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god-wrestlers

Genesis 32:22-31

· lectionary,theology,mental health,disability

[CW: mental health]

Strap in, folks, this week’s a bit of a ramble!

I’ll start us off with a quote from Maggid Jhos Singer: “With a family tree like this, no wonder Jews invented therapy!”

That was his opening line for a drash on this story of Jacob and his brother Esau, which I heard a couple years ago at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, CA. He’s got a point: the whole saga of the patriarchs and matriarchs is pretty fraught. Still, there may be nobody more in need of therapy than Jacob. (Unless it’s his son, Joseph, but that’s another story.)

To review: born the younger of two twins, he’s always had a bit of a complex about being the second son. His very name points at it: he comes out of the womb grasping at Esau’s heel (eikev), from which he gets the rather literal Ya’akov, “grasping at the heel.” Esau is daddy Isaac’s favorite; Jacob is mama Rebecca’s boy. In a particularly silly episode involving a chest rug, he steals his father’s blessing, which belongs rightly to the eldest son, at his mother’s urging. Then, when Esau vows to kill him for being a conniving little shit, he scarpers for Haran.

This week’s reading finds Jacob on his way back to the land of Canaan. That means he’s going to have to confront his elder brother; and given the fact that Esau is coming to meet him with an army of four hundred men, the prospects of reconciliation aren’t looking great. So, on the night before they are set to meet, he sends his wives, and his servants, and his flocks to the far side of the river Jabbok… until he is the only one left on the nearer shore.

What is the cause of his delay? Is he having second thoughts? Is he afraid? Is he thinking of running away again?

It would certainly be in character. After all, his own security and wellbeing have been his paramount concerns up to this point; and if that has required a little cutting and running, well, so it goes. But Jacob’s self-centeredness masks the fact that his self has no center. He has always defined himself in relation to others: what they expect from him, what he can get from them, how he measures up to them. His very name marks him as a man whose fragile ego is constructed only with reference to others.

But what about Jacob? Not the heel-clutcher, but the human being? What is he trying to protect, with all his cunning and subterfuge? When you take away the wives, and the flocks, and the servants, and the family drama, who is he?

That, perhaps, is the question that consumes him as he sits alone on the nearer bank of Jabbok. Everything that has heretofore constructed his sense of self is on the further shore. The darkness surrounds him.

And in the midst of his solitude, a figure appears.

Who is this figure? We don’t know; the sages don’t agree themselves. Is it Esau’s guardian angel, as Rashi believed? Is it another of God’s heavenly messengers? Is it a river spirit, a pre-biblical legend preserved by Torah? Is it Jacob’s Shadow? Is it the HOLY ONE Themselves, given anthropomorphic form for the purposes of the tale?

Torah doesn’t tell us; it’s up to us to decide. All we know is what happens: Jacob wrestles with the figure through the long dark night of the soul. He is wounded; his hip socket is put out of joint, causing him to walk with a limp ever after. But even in his hobbled state, he has the mastery. The shadowy figure begs him to relent. Jacob refuses, until he has won a blessing.

In response, the figure gives him a new name. (And you’d best pay attention when somebody gets a new name in the Bible, because it means ONENESS is at work.) “You shall no longer be called Jacob,” the figure says, “but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (32:28) Yisra’el. Or as I like to render it, God-Wrestler.

Jacob/Israel calls the site of his wrestling-match Peniel, meaning Face of God, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." (32:30) And then, in the most poignant moment of the entire story, he limps across the river, just as the sun rises over the lip of the world. He is a new man with a new name; and he no longer has to be afraid of what lies before him.

This is one of my absolute favorite stories in Torah. That’s partially because of the ambiguity. The sages tell us that Torah has seventy faces; and surely at Peniel, God isn’t showing just one of Her faces. For me, though, one of the faces that shines most clearly is this: Jacob has found himself. He is not the one who grasps at the heel any longer. He is not merely Rebecca’s son, nor Esau’s brother, nor the owner of many flocks, nor the husband of Rachel and Leah and Zilpah and Bilhah. He is a God-Wrestler; he is a man who has looked into the depths of himself, who has struggled with his ego and his shadow, his fear and his insecurity, and yet his life has been preserved. Instead of being defined by his possessions or his family or his guilt or his fear, he is now defined by his relationship to God.

