Friday, November 23, 2007

Vayishlah (Mitzvot)

For further teachings on this parasha, see the archives of this blog at December 2005.

“Therefore the children of Israel do not eat hams”

Jews don’t eat ham. Everybody knows that. But in this week’s parasha one may use the term is used in its original, root meaning—that Jews may not the hams, or more properly the hamstring, the tendon at the back of the hock, of any animal, even kosher ones.

Clever wordplay aside, this is an interesting prohibition. It is one of the few food prohibitions of the Torah that applies neither to a class of animals or living things, nor to a vital fluid like the blood, nor to specific organs or fats associated with the sacred service in the Temple. Rather, it is a prohibition of a particular place on the body for a commemorative reason: to remember Jacob’s struggle with the angel (Gen 32:24-32)—a struggle which ended in an interesting sort of draw: Jacob was injured, he came out of it limping, but still on his feet; moreover, he was able to detain the angel until the latter gave him a blessing, incorporating his new name, Yisrael.

Interestingly, here, in the very middle of Genesis, which we have tended to interpret in universal human term, we suddenly find ourselves in the very heart of Jewish particularity. The traditional midrashic interpretation of this event is that the “man” or angel was the “Prince of Esau,” and the night struggle was a foreshadowing of future struggles between Israel and Esau or Edom—taken as a paradigm for just about every powerful adversary encountered by the Jewish people over the centuries—the Roman Empire, the Christian Church, Europe, the Nazis, or “Goyim” generally. Thus, Sefer ha-Hinukh (Mitzvah §3) says that the root of this mitzvah is to serve as a reminder that, despite all the troubles and persecutions we may suffer at the hand of Esau, in the hand this will end at “sunrise,” with the coming of the “sun” of Messiah.

But another interpretation is possible: the struggle with this mysterious figure (half-man and half-angel?) may be read as the struggle of every person with the dark, “night” forces within him/herself. The daylight hours are a time for labor and initiative, for control and discipline, for deliberate action. With nightfall, the subconscious forces come to the fore: with sleep, we surrender our deliberate control, and dream. Dreams can be frightening, a descent into chaos; or they may be a window to our deeper, more authentic selves, or even a prophetic message from the Source of Life (thus Maimonides, who said that all prophecies save that of Moses took the form of dreams). The forces that emerge at night—and these include objective dangers, of wild animals, thieves and brigands, or simple stumbling blocks, as well as demons and uncanny spirits, or our own evil thoughts—may be frightening. Thus, night time is associated with prayer for protection; our Evening liturgy includes the blessing Hashkivenu, concerned with protection from dark and negative forces that emerge at night. (On another level, this is also a reason why night is considered the fitting time for sex: it too involves and requires a certain surrender of the conscious, controlling self.)

Rembrandt’s painting, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, shows this encounter as both struggle and embrace. As if to say: one needs to somehow embrace, come to terms with, the dark forces within oneself. One needs to subdue them in a certain way, keep them in control, but not wholly destroy or negate them, for they are the source of all that is most vital and creative within ourselves. Too much discipline, too much suppression or denial of the unconscious world, can lead to an overly severe, strict, unloving approach to life—or, alternatively, to sudden outbursts of the dark forces in negative, explosive, truly destructive ways. True holiness means unifying all of the forces of one’s personality.

Interestingly, Jacob in general is a man of the night. Yaakov is portrayed by our tradition as instituting the Evening Prayer. His first visionary experience, that at Beth-el with which last week’s parasha opened, occurred at night. And, as a night vision, it came upon him suddenly, as a surprise: “Indeed, there is God in this place, and I did not know it” (Gen 28:16). “This is naught but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Was Beth-el in fact a uniquely numinous place, one of immanent holiness, or may it be that every place is potentially a “gate” to heaven for he whose eyes are suddenly opened, who knows how to relax his daytime, controlling consciousness? Is this not the way of the subconscious: to sneak up on us when we least expect it and to make its presence known?

Twenty-two years later, at the “ford of Yabok”—a name which became synonymous in medieval Jewish lore with the darkest night of all that every person must eventually confront, the blackness of our own death—he had his night struggle with the angel. Whether the embodiment of Esau, or of our own hidden, darker self, this struggle is a central one in the life of every person.


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