parshat Vayishlach (genesis 32)
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded live on Clubhouse on November 18th 2021 as they discuss arguing with God in the Bible and later Rabbinic texts and Jewish Literature. Jacob’s name is changed to Israel which we are told means to struggle with Man and God. How do we live up to this name?
Geoffrey Stern 00:04
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern. And at Madlik we like to light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish tradition or text. We also host a clubhouse at 8pm, Thursday nights Eastern, where we have disruptive Madlik Torah. And tonight I’m joined with Rabbi Adam Mintz. And we are going to discuss the metamorphosis of Jacob, who turned into Israel by fighting, arguing, struggling with an angel. So get yourself into debating mode, where we discuss arguing with God, and man. Welcome to another week of Madlik, the Parsha is Vayishlach and we have the story of Jacob coming back to the land of Israel. He’s about to cross the Jordan. And because we are all a product of our past, now he has to confront his past, he has to confront his brother Esau, who if you remember he swindled out of birth blessing. And now he comes with a family. He’s a family man. He’s gotten some wealth to him. But he is basically fearful for his life. And we are going to focus on that moment, before he comes and crosses the Jordan River. And he’s alone at night, he sent his family, split them up into two camps to protect them. And now is alone on the bank of the Jordan and confronts an angel. So in Genesis 32, it says, “Then Jacob said, oh god of my father, Abraham and God of my father, Isaac, oh Lord, who said to me, return to your native land, and I will deal bountifully with you, I am unworthy of all the kindness you have steadfastly shown your servant with my staff alone, I cross this Jordan, and now I have become two camps, deliver me I pray from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mother and children alike “am al banim”. And then he goes on and he says, after taking them across the stream, he sent them all his possessions. Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn, 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. Then he said, let me go for dawn is breaking. But he answered, I will not let you go unless you bless me, said the other. What is your name? He replied, Jacob, said, he, your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed. Jacob asked, pray, tell me your name. But he said, You must not ask why name and he took leave of him. So Jacob named the place Penuel meaning I have seen a divine being face to face yet my life has been preserved. Then the sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel limping on his hip. 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 muscle.” So this is the source of why Jews cannot eat filet mignon. So already, we have a wonderful takeaway. But the real question, is, this striving this struggling with this angel, and the name change to Israel, and the name Israel literally implies struggling with man, and God. So you can’t even say that this is a subtext of a subplot when someone’s name is changed, and that name means to struggle with God and man, that’s pretty profound. Are we? The B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel, are we a little argumentative? Are we strugglers is that that the take away from this, is this a key characteristic of the Israelite Jewish story?
Adam Mintz 05:09
I think the answer is yes. I think that Jews throughout the ages have liked the impression that the Jews struggle that goes with Jews being a minority, you know, Jews are a minority, we always have to struggle. And therefore, even though obviously, the name change goes back to the Torah, I think it’s a name change that has resonated with Jews throughout history. And I think that’s kind of interesting when you think about it.
Geoffrey Stern 05:42
You know, there’s a famous saying, in Perkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, that says, A machloket l’shem shamayim an argument that is for the sake of heaven, will endure forever, but one that is not for the sake of heaven will not endure it. And anyone who has studied whether it’s the Mishneh, whether it’s the Talmud, the Oral Law, which is actually an oral law, it is a transcript of literal arguments between our rabbis, and those of you who like myself has studied in a traditional yeshiva know that when you walk into the study hall of a traditional Academy of Jewish learning, of a yeshiva, it is the absolute opposite of walking into a library, which is calm and quiet. A yeshiva the din of students arguing amongst themselves, they call it the Kol Torah is overwhelming. But in a sense, because everyone is arguing there’s a silence as well, you can actually focus and concentrate. But that truly is a real element of an argument and conflict of ideas and passions, deeply rooted in our tradition.