And that’s an identity that can’t be taken away from him. That’s an identity he doesn’t have to run away from, or connive to protect. That’s an identity that casts out all fear, for to know ourselves in relationship to God is to know ourselves as truly beloved.

And what I love, love, love is that, in the process of finally finding and claiming his God-identity, he is wounded. He’s not the same man that he was before: not just psychologically, not just spiritually, but also physically. The body keeps the score. And, fascinatingly, it’s not great strength that attends Jacob’s transformation into Israel, but rather an injury – a disability, in fact.

And I would argue that it’s precisely this wound, this disability, which is the sought-after blessing.

We often think of disabilities as negative things, as weaknesses or exclusions from full participation. And in a culture where worth is predicated on economic productivity, and where accessibility is limited at best, people with disabilities are often excluded (active verb) by others and by our systems. But I’ve learned from my dear friend, colleague, and disability advocate Dr. Isabel Call, that what gets coded as a “disability” can be an incredible gift. Not always is: I certainly don’t want to romanticize disability, to speak for an experience that I do not share or detract from the need for transforming culture and politics. But one of my takeaways from my friendship with Isabel is that disability can orient a person to what’s important and offer insights into the nature of love, humanity, and God that us temporarily able-bodied folk might never reach.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Jacob’s wound is his blessing. Well, where’s the gift in that?

I’ll tell you: it keeps him from running away.

He can’t just avoid his problems anymore. He can’t just avoid himself anymore. He has to face his brother Esau. He has to face the consequences of his actions. He has to face the parts of him that have lived in fear and shame for all these years. He has to confront the fact that, quite independently of whether he’s the first- or second-born, whether he has his father’s blessing, or whether he’s married to the most beautiful woman in the ancient Near East, God loves him. God loves him enough to enter into deep, intimate, even bodily relationship with him.

And that may not seem like a hard thing, accepting that God loves you. But let me tell you: as someone who lives with bipolar disorder, it’s one of the hardest fucking things in the world. When my brain is telling me either that I’m the Messiah (when I’m manic) or that I’m worthless garbage (when I’m depressed), it can be difficult to find that grounded sense of Self that is simply, uncomplicatedly beloved.

Sometimes, I wished that I could take a pill, or go to a meditation retreat, or receive a revelation from on high, that could root me in my belovedness forever, so I’d never have to wrestle with God and/or myself again. But that’s the thing about living with mental illness; you don’t get over it so much as you learn to live with it. You can’t really run away from bipolar disorder, any more than you can run away from a chronic limp, or from yourself. And, in my experience, there’s a deep blessing in that too, because I’m pretty sure that’s how life is. You learn to find your identity, and beauty, and reconciliation in the midst of it, not in spite of it.

Jacob’s story offers me hope in that too: because, you see, the text doesn’t uniformly refer to him as Israel from that moment on. It switches back and forth between the two names. Perhaps that’s because Jacob is still learning to claim his “Israel-ness,” his bedrock theonomous (God-defined) identity instead of his many shifting heteronomous (externally-defined) and autonomous (self-defined) identities. He doesn’t get over his injury; he learns to live with it from now on. And that’s the blessing.

No wonder Jews invented therapy, indeed.

So, for all of us who are going through a dark night of the soul, struggling to experience our beloved, theonomous, God-given Selves: let’s take courage from the fact that Israel struggled too – and prevailed. I hope we can come to claim that title God-Wrestler for ourselves, and to know that there are blessings even in the struggle.

And for all of us who live with disability and/or mental illness: I won’t presume to tell you what lessons and/or blessin’s you should draw from your experience, if any. But I want you to know that you are not broken. You are not a mistake. You are loved. And you too shall see the Face of God – starting right there in the mirror.

Amen. --Tom

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