Fighting an Angel as a means of facing our darkest moments

The following is an attempt at a spiritual approach to the story of Jacob fighting the Angel.  I am looking for comments as to whether this idea that is something that makes sense and can be shared with others.  If you like this idea, please feel free to use it.

Upon Jacob’s return from Haran, from his father-in-law Laban’s house, he realizes it is time to confront his brother Esau, whom he had slighted over 20 years earlier.  When we left Esau, he was set on killing his brother when Isaac died.  Jacob does not know after all these years how Esau is going to respond to seeing him again.  In his preparation for the coming meeting, Jacob, according the medieval commentator Rashbam, has the thought of running away.  This comes after all the other preparations, the gifts he sends to Esau, the prayers he gives and the dividing of his camp to potentially face an onslaught from an army of 400 (presumably the greater entourage).  In his moment of fear and selfish thought of abandonment, G-d sends an angel to confront Jacob, getting into a struggle that lasts all night long. 

What is the goal of the angel?  The Rashbam argues that the angel was sent to prevent Jacob from running away.  Hence, the battle continues until morning, when it becomes apparent that running away is no longer an option. 

Perhaps the angel is sent for a different purpose than to be a distraction.  Up until now, Jacob has spent his life hiding, making deals, running away and overall not standing up for himself and his family.  Jacob is about to face his most difficult challenge, confronting his greatest fear, his brother, whom he slighted all those years ago.  In his darkest moment, he has to confront an Angel.  This confrontation forces Jacob to confront his reality, he must confront Esau.  This is hinted to in the Midrash which identifies the angel with the divine minister of Edom. 

Angels are usually seen as merely our guardians.  People speak about having an angel on their shoulders looking out from them.  The angel is also a reflection of what the person needs at the time.  Sometimes, the need for a guardian is not about preventing darkness and despair.  Rather, the angel will be a guide to help face the fear associated with being our darkest moments.  As such, when morning comes, and Jacob has survived his angelic struggle, he can no longer be the same person.  His name becomes Israel as a means of showing he has finally grown up and reached his potential, which is that of someone who doesn’t run away or trick, but faces things head on.  He is now Yashar, straight, as the name Yisrael implies.

Making Room for Prayer in Our Synagogues: Thoughts on Parashat Vayetsei, November 13, 2010 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

Making Room for Prayer in Our Synagogues: Thoughts on Parashat Vayetsei, November 13, 2010 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

Rabbi Angel’s dvar Torah contains one of my favorite Hasidic stories dealing with prayer.  The story is about Rabbi Levi of Berditchev and his experience of a synagogue in which are the prayers remained instead of going up to heaven.  What are we thinking about when we pray?  How are we directing our prayers?  Are our synagogues conducive to creating a spiritual space to allow our prayers to go beyond words we are saying by rote?  These are the challenges spiritually inclined people face on a daily basis.  We must always strive to carve out privacy in the middle of a public ritual.

The Challenge of Free Will: comments on a Dvar Torah

I read the following Dvar Torah this past weekend on Bereishit.  It spoke about the first instance of free will, as in the Kayin having a choice to either go down the dark side or come to an understanding regarding the acceptance of his brother’s sacrifice over his.  As I was reading this, I was struck by a couple of problems with Rabbi Bieler’s approach which I want to share. 

1.  He implies that there was no free will before the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  To be more specific, the argument is that by G-d telling Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he was placing an ultimatum but not actually presenting a choice.  Of course, if we think about it, all commands have choice.  If Adam chooses to ignore the command, there will be a consequence, which G-d spells out.  When Kayin is presented with a choice, he is not given a direct consequence, so much as G-d presents the two roads Kayin can travel depending on his choice (“If you do well, you will be uplifted.  And if you do not do well, sin crouches at the door, and to you shall be its desire. Yet you can rule over it.”)

