Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wrestling With God and Ourselves (Vayishlach)

Sometimes it is hard to pray.

Many of us struggle with the Hebrew, or with unfamiliar tunes. We may be distracted by random thoughts, or by conversations in the pews around us. Perhaps we are simply stressed out or exhausted. And then there is the matter of belief. God as literally described in the pages of the siddur and Torah may, at times, be difficult for us to accept and worship.

I have struggled with all of these challenges at various times, but when I read the commentary on this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, I discovered another-perhaps even more difficult-obstacle to praying with conviction.

Jacob famously grapples with an angel, who at daybreak blesses him with a new name, Yisrael or Israel-the One Who Wrestles with the Divine. But who is this mysterious adversary? Some say that it was the guardian angel of Jacob's estranged brother Esau. But the twelfth-century commentator Rashbam suggests that the angel is a reflection of Jacob's own inner nature, sent by God to prevent him from running away. Rashbam teaches, "The Holy One answers a person's prayers if the person prays by searching himself, becoming his [or her] own opponent."

For Rashbam, the whole episode comes to teach us something about the essential nature of prayer: when offered with a whole heart, it entails a painful self-examination. To pray as true children of Israel is to wrestle with ourselves. Jacob encounters the angel because he resists the temptation to run from his faults and, instead, faces up to his shortcomings. This is the only kind of religious expression that enables us to grow. Good Jewish davvening isn't about mindlessly chanting a bunch of Hebrew words; it is about employing those words as shovels to dig deep into our own souls and then use the knowledge we gain to transform ourselves. For us, as for Jacob, real prayer entails seeing ourselves as we really are-and as we might yet hope to become.

We are Yisrael, or, in Art Waskow's profound translation, Godwrestlers. The Holy One calls us to truly search ourselves, to become our own opponents, and so to be worthy of the blessing and the name that is our inheritance.

In this season of diminishing daylight, may our prayers help us to shine a light inward, into the darkness of our own hearts and souls. By recognizing, living with, affirming and ultimately illuminating that darkness, may we grow in wisdom, compassion, and justice.

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