Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Wrestling Lessons: A Sermon About the KJ Mission to Israel

KJ/Ramaz Israel Thanksgiving Mission - Produced by Elyssa Brezel from Esther Feierman on Vimeo.

When will the war be over? Last week in Israel, this question came up multiple times in conversation. Our group had the privilege of eating lunch last Shabbat with Benny Gantz, and we asked him the same question. At the time, there was a ceasefire; some soldiers were coming home for the weekend, and everyone seemed to catch their breath once again. But this was only a temporary lull; Hamas is still in power, and hostages are still in captivity. Unfortunately, as Gantz and many others explained, there is no quick solution; the war may take several more months to achieve its objectives.


This was a difficult answer for us to hear. Everyone wants things to go back to normal as soon as possible.


We want our hostages home, we want our soldiers home, we want the evacuees back in their homes.


But sometimes there aren't any quick answers. Sometimes you must wrestle instead.

Our Torah reading includes the passage about Jacob's wrestling match with the angel. They wrestle for hours until morning; it only ends then because the angel begs Jacob to let him leave.


The Hebrew word for wrestling, vayeavek, emphasizes how tedious and uncomfortable wrestling is. The Ramban offers two theories regarding the origin of the word. One is that it’s related to the Hebrew word for hugging, chibuk; wrestlers hold each other close as they grapple in excruciating intimacy with their enemy. The other is that vayeavek is related to the Hebrew word for dust, avak. Wrestling is a very slow form of combat; the feet of wrestlers are constantly shifting, in search of a more advantageous position. When wrestlers wrestle, they kick up a lot of dust.


In short, wrestling is both painful and painfully slow. But Israel is born in a wrestling match. At daybreak, the angel changes Jacob's name to Israel, in recognition of Jacob's courage; the angel declares to Jacob, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome,” and these words in Hebrew contain the root of the word “Israel.”


Here we need to pause for a moment. Names are powerful reflections of plans and perspectives. Is the Torah suggesting that the people of Israel are fated to wrestle?


And the answer is: absolutely yes.


Wrestling is part of every life; there are no easy solutions for the endless challenges of life. This is all the more so true of a people who have held tight to their destiny for 3,300 years; to survive, an aptitude for wrestling must be part of Jewish DNA.


We are once again facing a time of wrestling for Jews; and the lessons of Jacob’s wrestling match are now more important than ever. I’d like to share three insights from this section of the Torah today.


The first is: you know it won't be easy.


Side by side with this horrific massacre in Israel is a dramatic uptick in antisemitism around the world. Many Jews have been stunned by this. In truth, I am among them. Had you asked me a few years ago, I would have told you that antisemitism was disappearing.


But now antisemitism is back with enormous intensity. This is profoundly disconcerting for us. But it's disconcerting only because we had the wrong expectations. We had forgotten that being a Jew won't always be easy, that wrestling is a part of Jewish destiny.


At the same time, this attack by Hamas shocked Israel, which was completely unprepared. As Ronen Bergman reported yesterday in the New York Times, although Israeli intelligence had reliable reports of a planned Hamas attack, it was dismissed it as being improbable.


This type of mistake is sadly a common one. People evaluate the future based on what they see in the present; and they have a predisposition to optimism and tend to accept the most positive view of their own situation. The desire “to dwell in tranquility” caused Israel to forget the most important rule: it won't come easy. And frankly, you can't expect a high-tech fence to fight a war. Just ask the French; it didn’t work in World War II either.


The first, and most difficult, wrestling lesson is that it doesn't come easy. Not life, not being a Jew. But this name change reminds us that we can handle it. We are Israel, we are wrestlers.


And we are fortunate to have so many heroes ready to wrestle. Dan Polisar of Shalem College spoke to our group about his son, who is a commander currently on duty in Gaza. A piece of rubble had fallen on his helmet, and he was taken to the hospital to be checked out. Thankfully everything was good, but the doctor wanted him to stay home for a few days of monitoring. But that outcome was not acceptable; the commander knew his troops needed him. So, Dan and his son argued with the doctor; she still refused to let him go. They insisted she speak to her supervisor. That didn’t work, so they insisted that she speak to the head of the hospital; finally, the medical staff reluctantly allowed the commander to return.


But Dan related one other point, which was the most powerful part of this story. During the back and forth with the doctor, Dan and his son were discussing their problem in the waiting room. There, a soldier, who Dan described as having “a bruise the size of Texas on his arm,” sees them talking and asks them what had happened. When the soldier hears their predicament, he laughs and says: “Who cares if the doctor doesn’t give you permission? Just grab a transport and go back to Gaza!”


Jacob gets injured during his wrestling match, but he forges ahead; so do these heroes, bruises and all. Yes, wrestling isn’t easy. Israel’s soldiers know that, but they are ready to take on the challenge anyway.


The second lesson is you don't let anyone wrestle alone.


At the end of the wrestling match, the angel injures Jacob on his thigh. Because of that, the Torah tells us that Jews are forbidden from eating the sciatic nerve.


