The Torah portion this week is called ‘Vayishlach’ and contains within it the well-known story of Jacob wrestling with the ‘ish’ – the ‘man’ – which the Torah does not identify. Was it Esau, his brother from whom Jacob had been estranged for some 20 years? Was it Jacob’s conscience which bothered him since taking the birthright from Esau those many years ago? Was it God? The Torah is silent. Here is the text:
25 Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
26 When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.
27 Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
28 Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.”
29 Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”
30 Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there.
31 So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
32 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.
33 That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle. (Gen. 32:25-33 TNK)
The Torah does not mention who this man was that Jacob wrestled but goes into detail about where the man touched him (his hip) and, from that, extracts a law that stands to this day about the prohibition of eating the ‘gid hanashe’ – the part of the animal with the sciatic nerve. What is that all about?
Emet Le’Yaakov, a work written by Rabbi Jacob Kamenesty teaches us that that ‘man’ was the angel of Esau and attacked him when he ‘was left alone’ with no one around to help him. Jacob was vulnerable. Seeing that he could not beat him, the angel of Esau touched his thigh and made him limp. Touching the thigh, by the way, is a euphemism for Jacob’s pudenda and so by attacking him there, the rabbi teaches, he was really attacking his descendants. The lesson is that Jacob’s descendants – all Jews – would not be able to handle any attacks without the unity of the people. By introducing a law, the Torah is teaching us that the act of eating unites all Jews and by refraining from eating the part of the animal that has the sciatic nerve, we are reminded of the importance of Jewish unity.
This is a common Jewish theme. Maintaining a certain distance from all the other nations keeps us distinct and one way of being distinct is to avoid certain foods that the other nations eat.
Today, though, the forces of assimilation have made Jews look and sound like everyone else. Many Jews keep the laws of kashrut – that is eating only kosher food – while some do not pay any attention to them seeing them as antiquated and unnecessary. There are Jews who won’t eat a steak because of the law against eating the part of the animal with the sciatic nerve but, like you, I don’t know too many people who don’t like a good steak.
So how should we take the meaning of this verse and make it real? How can we remain a distinct people even if we eat what we like, whether strictly kosher, not eating milk and meat, refraining from shrimp, eating kosher-style, or not worrying at all about what we eat in any way? How do we remember our covenant and bond with God in the everyday acts?
That is really the question and it is the bedrock question of what it means to be a Reform Jew.
Reform Judaism was created by the early Reformers as a response to modernity. It was not the usual response of creating a little shtetl and separating from the world. It was a way to integrate with the world, benefit from and contribute to the secular world, embrace education not limited to the yeshiva, and work among non-Jews. We have excelled at that and we are now as American as anyone else. In fact, we can tell how accepted and integrated we are by the simple fact that, unless one chooses to, we don’t have distinctive clothes to identify us as Jews, many marry whom they wish, and most Jewish kids go to college.
Still there are ways that we separate ourselves. A recent poll learned that Jews are studying more and more Torah and traditional texts. These texts give us direction and a unique Jewish perspective for living and having a relationship with God founded in holiness and with a Jewish soul. Many have embraced a new kind of kosher living: eco-kashrut wherein the imperatives of taking care of the earth, avoiding cruelty to animals, boycotting farm products that abuse their animals, reducing the use of fossil fuels, and so forth are the norm. For many Jews, taking care of their little corner of planet is the way to tikkun olam – fixing the world.
Each of us has the invitation to explore our tradition in our own way. We are a people with the same bedrock traditions and texts but we are individuals in how we live those texts. Being a Jew means struggling and, like Jacob, sometimes kicking up dust. That is our destiny. It is also the covenant and, like any covenant, takes some focused acts. Those holy acts are the mitzvot we embrace and the expression of holiness in our lives.