Adam Mintz 07:16
That is correct. The Rabbi’s say in the Talmud, that there’s nothing better than students arguing with one another when they’re studying Torah. That’s part of the experience of studying Torah is being able to argue with one another. And I that’s that’s a very strong idea. And you know, what’s interesting about the name Israel, is the fact that the Torah says that Jacob struggled with God and with man. And the question is, what the significance of that is, actually the one he’s struggling with is the angel. But the angel seems somehow to represent Easav, who’s the one he’s about to confront. So there seems to be two parallel stories, almost like two parallel train tracks going on here. One is the experience of Jacob and the angel. And the other is the experience of Jacob and Easav. And I wonder what we make about the combination of those two stories here.
Geoffrey Stern 08:20
You know, before I get to my understanding of what he means, by struggling with man, I want to make us very current, there was a book written about 10 years ago, and it’s called Startup Nation. And it tries to address why Israel per capita has so many entrepreneurs has so many startups and in the preface, it talks about a few Israelis who are sitting in a conference room and arguing amongst themselves at the top of their lungs, about a who knows what some minutiae of how to program or start their company, and the American colleague who views this, and then sees the same people that had been deep in argumentation, go have a drink later and laugh and hug each other was amazed by it. And the same thing applies to the Israeli army with is this lack of recognition of [authority], this anti hierarchical respect. And they both go to this sense of you can argue with anybody and and he liked something rather interesting, and I’ll quote, so when he asked Major General Fakash why Israel’s military is so anti higherarchical and open to questioning. He told us it was not just the military, but Israel’s entire society and history. Our religion is an open book, he said, in a subtle European accent that traces that traces back to his early tweens in Transylvania, the open book he was referring to was the Talmud a dense recording of centuries of rabbinic debates over how to interpret the Bible and obey its laws. And the corresponding attitude of questioning is built into Jewish religion, as well as into the national ethos of Israel. and Israeli author Amos Oz has said, Judaism and Israel have always cultivated a culture of doubt and argument, an open ended game of interpretations counter interpretations reinterpretations opposing interpretations from the very beginning of the existence of the Jewish civilization. It was recognized by its argumentativeness.” And and I quote that picking up on your comment about this sense of arguing with God, and arguing with men, and there’s no question that deep in our essence, in our core, is this sense of taking the other position of looking at an alternative approach. And whether he’s talking about his potential future confrontation with his brother ESAV, or the years that he spent working for his father in law, and striving against a man who at every turn, was out to get him? I think that in our case, Jacob Yaakov really did have under his belt, the ability to say, I have striven with man and I have striven with God. And I have prevailed.
Adam Mintz 11:44
I think that’s right. You see, Jacob is always identified as the first Jew in exile, the first diaspora Jew, because Abraham is basically in the land of Canaan. And Isaac never leaves the land of Canaan. But Jacob, his whole life is with Laban. And then with Easav It’s a life of struggle. We often don’t think about the story here. But Jacob has another confrontation in the city of Shem, when his daughter Dina is raped. And that’s a very difficult story, because his sons take revenge against the people of Shem. And Jacob seems to get angry at the sons for embarrassing him. And the sons seem to get angry back at Jacob, which is just a very interesting back and forth there about what’s going on. What exactly is Jacob’s, place in the diaspora, Jacob always seems to be struggling. And just to look forward to next week what’s interesting is, when Jacob finally gets settled back at home, that’s when he has real trouble, because that’s when he favors his son, Joseph. And that’s when Joseph is hated by the brothers, and sold, and the whole story of Egypt begins. So actually, Jacob has a hard time, we would say in today’s language, figuring it out, I think.
Geoffrey Stern 13:22
So. So in other words, it doesn’t end. [laughs]
Adam Mintz 13:25
Yes, That’s, that’s my, that’s my read of from here to the end of the book of Genesis. It doesn’t really end, Jacob has trouble. And more than anything, Jacob struggles, you know, is he victorious? I don’t know. If he’s victorious. You know, the rabbi’s want to make him victorious, the rabbi’s are very proud of Jacob, because Abraham has Yishmael, and Isaac has Esav, but Jacob, all his children are true to his tradition. So you know, in a sense, they want to make it seem as if Jacob is somehow superior to his father and grandfather. But I don’t know that that’s so clear or so simple.
