First off, I would like to thank all of you for being here. I’d like to thank Rabbi Zari for pushing me to work hard. I would also like to thank Mark Mendelow for helping me with my d’var, and my teacher Kelly, and Janet Perles for helping me edit and come up with ideas. Thank you Esther Eidenberg-Noppe for helping me with my alyiot and prayers, and my parents for getting me to practice when I didn’t want to.

Imagine this: Esau, one of Isaac and Rebecca’s two sons, is angry with his brother Jacob for stealing his blessing at their father’s death bed. Jacob then starts to worry that Esau is so angry with him that he might kill him. To butter his brother up, Jacob sends a message to Esau saying that he will send him his wealth in animals and slaves.

When Esau hears this message, he sends word to Jacob, saying that he is traveling with 400 men to find Jacob. Terrified, Jacob splits his people and animals into two camps and sends them across the river, so that if Esau attacks one camp, the other might be able to escape. Jacob is now left alone on the opposite side of the river from all of his wealth and relationships.

Then something very strange happened. A being wrestled with Jacob until the rise of dawn. The text tells us that when Jacob’s opponent saw that Jacob would not give up, his opponent struck Jacob’s hip socket, dislocating it.  Then, his opponent gave him a new name. Jacob would no longer be called Jacob, but “Israel”, which means “One who wrestles with God”.

This trait of being a “God wrestler” was passed down through Jacob and his descendants, and became a central foundation of Judaism.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “Judaism is not a religion of blind obedience. Indeed, astonishingly in a religion of 613 commandments, there is no Hebrew word that means “to obey.”  Instead of a word meaning “to obey,” the Torah uses the verb “shema”, untranslatable into English because it means (1) to listen, [2) to hear, [3] to understand, [4] to internalize, and [5] to respond.”

In Judaism we are taught to ask questions, to teach children to ask questions, and to question what we think the Torah means. We’re not supposed to accept everything we hear without first questioning if it’s right and just. Members of the Jewish People can think of God in different ways, even question God and God’s actions, and still be part of the community.

When my grandpa died, I wrestled with God. I asked, “Why can’t there be a miracle so he could live?” All through the months he was dying, as well as the months after he died, I thought of all the things we could have done together if he had been healthy. I was angry, and struggled with God for not allowing me to have these moments with my grandpa.

But going through this experience taught me that death can bring a great value and importance to life.  Being there when my Grandpa died made me think about who might be at my deathbed when I die. I probably don’t even know them yet. They might not even exist yet. It made me think about all the people who will come into my life later on, who will care so much about me.

Now, I know that there is no guarantee that those I love will always be there. I learned to notice and really appreciate their presence in my life. When we wrestle with grief, we come out knowing more about ourselves, and what we love and value. I feel I’m more compassionate now about how it feels when people die.

Back to Jacob and his night of wrestling. When I first read this Torah portion, I thought, “Who could Jacob have been wrestling with?” Was it an angel, God, another human being, or himself? Some ancient rabbis thought that Jacob’s opponent was an angel who appeared in the form of a robber. Rashi suggested that the “man” with whom Jacob wrestled was Esau’s angel.

But I think that metaphorically, Jacob was wrestling with himself. I think Jacob wrestled a new self out of his old self. I feel that Jacob was looking for a new start. He was struggling with who he was. He hadn’t been comfortable with who he had been before. He’d cheated his father and his brother. And he thought his brother was going to kill him in retaliation. He wanted to start over.  This Torah story shows that even when we make bad choices, there is room to make change.

When studying this Torah portion, another idea I thought about was what kind of value or benefit does an opposing force bring to a struggle. There is more back and forth when you are challenging an opposing force, which will often force you to become familiar with the other side’s perspective. There may be times when you see that the other side really is the side you want to be on, and then you might join that side. Or, struggling with an opposing force might make you recognize how badly you want to hold your ground, causing you to try harder to win. You will ultimately question yourself more with the challenge of another force, creating a deeper, more meaningful understanding of the full picture you are grappling with.

This year was the first year I played football. Before the season started, I just assumed I’d be really good. I had been practicing with my much smaller cousins, creating the delusion that I could run through anyone.  But once I started playing with teammates who were similar in size and skill, it was a wakeup call. During an early drill, I was unexpectedly tackled to the ground. My whole body felt whiplashed.  It occurred to me then that it would probably be a good idea to try harder. If I didn’t want to endure that experience again, I would have to play with as much force as I could. If I didn’t have an opposing force to show me that I needed to try harder, I would have always thought that I was able to run through anyone.

Recently, this country had a very difficult election.  Afterward, I felt like I’d been hit in the hip socket.  The election outcome will force us to wrestle with what we value as a nation, and what we want our future to look like.

My Torah portion makes me think that maybe this could be a time to use opposing forces to get to know the other side, and to try to find some common ground. And of course to use our best selves to push back against what feels wrong. And hopefully, just as having a tougher opponent sharpened my skills in football, maybe wrestling with the realities of this new administration will help us sharpen our skills as activists and allies.

Wrestling with God, life, ourselves, takes different forms—sometime physical and sometimes spiritual or emotional. But whatever it’s pushing through, whether pain in football, pain over the death of someone we love, or pain over political differences, we are different afterwards…hopefully we are stronger, because we brought our best selves to the struggle.

Shabbat Shalom!

Nathaniel Ninburg
Shabbat Vayishlach
December 17, 2016 | 17 Kislev 5777