December 14, 2006
Victory of a Blessing
Parshat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)
As life would have it, the term of tranquility is short, but we can emerge from these times strengthened both physically and spiritually.
"Vayeshev Ya'akov -- And Jacob settled down in the land where his ancestors had sojourned...."
The opening words of this week's reading elicited the following comment from our sages: Just when Jacob sought tranquility, the crisis of Joseph erupts.
Jacob, our quintessential ancestor, is indeed a lifelong wrestler. Even before he is born, he is portrayed as wrestling in the womb with his twin brother, Esau.
In fact, his very name, Ya'akov, refers to an ancient wrestling technique. It means one who can strike at the Achilles' heel of his opponent and cripple him, even while lying on the ground with the enemy's heel at his own throat. Throughout his life, Jacob will constantly wrestle, and even in his final moments, we find him wrestling with Joseph, his favored son, in order to reverse the blessings between his two Egyptian-born grandsons.
Jacob will become "Israel" as a result of another wrestling match -- this time against a mysterious, divine opponent. In this case, all commentaries seem to agree that we are confronted with a profoundly significant metamorphosis. Jacob becomes Israel.
When the patriarch finally succeeds in breaking the grip of the angel and achieves the upper hand, the angel begs to be released, and Jacob utters these famous words: "I will not release you until you grant me your blessing." These words articulate an authentically Jewish value all too often overlooked.
According to 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, heroic thinking in the classical Mediterranean world defined victory as the killing of one's opponent, which could be restated as:
"Might makes right." Jacob and the meaning of Chanukah, incidentally, offer us a radically different definition of victory.
Perhaps it could best be expressed as: "Right makes might." For the Jew, victory must mean receiving a blessing from the enemy, converting him into an ally.
The modern State of Israel never celebrated any of its stunning military victories with parades, parties, celebrations, dancing, etc., as do all other nations on earth.
The late Golda Meir said that we cannot celebrate, because our children had to kill and be killed. The only instance when we witnessed such a great wave of joy in Israel was when the enemy came to bless; i.e., when the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt came to Israel, extending recognition and the offer of peace.
Sadly, Jacob/Israel must always be alert and ready to take up arms against the "violent hands" of Esau the hunter in order to survive.
As Edmond Jabes, one of the greatest 20th century Jewish writers, remarked concerning the Jewish people: "How inventive his means, how diligent his metamorphosis, deduce, adapt, plan, he can be hounded but not destroyed; Half man, half bird, half fish, half ghost, there is always one half which escapes the hangman.... "
Our survival can be attributed in great measure to our adaptability but also to our inner spiritual victories.
David Baron is rabbi of the Temple of the Arts at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills.