So, if perchance you are following the weekly calendar of Torah readings, you will know that the section read this week is Vayeitzei. The storyteller here has created a dramatic situation. Jacob, who has cheated his brother, Esau, out of his birthright and fled to a foreign land, is now returning home with his wives, children, and flocks. He anticipates an unfriendly welcome from his brother. Indeed, his brother might kill him. Nearing their destination, Jacob sends his entourage across the Jabbok river, while he stays on the other side for the night. Why does he do this? Good question. But, clearly, he needed some time to himself. In the night a stranger comes to him and they wrestle through the night. Neither prevails, but as dawn nears, the stranger insists that Jacob let him go. In return Jacob demands a blessing. The stranger asked his name, and then told him that he will no longer be called Jacob, but now will be known as Israel, because he had striven with God and prevailed. Jacob then realized that it was not a man he had wrestled with, but rather, God, and he named the place Peniel because he had met God face to face. Jacob came out of the battle with a dislocated hip which presumably pained him for the rest of his life. In the morning he crossed the river, made peace with Esau, and they went their separate ways.
Jacob had expected his battle to be with Esau, but instead it was a struggle with God. Or was it? Rabbinical teaching generally holds the stranger to be an angel, rather than God. It was only Jacob who took him to be God. Of course, the entire incident could have been a dream. Or it may not have happened at all. This is Mike’s view. It falls into the realm of prehistory and allegory. In fact, there are remarkable similarities to the story of this wrestling match and that between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Mike says he read an interesting article about this written by Esther J. Hameri, and he would be glad to give you the reference if you are interested. The story of Gilgamesh is the oldest story known, and elements of it seem to appear in the Hebrew Bible. This suggests not so much that the Hebrew scribes copied the story, but that the story was known from oral tradition and fed their notions of their own history.
There is much to unpack here, and the story leaves room for a variety of interpretations. On one level, the story may exist to firmly establish that it is Jacob and his descendants who are God’s chosen people, and not Esau and his descendants, the Edomites. All people wonder about their origins, and would like to think they are noble, blessed by the Gods, and entitled to at least what land they already have, if not more.
If you were a cat like me, you would have the benefit of our informative feline mythology, and would have spent thousands of hours in meditation, leading to some level of enlightenment about the nature of things. In the beginning there was God, an infinite force of creative loving energy. As such, the material world was created by God to provide a necessary object of love for God. Sentient creatures like cats and humans evolved, capable of wondering about their Creator and having the choice of loving Him in return. Along with the capacity for love, however, came other pleasure instincts including, hunger, sex and power, and negative soul traits like fear and anger. And thus came the potential to forget about, ignore, or even wish to be God. So within every cat or person lies two potential inclinations. One is to love God, and thus to love and take care of his creation, and the other, alternatively, is to reject God and to pursue one’s own ego-gratifying desires.
This dichotomy is represented in mythology in various ways. In one manifestation, a person is represented as two separate people. Esau and Jacob could be an example. One child became two in Rebecca’s womb. One child came out red and hairy, a wild, aggressive man who hunted game and gave little consideration to anything beyond his animalistic desires. He was the child of his father. The other child came out smooth and cunning, adopting his mother’s nature. Everyone knows that we are the product of two parents, so naturally we derive from two natures. In story, this can be represented as two separate people. Another example from the Hebrew Bible is Adam and Eve. As I’m sure you know, Adam was split by God into two people when he took one of Adam’s ribs and made a woman.
The rabbis talk about people having two inclinations, yetzer ha’tov, or the inclination to do good, and yetzer ha’rah, the evil inclination. In our Jacob story, there is rabbinical teaching that says that the stranger that wrestled with Jacob was, in fact, his yetzer ha’rah, his evil inclination. Another opinion is that the story was a metaphor representing his fear-based wish to disobey God’s will which would have him present himself to Esau and make amends for cheating him. At the end of the night, though, his yetzer ha’tov prevailed, and he made the right choice. So in the end, Jacob’s real struggle was with himself.
I believe if you think about it, everyone can somewhat relate to these things out of their own life experience. We all are torn at times between doing the selfish or wrong thing and the altruistic or right one. We all sometimes do something more than what we naturally expect of ourselves, whether good or bad, and then wonder where that came from. Most of us have a moment in our lives where we have a self-defining choice about what we believe about ourselves and what our values are. In that moment we are changed. We may not necessarily wind up with a dislocated hip, but there is an unmistakable change along with a clear and lasting memory of the occurrence. People in recovery from addiction, for example, can tell you the exact moment when the intolerability of their lives peaked (hitting bottom), followed by a choice to allow something greater than themselves into their lives.
So, enough of that. On another note, it is prime season for college football, another source of mystery. Why, for example are there only 10 teams in the Big 12, but 14 teams in the Big 10? And of the 10 teams in the Big East, three are in the Central Time zone, one as far west as Omaha. It was a big day today for big rivalries, and I hope your team won. And on yet another topic, although I am a big fan, as you know, of most things black, Black Friday is not among them. Good grief! But I hope your Thanksgiving was a blessed one, and you are enjoying your leftovers. Be well, and so long for now from Happy Meadows!