Wednesday, 23 Nov 2011

Written by Benji Stanley


Jewish Heroism: An Oxymoron?

Rabbi Charles Middleburgh spoke up with a smile: “As no one is scheduled to give a sermon this morning I thought you might allow me a short rant….!”

Charles expressed dismayed that on page 37 of our Reform Siddur, near the beginning of the morning service, we celebrate our identity as “the Congregation of Jacob, Your son, Your special son”, and, in fact, a more literal translation of the Hebrew would read, “the Congregation of Jacob, Your son, Your firstborn son” . Is this not a complete whitewashing of what actually happens in the Torah, he asked?

In this week’s parashah, Jacob steals first his older brother’s birthright and then the firstborn’s blessing.  In Chapter 27, verse 36, Esau cries out:

ויאמר הכי קרא שמו יעקב, ויעקבני זה פעמים – – את-בכרתי לקח, והנה עתה לקח ברכתי

“He said, “So this is why he is called Jacob for he has cheated me [Heb. ‘aqab, connected with Jacob]  these two times. He took my birthright and look, now he has taken my blessing , and he [Esau] asked [his father] have you not saved a blessing for me?””.

There is no adequate blessing for Esau. He has been wronged.

So, how can we proudly identify ourselves as “the Congregation of Jacob, Your son, Your firstborn son”? The firstborn status was stolen, and what do we have to be proud of?

In fact, this week, it feels like the Torah presents us with two potential heroes, and then opts for the less likely of the two. In one corner, there is someone almost resembling Brad Pitt, a strapping man, hair covering his hulking body, a hunter, an honest man, Esau. As you shift your gaze from Brad to the opposite corner, and just lower it a few feet, there he is….a weedy, little, prematurely balding man, who won’t stop moving his feet and shifting his hands in and out of his pockets…there he is, the spitting image of Woody Allen (but without a one-liner to put you at ease) our tricky hero, Jacob. Whom would you choose as the archetype for you and your people? Yet, we are the “the Congregation of Jacob, Your son, Your firstborn son”. Why?

The problem is that Esau is right. We should avoid always being right. Esau resembles not just Brad Pitt, but the man that Brad plays in that terrible movie, Troy: Achilles.  In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles, a wonderful, primordial force on the battlefield has withdrawn from the action because he has been wronged – deeply wronged; his own leader has stolen his most beloved possession from him. In the ninth chapter the Greeks assemble the most elite delegation to try to persuade Achilles to come back and fight. They find him by his tent “playing on a lyre…singing the feats of hero”. Even his own elderly uncle entreats him:

“Many a time have you slobbered… in baby helplessness over my shirt; I had infinite trouble with you, but… I made a son of you, Achilles, that in my hour of need you might protect me. Now, therefore, I say battle with your pride and beat it; cherish not your anger forever; the might and majesty of heaven are more than ours… Your anger has been righteous so far. We have heard in song how heroes of old time quarreled when they were roused to fury, but still they could be won by gifts, and fair words could soothe them”.

Achilles cannot be persuaded. He is a true hero of old times, unbending, full of pride and integrity. He is right. “Your anger has been righteous”. Esau’s anger is righteous too. The pain of Achilles and Esau cry out across the millennia. Yet it is Jacob that lives deep within us. He is our hero because he is human. He gets things wrong, and getting things wrongs gives us the opportunity to change.  In the words of Yehuda Amichai,

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world,
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Jacob this week teaches us the virtue of being wrong. The pain he causes Esau behind his back gives him the motivation to submit to hard work and suffering himself, and eventually to confront his demons face to face.

We declare that we are “the community of Jacob, Your son, Your firstborn son” at the beginning of our prayers, at the beginning of each day. Perhaps we are setting ourselves a challenge. We could each ask ourselves: who did I wrong yesterday? Who did I fail to credit? Who did I ignore? Each morning, we might even ask more difficult questions of ourselves: who do I owe my happiness and opportunities to? What have my family given up to support me? How are others, our brothers and sisters in this world, suffering because there seems sadly to be a scarcity of blessing, in practice if not in theory, and through no merit of our own we’ve got it all?

Most importantly, how is each of us going to face up to these wrongs today? How will we change?

Being wrong allows us to change. It is only through wrestling with ourselves, through trying to grapple with the very roots of our destructive habits that we merit to address ourselves as ” Israel” (by page 56 of Forms of Prayer!): Shema Yisrael, hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.

Jacob is a hero who pushes us to be vulnerable. I want to finish by mentioning that about a month ago I found myself watching this kind of hero on television. It wasn’t Woody Allen. He was much more serious than that. The campaign to free Gilad Shalit had taken on such force over the years that I sometimes forgot that he was a real person. For more than a year I walked past the Shalit protest tent on Derech Aza. I considered the various political arguments that surrounded his cause, and amongst all this, I just never expected him to be so thin. As he stepped out of a helicopter, I couldn’t believe what a pale young boy he is. Younger than me, and yet what he’s had to go through!

He is a hero to me even more compelling than those strapping, bronzed young men and women that are often associated with Israel, those children of the sun, out in the fields.

There is a hero who reminds me that I am lucky. He is somebody whose heroism lies in his plain humanity, in a reminder that to live in this world we must contend with the vicissitudes of man and God, and that we are most powerful in being vulnerable.

In the Reform liturgy we proudly identify ourselves as “the Congregation of Jacob, Your son, Your firstborn son”. The sentence is factually wrong, and better for it. Sometimes it’s better to be wrong.


Benji Stanley
November 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.