment to a unique Jewish destiny that is not open to debate.
But, then, there is the third question, "And whose are these cattle, gifts, ahead of you?" Esau now addresses a totally different issue. He wants to know if Jacob and his descendants are willing to contribute talents, capabilities and material resources toward the cultural and technological development of the world.
Will Jacob be partners with the non-Jewish world in developing a productive society? To this question he replied, "It is a present to my Lord Esau." Yes, he and his descendants are determined to participate in every civic, scientific and political enterprise. Jacob's children are obligated to enrich the society they live in with their creative talents.
We can now understand what Rashi meant when he explained that Jacob crossed the river to retrieve "small jars." These small jars represent mankind's material well-being. The Angel tried to wrestle with Jacob's spiritual identity. He fought with Jacob, hoping that he would surrender his spiritual obligations, and would only be interested in the materialistic "small jars." Jacob, however, did not succumb, for he knew that the Jew must combine his social responsibility with an uncompromising commitment to Judaism.
The struggle that Jacob faced is one that confronts every Jew. We must remember that Jacob was victorious over the Angel and his name was changed to Israel, "for you have contended with God and with man and you have prevailed."
We, too, can prevail, for we are the Children of Israel.
Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.