But the reason is somewhat unclear. Why would we commemorate this injury, and why with a prohibition?


The 13th-century French rabbi Hizkunni offers a fascinating explanation. He says that the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve is a penalty; Jacob's family is being punished because Jacob was left alone and vulnerable. Jacob's sons should not have neglected their father and left him unaccompanied. And so, for generations, Jews have accepted this penalty and not eaten the sciatic nerve.


The lesson is you don't allow someone to wrestle alone.


We can be proud of how united the Jewish people are. In Israel, everybody is getting involved, whether it be soldiers in the reserves or volunteers in the streets.


We met an injured soldier who was fighting alongside Yossi Hershkovitz, the principal of the Pelech High School for Boys in Jerusalem; prior to that, he had taught at SAR. Hershkovitz died when a booby-trapped tunnel claimed his life.


The injured soldier told us that all of the younger members of the unit asked Hershkovitz why he reported. Hershkovitz was 44, had five children, and was exempt from service. Hershkovitz told them that he was there because the younger soldiers needed his experience and his help. He wasn't going to let them remain alone.


This is the story of Israel today; remarkable sacrifices, all in the cause of helping each other.


The Jews of America are doing their part as well. A few weeks ago, there was an unprecedented rally, where 290,000 people stood in solidarity with Israel. To my mind, the most powerful speech came from Natan Sharansky, who explained to the crowd why unity matters. He spoke about how he and his friends resisted against the former Soviet Union, and said:


Many people thought that our cause was hopeless. How could a few men and women beat an empire all on their own?


But we knew very well that we weren’t truly alone. Israel and the Jewish People stood with us. From the small demonstration that four students organized at Columbia University in 1964, to the massive rally when 250,000 Jews gathered right here in this very place in 1987, three generations of World Jewry dedicated themselves to our struggle. Many of your grandparents fought for us. Many of your parents fought for us. Many of you fought for us. And this fact, this togetherness, gave me strength in my years in the Soviet Gulag.


My jailors tried to tell me that I am alone, that I am doomed, that our struggle will fail. But all I had to do was to remember the many Jewish visitors who came to see us in Moscow over the years to know that they were lying. I knew you. I knew how devoted and loving you were. I knew that we were one fighting family. And so I knew that there was only one possible outcome for our joint struggle….victory.


Coming together matters. That’s why our mission went to Israel. And at every stop we were thanked for coming, by cab drivers, soldiers, and even by Benny Gantz.


And that is why I tell everyone I see they must go visit Israel now. We cannot allow Jacob to wrestle alone.


The third lesson is we are wrestling for something bigger.


The night after the conclusion of the mission I went to the wedding of our friends' son Yoni Troy, to Tali Miller. It was a beautiful wedding, the children of two families that had made Aliyah, building their own home together in Israel.


Underneath the Chuppah, there were several prayers recited. An uncle of the bride recited the prayer for the Israeli soldiers. Cousins of the groom, whose homes are on the Gaza border, recited a prayer for those who have been evacuated. And Naor, Yoni’s commanding officer, who rushed in from his base and was still in uniform, recited a prayer for the hostages. Naor is from Sderot, and ten people he knew, including family members, were killed, and five others were taken hostage. There was not a dry eye when Naor recited the prayer.


Afterwards, something troubled me. Here we were, at the picture-perfect Jewish wedding of two wonderful people from two wonderful families in Israel. For centuries, Jews have prayed under the Chuppah “od yishamah b’arei yehuda,” that soon we would return to Israel, and the rejoicing of brides and grooms would once again be heard in the cities of Judea. And now we were at a wedding in the hills of Judea, where everything we prayed for has come true; and even so, we have to offer these heartbreaking prayers.


The question is: What point was there in praying for weddings in Israel for all these centuries, when now, weddings in Israel need new prayers?


But the answer is simple: the centuries of wrestling were for something bigger than comfort or happiness.


Yes, Israel comes with crises, challenges, and hardships.


But at least we're back in our homeland.


Herman Wouk, the playwright and novelist visited Israel in 1955. He was invited by David Ben-Gurion, who was out of politics at the time, to visit him in Sde Boker in the Negev. At that point, terrorists were regularly coming across the border from Gaza, and they needed to provide Wouk with an army escort, and Wouk had to return to Tel Aviv before sunset.


At the end of the visit, Ben-Gurion turned to Wouk and said, “When are you moving to Israel? You know that this is the only place for Jews like you. You know only here you will be free.”


Wouk responded with a bit of shock. He said: “Free? Free? The enemy has armies surrounding you, their leaders publicly threatening to wipe out the Zionist entity, your roads are impassable after sundown, and you say that you're free?


Ben-Gurion responded, “I did not say safe. I said free.”


And that was the ultimate lesson of our trip. We've seen Israel at a difficult time; but this is also Israel's finest hour. We are wrestling once again, and that’s never easy; but we are wrestling for something bigger. And thank God we have our own sovereignty, our own state, our own army.


Thank God we're free.


And that's worth wrestling for.

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