This is my current draft of my D'var Torah for Shabbat, December 2, 2023, Parashat Vayishlach and the Shabbat before Chanukkah 5784.
Yocheved Lifshitz is an 85-year-old Israeli who was one of the first hostages released by Hamas in late October. She and her husband Oded have been coexistence activists from Kibbutz Nir Oz just a couple miles from the Gaza Strip. They used to pick up people from Gaza at the Erez crossing who needed medical treatment to bring them to hospitals in Israel. Yocheved made the news this week with the story that shortly after she was captured Hamas chief Sinwar came, and she says: “I asked him how he wasn’t ashamed of himself, to do such a thing to people who for years supported peace. He didn’t answer. He was quiet.” When Yocheved was finally released, she took the hand of one of her masked Hamas captors and said, “Salaam”, peace.
This kind of chutzpah in the face of terror is astonishing, and in Israel since October 7 there’s been a whole genre of bubbe-chutzpah stories like this, starting with Rachel Edri from Ofakim who held off the terrorists in her home on that day for hours with cookies, while giving signals through the window to the forces outside.
It’s tempting to say that this is the whole Jewish superpower in a nutshell, chutzpah and wit for survival with spirit. It’s tempting just to say as we’ll hear from the prophet Zechariah in a week on Shabbat Chanukkah -- Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, lo v’chayil v’lo v’choach ki im b’ruchi (Zechariah 4:6).
But I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest eventually an edit for the prophet’s words, and that brings us to our parasha this week, which in its own nutshell is completely about power. This week we tell of Yaakov’s reunion with his twin brother Esav -- two strong camps of people meeting each other after twenty years of separation. We tell of Yaakov’s wrestling match with a being, a man or a Divine messsenger. We tell of the rape of Dina and her brothers’ response and Yaakov’s own response or lack of response.
And in the middle of it we get our people’s name Yisrael, which contains in it many possible statements about Jews and power.
Twenty years prior, Yaakov was a single man with nothing, on the run for his life from his brother who wanted to kill him. Now Yaakov is a wealthy herdsman with a big family and a whole community with him, and he is ready to come home. With both a signal from the Divine and because he is himself ready. As he approaches the border Yaakov sends messengers ahead to Esav, and they return and tell him Esav is coming toward him with four hundred men. What their intentions are, the messengers can’t say.
The Torah says vayira Yaakov m’od vayeitzer lo Yaakov was very terrified and he was troubled (Genesis 32:8). There are two verbs that describe the same feeling or a combination of reactions. The first verb vayira has connotations of terror and fear and awe, being overwhelmed. The second verb vayeitzer relates to narrowness, being narrowed or boxed in or clenched.
The midrash in Bereshit Rabbah sorts it out like this: Vayira means Yaakov was afraid that Esav would kill him, and vayeitzer means Yaakov was afraid that he would kill Esav. “If he overpowers me he will kill me, and if I overpower him I will kill him.”
I want to pause over that. Yaakov was afraid of being overpowered and of being overpowering. I’m also once again astonished that our Rabbis living in Israel under the rule of the Byzantine Empire could imagine a Jew worrying about being so powerful that they might have to kill someone in war, worrying about the ethics of power.
The midrash goes on and imagines Yaakov thinking: All this time Esav has been living in the Land of Israel and I haven’t, and perhaps he comes to our battle with the strength, the koach, of the mitzvah of living in the land. All this time Esav has been living with our parents and supporting them, and perhaps he comes to our battle with the koach of fulfilling the commandment of “honor your father and your mother.” And just because the Divine has made me promises of protection if I would live according to our covenant, which I have, maybe those don’t really apply to worldly matters.
Yaakov seems to understand that he has power and Esav has power, and both of them have physical power and both of them have some moral and spiritual power. This realization itself overwhelms him. Yir’ah is awe and trembling in an existential sense. Yaakov’s consciousness is broad enough to see Esav somewhere in this picture, not just Esav’s might but the mitzvot that Esav might have, which are the same mitzvot related to the land and to legacy and to compassion that Yaakov himself has or wants to have.
At the same time, Yaakov is tzar, he is concerned about seeing himself too narrowly and of seeing Esav only in the narrowest possibility as a mortal enemy. My chavruta Rabbi Dan Ross says Yaakov is concerned about his yetzer, about acting only out of his selfishness, of justifying violence by shutting out the humanity of Esav and assuming they are in a zero-sum game.