Geoffrey Stern 14:11
So I want to pick up on this concept of argument is the essence of the Jewish people. I mean, you know, again, the fact that we are called Yisrael which means striving with God and man, according to the verses that we just read. You can you can ignore that. So there’s a wonderful book, and it’s called Arguing with God, a Jewish Tradition by Anson Laytner. And he literally writes a whole book about this concept and you have heard me speak previously about how we now know from Ancient Near Eastern texts, this whole concept of making a [treaty] covenant and stuff like that, what he picks up from similar ancient texts is that is a whole tradition of what he calls this prayer of arguing with God. And what he does is he talks about how it’s called The Law Court Pattern of Prayer. It’s literally taking a god to court. And of course, what the Jews did with that was because their relationship with their God was so unique, and they only had one God, it was taking the single God to court. And of course, that makes a paradigm shift, because you can’t play one god against another. And I think as we look at different examples that the author brings, I think we’ll see stuff that really resonates that we’ve all heard about. But I want to start with one of the texts that he bought that actually relates to the argument, or I should say, the thoughts that Jacob shares with us today. If you recall, when I read a second ago, Jacob split up his his family into two. And he said whether musing to himself or to God, that He says, I fear he may come and strike me down. Mothers and children alike, “Aim al Banim”and, and the Midrash pipes in and explains that he is actually in a sense, taking God to court here. And what he’s saying, and I quote, Bereshit Rabba 76 He says, “I fear he may come strike me down mothers in childhood, like, but you said, [Jacob says to God,] if along the road you chanced upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on ground with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings, or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young”, there is a law in Deuteronomy that literally prohibits you from taking the eggs out of a nest, while the mother bird is still on it. Somehow, it broke with the moral, the ethical aesthetic of the Bible. There’s another law that said, “he may come and strike me down mothers and child alike, but you wrote, you have written in your Torah, do not kill a cow, or ewe and it’s young on the same day.” So again, according to this operation, robber, Jacob is also referring to a law in Leviticus that says, you cannot, again for this same moral aesthetic reason, kill a mother and child cow on the same day. There’s something about uprooting any sense of continuity among any species that rankles the ethics of the the Torah. And it goes on to say, “if this wicked one, Esau comes and destroys all at once, what will happen to your Torah, which in the future you will give on Mount Sinai, who will read it, I entreat you deliver me from his hand, that he will not come and kill both mother and child together” So the the author of this book has multiple examples, we’re going to visit a few through history, where this Jewish concept of taking God to task, quoting his own Torah, and this is something that the author feels in any case, is unique in the Jewish religion, Rabbi, do you feel that that is something that is unique to us?
Adam Mintz 18:47
That’s a good question. I don’t know the other traditions well enough? To answer that question. I can just say that it is a very striking aspect of Judaism. calling God to task is a fascinating idea. The fact that, we have all these examples, my favorite is Abraham calling God to task about destroying stones, and you know, really try to negotiate with God, the idea of negotiating with God, it’s such a crazy notion, how can you negotiate with God, but Abraham feels comfortable enough to negotiate with God. So I think the fact that we’re willing to take God to task is something that is very striking, I’ll just add to that idea of taking God to task. There’s another rabbinic idea. And that’s the idea that God suffers with us, that when we suffer, God suffers together with us. We take God to task but God it’s not as if God’s our enemy, God is with us and even God, when we go into exile, God goes into exile with us so we take God Death. And God responds in a way that really is very compassionate.