2.  The dvar Torah implies that G-d made a mistake the first time by placing an ultimatum on Adam as opposed to laying out the options before him.  As such, when we get to Kayin, G-d fixes the mistake.  To me, that seems to be the polar opposite of how the creation story is to be read.  Adam and Eve live in a Utopian world.  G-d, being the all knowing, perfect, etc. would presumably know the proper approach to take regarding the prohibition of eating from the Tree.  He, however, assumes that G-d’s approach with Adam was wrong, because he disobeyed, and therefore G-d needs to rectify the mistake when the next potential sin could come by offering a concrete psychological choice. 

3.  The message is quite interesting.  The first born is not automatically removed from the seen in favor of the younger child.  Rather, the first born often fails to reach the expectations placed on him/her by the parents.

9/3 – 5 reads – weekend edition

Chief rabbi challenges Stephen Hawking in row over origins of universe: Lord Sacks accuses astrophysicist of logical fallacy in book excluding possibility of supernatural creation – (hat tip – Failed Messiah)

To me, these arguments seems contrite.  Scientists want to show G0d doesn’t exist and Rabbis want to explain how G-d could exist.  Its not a debate.  Their arguments are based on two completely different viewpoints.  Both sides are illogical according to the other because the arguments begin with different logical premises. 

Living in ultra-Orthodox closet – (hat tip – Failed Messiah)

This is another in a long of line of recent articles about how Haredim are not all monolithic.  Some struggle with living in the communities and yet feel they cannot leave.  It is certainly true to highlight how difficult it is for someone to leave an insular community, especially when that community does not train its people to live outside its environs.  This article was particularly sad because it was framed around one such gentleman who committed suicide instead of leaving the particular community. 

In mosque controversies, some Christians undermine their own faith

The sad reality of the world we live in today is that extremism is ruling the day.  We suffer from our own fringe groups.  The trouble is that the rhetoric is becoming more than words.  To burn a religious book is a terrible thing.  For us Jews, this should be a red flag, as Quran burnings should be a reminder of the countless burnings of the Talmud and other of our religious books.  While Islam today is very challenging due to the numerous Islamic terrorists in the world, to burn books reaches a new level of hate. 

Israel and Palestine: A true one-state solution

The idea of a single state solution, while the ideal in a democratic based ideology, cannot work for two nations/cultures who are at as much odds as Israel and Palestine.  All one has to do is look back to other “melted” countries, such as Iraq, to see how challenging and difficult such a move could be.  It is clear that the two nations, at least as they are today, cannot nor should not have to coexist in a single governmental structure. 

Heavenly Torah – Issues of Belief # 3

In Conversations Winter 2010, the journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, an article was written by Daniel Jackson called Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking.  In this piece, he surveys and reviews the recent challenges to the divine authorship of the Bible.  To start, Jackson makes the case that Torah min HaShamayim (TMS) is the current hot button challenge for a believing Jew.  Evolution and science, while challenging, are predominantly accepted in one way or another in the MO and Centrist Orthodox communities (the Haredi community [in most of its forms] is still struggling with this, usually by denying science over Torah.  As an example, see the Slifkin affair of this past decade.  DH doesn’t even show up on their radar for the most part).  TMS has many challenges, including feminist theory, biblical archeology, modern science, textual/literary criticism, modern morality. 

I have struggled for many years with this topic.  The typical Orthodox responses, such as the ideas of mass revelation, or bible codes, as offered most coherently by Lawrence Kelemen in Permission to Receive, are full of holes.  For example, even if you accept TMS, it is extremely difficult to argue that there aren’t minor variants in different traditions Masoretic texts, as presented in various halachic arguments about kosher vs. pasul sifrei Torah.   While most authorities are not concerned with the minor variants in the text when it comes to the general principle of TMS, the other issues are greater and potentially more concrete challenges. 

In my first post on belief, I stated the following about belief in TMS:

2.  Pirqei Avot 1:1 – Moses received the Torah at Sinai – The Sinaitic experience was some sort of climactic moment in which the Judeo-legal and ethical system was revealed to the Earth.  The how and what of revelation become secondary to the concept of a revelatory experience.  This eliminates the questions about the historical event as well as removes the challenge of Documentary Hypothesis or Ancient Near Eastern influences.  It is not Hazal that dictate a pristine Torah from Sinai without a single mistake.  The exactness of the text might be assumed but then again, the way texts were read in the Talmudic and pre-Talmudic times, it is hard to fully engage such a notion.  Today, with the conclusiveness of the Torah containing linguistic layers, etc. it becomes challenging to concretely claim absolute single authorship at a single moment.  I remain non-committal on the exactitude of TMS (Torah M’Sinai).

