Friday, December 08, 2006

Vayishlach: Limping through History

Tomorrow, we will read about Ya'akov wrestling the angel of Esav. The text describes the attack of the angel as, 'vaye'avek', he raised dust against Ya'akov. Rabbi Hirsch comments that it is more than just raising dust due to the actual struggle, but that the angel of Esav tried with all his might to bring Ya'akov down to the dust, to completely take him off his feet, to the ground. Realizing that this was impossible, the angel settled for bruising Ya'akov's sciatic nerve, his gid hanasheh.

The angel leaves our forefather, and he continues on his way back to his family, limping into the sunrise, 'v'hu tzole'a' al y'recho'. Rabbi Hirsch teaches an important lesson about the exile from this story. A person's legs symbolize her ability to take care of themselves and be stable. When a person stands on his own two feet, he is able to deal with anything life throws his way. However, when someone limps, they are not in control of their own destiny, and they are weakened. The nation of Israel limps through history, not quite able to walk upright. We are visibly weakened in the eyes of the nations around us. It is clear, as we make our painful way from exile to exile, that the children of Ya'akov are barely able to stay alive.

The angel of Esav periodically throws all his resources at finally putting us down for the count. He wrestles us, trying his best to make sure that Ya'akov limps no more. However, his work is always for naught. Although we limp, we can never be stopped. We can be slowed, but we constantly plod resolutely toward the finish line of history.

And the nations learn, from our miraculous trek, that it is not physical strength or fortitude that sustains Man. Not by our own power do Ya'akov's People limp on by. It is rather by our adherence to the Torah that we continue to exist. When we succeed, it is not thanks to our own physical prowess, for we are cripple. Rather, it is testament to God's power and our fulfillment of His will. And when we stumble, and fail, it is not the natural failing that every nation experiences. Rather, it is proof that we have failed our duty to our God.

And so, the Jewish limp through history is the greatest testimony to God's complete power and control. Our success is only due to our obedience to Him, and our failures are due to our ruptured relationship.

To embed this lesson in every Jewish heart, we do not eat the sciatic nerve of any animal. By removing the nerve necessary to confident movement from our diets, we are constantly cognizant that our own movement and success is dependant on our loyalty to God.

An interesting addition can be made when considering the words of the midrash at the sin of the golden calf. God threatens to destroy the Jews and make a nation out of Moshe exclusively. The midrash quotes Moshe as countering, "Lord, if a chair of three legs (Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov) cannot stand before thee, how much more so will a chair of one leg (Moshe) be able to stand..."

The forefather who makes the "chair" of the nation of Israel stable is Yaakov. It is he who joins Avraham and Yitzchak too create a stable foundation for the people. However, this is paradoxical, since in worldly matters, Avraham was wealthy and had a relatively easy physical life, and Yitzchak was "old money", who simply had to maintain the riches for whic his father worked so hard. He had a particularly uneventful and easy life, for a founder of a nation. It is Yaakov, the first-born who came out second, who suffered the most - it is he who had to trick his way to his rightful payment for years of servitude, it is he who displayed obsequiousness to a belligerent brother, it is he who suffered the degradation of the rape of his daughter and feared reprisal for his sons' actions. Later in life, it is he who suffers famine, loss of sons and fear of failure.

However, it was Yaakov particularly who provided the spiritual strength and stability for the Jewish people: of all the forefathers, it was he whose children were all righteous. It was he who transitioned the family from a clan to a nation. As as affirmation of the above concepts, it is indeed not physical or material wealth that indicates stability and success for the Jew, but spiritual, aphysical assets. Not by wealth, strenght or prestige is the Jewish nation, the moral and ethical light of the world, founded, but by limping through history, rising and falling with its fidelity to the Torah.