Geoffrey Stern 20:05
Absolutely. Almost God’s there with us. You know, the other thing that we have touched upon in the past is that much about Genesis is a forecast of what will happen in Exodus, going down into Egypt, in the case of Abraham and Sarah, and even Jacob. And it occurs to me, that Jacob here crossing the Jordan is identical to Moses about to cross the Jordan. But unlike many of the other precursors, I think that this story is slightly different, because Jacob is allowed to cross the Jordan, with his people, and Moses is not. And another example of this argument with God can be found in Devarim Raba. And this is, what words are put into Moses, his mouth, and Moses says, “Master of the Universe, the labors and pains which I have devoted to making Israel believe in your name are manifold and known to you to what trouble I have gone with them in connection with the precepts in order to fix them Torah and precepts thought, just as I have witnessed, they are Whoa, so too, I would behold their award. But now that we’re word of Israel has come, and you say to me, You shall not go over this Jordan. [And here’s where Moses gives his argument.] Behold, you made a fraud of your own Torah as it is written, you must pay him his wages on the same day before the sunsets, for he is needy, and urgently depends upon it else, he will cry to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. Is this the reward I get for 40 years labor that I went through in order that Israel should become a holy and faithful people.” So here Moses is taking the law, that you have to pay a laborer, the money that you owe him before you go to sleep, you can’t let the sun set without paying him. And Moses is saying, I suffered with these people for 40 years, I paid my dues, and now you won’t pay me what is is owed to me. And and again, it’s an amazing argument. But I think in the sense, it becomes even more profound, because we have to grapple with why Jacob was allowed to cross over into the Jordan, I mean, Jacob, if you look at the text, both this week, and last week, Jacob makes a very similar argument. He says, I worked with Laban and I worked for seven years for one wave seven years for another, he gets to ESAV. And he goes, I know you are concerned about me having the blessing. But I worked for everything that I show you today. I paid my dues, and he is somehow allowed, to course the Jordan, but Moses, who makes this type of argument that I think only a B’nai Israel could make is somehow not allowed. So my question is, well, my comment is twofold. Number one, why was Moses not successful in his request, but two this sense of argumentation, of literally, just as Jacob was able to hold the angel and say, I will not let you go until you bless me is a tradition that starts, as you say, from Abraham, and goes all the way through Moses, and we’ll see in a second through throughout Jewish history, it’s it’s very profound.
Adam Mintz 24:05
Yeah, I mean, yes, the answer is it is it is very profound. How do you take it as it relates to Jacob specifically, What do you think the fact that this is true about Jacob, and that we’re called Israel? What does that mean for us going through history?
Geoffrey Stern 24:25
Well, I think it certainly gives us a license, if not an obligation to argue and to take our God to task. You know, it’s a very fine line who this angel is, at some point he’s called Elohim. At some point, you could come to understand him as to be man, but definitely, somehow by the end of the story, and Jacob is obviously a person who throughout his life is looking for blessings he’s looking for recognition, he’s looking for someone to, say you are you, you are your own person. But nonetheless, Jacob does achieve that. He can’t forget his past, it’s not going to go away from him. But the legacy that he gives to his children, and to the world is this, I would say, not only license but an obligation to struggle and to argue with one’s God. And it enables him, I think, to get across the the Jordan and get into the promised land. And so he is successful, where maybe Moses was not.
Adam Mintz 25:55
Yes. So the idea that He gives permission that I think is a very critical idea that Jacob is actually the one who gives us permission to challenge God. And that, throughout history, Jews have challenged God as the descendants of Jacob. And that’s what we do. We challenged God. I mean, we asked, Where was God? Where was God in the Holocaust? Where was God when young children are killed in terrorist attacks in Israel? Where was God? And what you’re really saying correctly, is that that’s what Jacob did in a way, in, you know, in in challenging the angel is he’s challenging God. I wonder why the rabbi’s say that the angel was the angel of Esav. What did they gain by that?
