This has been a week of wrestling. Wrestling with what it means to create an America where everyone can feel safe and dignified. Wrestling with an America that does not always measure up to its own ideals and values. Wrestling with a week of violence in Israel with human victims, aggressors, and heroes that force you to rethink who we are as a people and what is (im)possible in our homeland. It has been a week of wrestling that will leave no one unscathed, unless of course, you choose to walk away from the struggle. But to walk away with a struggle for justice in a world of complicated truths and competing values is to relinquish your identity as a child of Israel, the decedent of the world's most famous God-wrestler.
This week in Parashat Vayishlach, we meet a Jacob fleeing his daemons: the judgment of his father, Isaac, and the rage of his brother Esau. One night he meets an unlikely adversary in his dream (Genesis 32)
כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר.
25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ.
26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
Indeed, Maimonides connects the word ish used in this portion with the famous saying from Pirke Avot (2:6), "In a place where there are no men, be an ish, a man." When you are in a place where no one is a mensch or a good person, strive to be that one good person. Maimonides asserts that Jacob was wrestling with a real man, and that real man was himself. He needed to wrestle with himself and his daemons before he could merit the life of a patriarch. When Jacob succeeds in wrestling with himself, and becomes a mesch, an ish, only then can he earn the name Israel and assume leadership of the Jewish people.
I am sure that I am not the only rabbi that cannot help but juxtapose the wrestling of Jacob and the ish with the wrestling of Eric Garner with the police officer that killed him. They are two difficult images that are simultaneously incongruent and bear some basic similarities. Jacob wrestles with the ish and survives -- he struggled between good and evil, human and divine -- and came out bruised but stronger. Eric Garner's last moments were spent struggling for his life, as a police office wrestled him to the ground. He was strangled, and not provided the opportunity to survive a deep spiritual struggle with the Divine. He was a black man who struggled to survive physically in a world that condones physical violence against him. Both Jacob and Eric Garner wrestled with their daemons, but only one survived, and was provided with the opportunity to survive, grow, and thrive. Some of us have the privilege to struggle with our internal adversaries to become the people we want to be -- and others need to fight just to keep breathing.
So it is our obligation not only to be cognizant of that privilege, but to actually use it for something that helps those who are deprived of our choices. We have the responsibility not just to recognize and acknowledge, but to wrestle with our own positions in society, our own responsibilities, our own apathy, and the unjust ways in which we take advantage of the many gifts we have received by virtue of birth. The path of Judaism is a spiritual path that encourages us to wrestle with God and our daemons -- a struggle not for its own sake, but for repairing the deep and manifest brokenness of the world. We have to struggle to be menschlich when no one else has the courage or the conviction to be a mensch.
Menschlikite is not just about being sweet and doing small mitzvot that soothe the conscience. That is not the type of humanity that Pirke Avot challenges us to assume. It is about confronting difficult truths, and acting in a way consistent with the high standards set forth for us by Torah. It means giving a painful amount of our wealth away to those who cannot afford a decent defense. It means devoting a painful amount of our time to challenge the laws and systemic injustices that terrorize people of color in our society. It means showing extra kindness, understanding, and hospitality those who confront struggles beyond what we have the capability of imagining. Being a mensch is about living with enough integrity and love to soften hearts harded by various forms of oppression (whether as victims, perpetrators, or both). Through a leadership of love, personal integrity, and care, we must break hearts open to allow for healing and transformational change.
One last vignette. The past few weeks have felt hopeless and fraught in so many ways. One point of light that has dispelled the darkness is the example of Mahmoud Abu Khadir. His cousin was brutally murdered by Jewish extremists on his way home from mosque this summer, and those who perpetrated the crime have not yet received fair or equal punishment. He happened to be at the Rami Levi supermarket this week when a Palestinian terrorist started to kill Jewish shoppers. He was the one of the first people at the scene, and provided whatever kind of care and comfort he could to those who were wounded. When a grateful and somewhat surprised Israeli, Jewish reporter asked him how he found it within himself to provide healing to Jews after what happened to his cousin this summer, his response was instructive, "That’s how I was taught to behave by my family...When someone is wounded, you help them. It doesn’t matter where they’re from." He added: “I was raised in a good family. I’m not at war. At work, when I see something like this, I have to help. It’s a matter of education: I believe that tomorrow the wounded man will see someone else and go help him. I hope that one day the situation will change and we will no longer have incidents such as this. But force brings more force and peace brings peace.” I'm sure that Mahmoud Abu Khadir had to wrestle on some level with his pain and living up to the values with which he was raised, but he succeeded, and was the ish that our world needed.
ובמקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש
In a place where there are no mensches, be a mensch