In reflecting more on my words, I was struck by the following post I saw on another blog, QED (Avi Woolf).  He presents reader’s with an assignment to read a piece by Rav Yoel Bin Nun, one of the foremost Tanach teachers of today, on modern Orthodox approaches to Tanach study.  Rav Bin Nun argues that both he and R. Mordechai Breuer are doing Orthodox Bible study and not academic study, so when it appears they are talking about DH or historical lacunae, it is all in the guise of legitimate Torah study.  While I don’t agree with Rav Bin Nun’s assessment of the Breuer methodology, theirs are one of the few approaches out there for religious, believing Jews who are also educated in modern biblical criticism.  Jackson, meanwhile, presents Kugel and Brettler as his other two examples of Orthodox men who are also involved in areas of academic Bible.  Again, the challenge presented by those two thinkers is that their Bible study is set in academia and for most would cause tremendous difficulty. 

More to come on this topic when I can better formulate the specifics of those mentioned above.

Think before you speak

I read the following small thought on Shabbat.  R. Zalman Sorotzkin pointed out that when Bamidbar 31:14-15 repeat the name Moshe, it hints to the fact that Moshe while angry, did not immediately rebuke the army for taking from the spoils of war.  The lesson he draws is that one who is angry should wait and allow the anger to pass before speaking.  Its an interesting lesson that is simple yet needs constant reinforcement.  Of course, the first challenge is to be able to allow anger to dissipate, which in itself is a character trait that is difficult to overcome.  Only after we are able to be quick to let go anger, will we be able to confront the subject of the anger in a meaningful manner.

Internet arguments about authorship of the bible.

I recently commented on a blog about someone’s argument regarding proof that the Bible must have written by human beings as opposed to G-d.  Another blogger posted a response to my comment, which I published anonymously, with a cheap attempt at showing my statement false.  Before presenting the arguments, allow me to make one further clarification.  My involvement in this conversation does not constitute my discussing my own personal beliefs regarding divine authorship.  I merely got involved due to the interesting nature of the argument presented:  The original back and forth.

Anonymous said…

That’s an interesting thought, yet I am not sure that it would logically have to be concluded because G-d doesn’t say, I created, that this would automatically disprove divine authorship. Further, there are verses that do state, for example, I am the Lord your G-d… Would one thus argue simply that there are x number of verses actually from G-d in the first person but all the rest, the majority, are not?

Shilton Hasechel said …

Are you kidding? All those verses where God is speaking are preceded by “And God spoke” or “and God said” which are like big quotation marks.

I guess according to your logic Tom Sawyer wrote Tom Sawyer because he speaks quite a lot in it.

Would one thus argue simply that there are x number of sentences actually from Tom Sawyer in the first person but all the rest, the majority, are not?

My response to this comment is as follows:

Being that I am the author of the anonymous comment from the other blog, allow me to clarify my argument a bit for I think my point was misunderstood.  The issue for me was the particular argument as described.  Just because something speaks in third person as opposed to first person is not proof one way or another regarding authorship. There are much stronger and more cogent arguments those who do not accept the divine origin of the Bible.  

Regarding your particular metaphor, which you subsequently retracted, using modern fiction as an example of works written by a particular author about another subject is not a valid argument for the “written” word back a couple thousand years.  Fiction by definition is a book written by someone describing events in an “all-knowing” fashion.  Ancient writing, even if defined as fiction, is more complex.  The majority of writing to which one would compare biblical narrative would fall under ancient mythology.  Ancient mythology is a mix of truth and falsehood (granted we could say the same for fiction, but the goals are different). As such, its purpose is to record the victors accounts of events in a fashion that is easily recalled orally.  Therefore, when looking at Bible as not divine, the proofs are less about the first person/third person speaking than about the older aspects of Biblical criticism, namely language, its clear similarities to ancient writing, etc.