Geoffrey Stern 26:51
Hmm, I hadn’t really seen that. But whether the angel was the angel of God, or whether the angel was the angel of ESAV, where Jacob becomes Israel, is by standing on his own feet and standing up to him. And, you know, I think this concept of arguing with God almost transcends a standard belief in God. In the texts and the traditions that the author that I quoted before brings, he brings poetry written and prayers written during the Holocaust, and after the Holocaust, and you mentioned the Holocaust. And you know that, that is a tipping point, in a sense, and I’d like to read just a little poem written by somebody called Jacob Gladstein, that he quotes. And I’m not sure the person who writes it can anymore believe in God. But when I read it, I pictured Jacob, sitting after fighting the angel, giving thought to what everything he’s come through all of the losses that he’s had. And here’s what he writes. And it’s really about God, and this person sitting in the DP camp. And he writes, “I love my sad god, my brother Refugee love to sit down on a stone with him and tell him everything wordlessly, because when we sit like this, both perplexed, our thoughts flow together in silence, my poor God, how many prayers I’ve profaned, and how many nights I’ve blasphemed him and warned my frightened bones at the furnace of the intellect. And here he sits my friend, his arm around me, sharing his last crumb, the God of my unbelief is magnificent. Now that he’s human and unjust, how I love my unhappy God, how exalted is this proud, pauper, now that the merest child rebels against his word” , and I really see in this words, Jacob sitting with the angel after fighting all night, and they’re both breathless and out of any strength, and they just put their arms around each other. And it’s an amazing picture. I had a professor of philosophy at Columbia, Sidney Morganbesser, and he was in great pain before he died. And one of his students came to him, and he said, “Why is God making me suffer So? do you think it’s punishment for me not believing in Him?” …. yeah he said that and he’s quoted as saying that, but again, it has this same tension that we of Israel are obliged to struggle with our God. And that, in a sense, is our essence. It’s it’s just, it’s just fascinating.
Adam Mintz 29:59
That is correct. It is just fascinating that that becomes our essence. And your essence is always your name. We always say that right? You know, names mean a lot. And the fact that we are named the children of Israel means a lot that, you know, that shows that our essence is that we’re made to struggle. You know, they often talk about you talked at the beginning what it’s like to be in yeshiva, and you know, the argumentation. You know, that goes on. But that’s our personality, we argue with one another. And we challenge everybody, we even challenge God, Isn’t that an amazing thing? We argue with one another, and we even argue with God.
Geoffrey Stern 30:47
I think it is amazing. And the most fascinating takeaway that I have taken away from this, and I haven’t seen it written anywhere else. Is I started by saying that the outcome of this story is that the Jewish people do not eat filet mignon, they do not eat that part of the animal that has the sciatic nerve in it. Because Jacob walked away from this battle with a limp. And what’s fascinating is, there is really no commandment from God, that we not eat this piece of meat. The verse says, That is why the children of Israel to this day, do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip. And what’s amazing to me is this is a commandment that possibly does not come from God. Is it one of our 613 commandments? Yes, it is. But where does it come from? It comes from Israel to Jewish people. And it’s a sense of when you come out of that struggle, and you limp away and you fought with man, but more importantly, in this context, you fought with God. Therefore, until this day, we Jews, maybe it’s our commandment, versus God, we are we remind our God, our God within ourselves or a God out there, that we have struggled with him or her, we continue to struggle with him or her, but it is a commandment that comes from us. I mean, how many times in Genesis does it say there were seven wells and therefore until today it is called Beersheba. It’s not a commandment. It’s a point of fact. But in this particular case, the fact that Jews, Israelites B’nai Israel do not eat from this piece of meat is a testament to our willingness and our need and our obligation to strive with God and man.
Adam Mintz 32:59
That I think is a beautiful note with which to end this discussion. The portion next week is Vayesh. It’s right before Hanukkah. Let’s have a great discussion next week. Thank you and welcome back. Geoffrey, this was a really good discussion this week. And Shabbat Shalom to everybody. Happy Thanksgiving. And we look forward to seeing you all next Thursday, Thanksgiving day to talk about Yayeshev.
Geoffrey Stern 33:21
Shabbat shalom. Thank you. Bye bye
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz on Clubhouse on Thursday November 18th at 8:00pm Eastern as they discuss arguing with God in the Bible and later Rabbinic texts and Jewish Literature. Jacob’s name is changed to Israel which we are told means to struggle with Man and God. How do we live up to this name?
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