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Vayishlach

Vayishlach

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Flight or Fight

Of all the things we Jews observe in order to remember events in our historic past, surely one of the strangest must be what we read in this week's parshah. Jacob wrestles with an angel (Esau's spiritual guardian) and in the course of the struggle, his hip is dislocated. Therefore, says the Torah, to this day, the Children of Israel are not to eat the sciatic nerve (of an animal) by the hip joint--because he struck Jacob's hip-socket at the sciatic nerve.

 The sciatic nerve (gid hanasheh) and its associated sinews and nerves are located in the animal's hindquarters, and because they are very difficult to properly remove, only cuts from the forequarters are usually available as kosher meat. So if it has always bothered you that you can't get a kosher rump steak, you can blame it on father Jacob and his wrestling match with the angel of Esau.

So, tell me, just because 4,000 years ago one of my ancestors had a hip dislocated I must curb my culinary cravings? Is this fair, is it logical? Why remember that--what's the point?

The 12th century French sage, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir ("Rashbam"), a grandson of Rashi and a Biblical and Talmudic commentator of note, offers the following insight. The story of Jacob and the angel occurred just prior to Jacob's impending encounter with his estranged twin brother. Esau was coming with four hundred armed men, and Jacob was actually planning to flee from Esau. That was when the angel attacked him. According to Rashbam, the reason for the angel wrestling with Jacob was so that he would be forced to stand his ground and not escape via a back route. Destiny itself was compelling Jacob to confront the enemy and overcome him. Only then would he witness the fulfillment of G‑d's promise to protect him from harm.

 It seems that Jacob was coming dangerously close to developing a pattern of escapism. He fled Beer-Sheba when Esau threatened to kill him. He fled from Laban in Haran in middle of the night when he worried that Laban wouldn't allow him to return to his homeland. And now he was preparing to flee from Esau. At any moment now there would be yet another nocturnal escape.

Apparently, G‑d wanted Jacob to learn that a philosophy of escapism is not the Jewish way. So the angel dislocated his hip, preventing him from running away. Now Jacob had no choice but to fight. In the end, he defeated the angel and was blessed with the name "Israel," signifying a superior stature, victory and nobility. No longer shall it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have fought with the divine and with man and you have overcome.

Every son and daughter of Jacob must learn this lesson. Every one of us must become a child of Israel. The quality of fearlessness and courage, of strength and sacrifice, these are the hallmarks of Israel. When we stop running away from our problems and face up to them with guts and fortitude, we enter that higher state of consciousness. We move up from the Jacob Jew, who is still struggling, to Israel mode, where we finally emerge triumphant. When we are prepared to take up the challenge and go for the fight rather than flight, we move from being wrestlers to becoming winners, from humble Jacob to dominant Israel.

 Of course it's never easy. Escape is usually the path of least resistance. Nor am I suggesting that we go looking for a fight. But the fact is that there will be times when we know that we really need to have that confrontation. We need to square up to a particular problem or individual in order to deal with our situation effectively. We shouldn't be confrontational people. But often we know in our heart of hearts that if we don't engage a problem honestly it will continue to plague us.

If we can move from meekness to courage, then the story of Jacob's wrestling match will live on and continue to inspire us to become the stronger personalities we really can be. The dislocated hip joint thus becomes worthy of eternal remembrance because it makes us better people. And the small sacrifices we make in avoiding those unkosher cuts of meat around the animal's hip socket are well worth the effort.

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