Yaakov is suspended there for the rest of a day. He prays, and he begins to strategize and develop a negotiating strategy toward Esav. None of this gives him confidence.
Then that night comes the fight with the being. They wrestle, and if you read the description in the Hebrew or a good translation, you won’t quite know at first who blesses whom, who wounds whom. In the center of the episode Yaakov receives a new name, Yisrael, “for you have sar-ed with the Divine and with people and you were able, or you were victorious” (Genesis 32:29).
The letters sin-resh make up the root sar or sarar. One of the essential meanings of sar is a person of power or authority. In modern Hebrew a sar is a government minister.
I said that this name Yisrael contains a number of possible statements about Jews and power. It’s been suggested by scholars that Yisrael means “God is the powerful”, meaning God and not us, that Yisrael are the people who have no human king, only God. That’s what we show and stand for in the world in contrast to all the other nations.
A second interpretation is that Yisrael the people are ourselves sar-el, the human manifestation of power in a godly way, the executive official of the Divine. A third and related take holds the image of the story of the name, that we are destined to wrestle with power, our own power and the power of others.
The first interpretation says that human power is always evil or tragic, and that no human can wield power as the Divine does. All human power in the hands of a group turns destructive or exploitative or oppressive. A version of this says that there is no way Israel can exert power as Israel in relation to Palestinians, except oppressively.
The other interpretations acknowledge that power is necessary for us and possible. Power can be godly or not. Power is necessary to survive, to live with Esav, to acknowlege his mitzvot or to defeat him if necessary. But it’s always a struggle to use power well, and the grappling never stops.
I have been saying lately a lot that Jews are experiencing power in the world in a way we never have since maybe King Solomon. And it’s not since 1948 even; it’s probably since the late 1960s or the 1970s, my lifetime, fifty or not even sixty years.
We have sought power out of necessity, to protect ourselves as a minority in this country and of course to protect ourselves in the Middle East. Being powerless as an immigrant community, being powerless after the Shoah, these were not an option. Leaving our fate to the hands of God or the powers of the world were not and are not an option.
We have developed power in the obvious senses -- military, political, economic. But we have also developed power through our values and our friendships and our alliances. In the U.S., our situation was transformed through World War II for instance because Jews fought side-by-side with every other American group, and then came home to the G.I. Bill and went to school and gained education and built wealth, often alongside other groups.
We used our power to establish for ourselves hospitals and nursing homes and universities when others wouldn’t have us, and then we opened those to others, and look what power for good a name like Beth Israel holds in our world.
In the U.S. Jews became enmeshed with others working to gain the power we all needed and deserved, in unions and in the women’s movement and the civil rights movement and beyond. In Israel, when it wasn’t possible to reach out to neighboring countries, Jews brought life-changing technologies of agriculture and health to the developing world, sources of power in the long run for the people of those countries.
We have struggled with power and how to continue to hold it as sar-el, as power infused with divinity -- as the power and status of Jews in this country began to diverge from our African-American allies and friends in the 1970s, for instance; of course with the Palestinians as well, even in times of relative quiet.
And this is what we have to do, to struggle with power, to wrestle with it ourselves as Jews today. The answer is not that Jewish power is evil inherently. The answer is also not the opposite represented by Otzmah Yehudit, the Israeli political party whose name means “Jewish power.” That is a movement that glorifies power itself and whose ideology makes no bones about putting Jewish lives above Arab lives in every way, and is behind the terrorizing of Palestinians in the West Bank right now. The name is opposite of Yisrael, and it is our responsibility to repudiate it and wrestle power away from it.
Our power is necessary, not just for survival but for being Yisrael is the widest senses. Like Yaakov we have to understand our power to save lives and our power to take them, and how power can limit our vision or enlarge it. We will use our power as Jews ethically and not, in the current war and at other times, and all we can do is to keep trying honestly to use it well and say when we have not.
So this is my revision to the prophet Zechariah: Not only by might, not only by power, but also by My spirit. Lo rak b’chayil v’lo rak b’choach ki gam b’ruchi. So we might say in a time when we contemplate the power of Yocheved Lifshitz and the power of Tzah”al (the IDF). So we might say during this time, as we arrive at Chanukkah this week and retell that ancient story of corrupt power, redeeming power, and the struggle to establish power well.
Shabbat Shalom and may I be the first to wish you a Happy Chanukkah.