Thursday, 26 Nov 2015

Written by Hannah Kingston

The jury waiting area at Wood Green Crown court struck me as a very interesting lesson in anthropology. Sitting there over the past two weeks felt like taking part in an experiment of which I’m sure the results would be astounding.

You observe clusters form around the three main televisions playing a mix of BBC news and Jeremy Kyle, which disperse as soon as the standby mode kicks in three hours after our waiting time began.

You get the talkers, who never take out their headphones, the cliques that go out for lunch and those who wait eagerly for the cafeteria to open and begin serving a slightly hard baguette or a soggy sandwich.

As a jury gets called, bonds begin to form. People from every walk of life come together. Small talk turns to talk about cases, which turns rapidly to talk about life. I have learnt more about humanity from my two weeks as a juror than I have in my 25 years prior to this. For as you spend hour upon hour cooped up under fluorescent lights; secrets get shared, opinions are traded, and life lessons passed on across denominations and generations.

Bored but enlightened, one leaves a jury waiting area having met people you would never have had the chance to meet when going through your mundane everyday life. It is funny how these brief interactions can leave us thinking for weeks after, or perhaps, dare I say it, for years.

The exchanges of a jury waiting room are not unique to that setting. The opportunity for them arises at many points throughout our life, perhaps on our commute or maybe our lunch break; yet often we are too centred in our own narrative to open our eyes to the people around us and too busy to take the time to listen to the stories of the world.

Perhaps in this sense we can learn from Jacob, our biblical ancestor, who endured one such brief encounter in this week’s Torah portion. On a mission to get reacquainted with his brother Esau, estranged since their confrontation over a blessing from their father a few years previously, Jacob sends out messengers to warn Esau of Jacob’s imminent arrival. However these messengers do not bring back good news, but rather that Esau is coming to meet Jacob with a 400 strong team. Afraid, Jacob prays, sends a gift or two and finally sends his family ahead whilst he prepares himself alone on the opposite side of the ford of Yabbok.

Whilst there Jacob experiences an encounter of the third kind. A man, a stranger as he is described, wrestles with Jacob, dislocating his hip before Jacob begins to overpower him and turns the whole situation to his advantage…it all seems quite typical of the Patriarch we have previously encountered.

Who was this strange ‘man’ that wrestled and ultimately blessed Jacob? Of course the rabbis have multiple explanations as to who the unknown wrestler was…

Midrash Bereishit Rabbah and Rashi both claim it is the guardian angel [prince] of Esau, Tanchuma states it is an angel dressed as a shepherd, whilst more modern commentaries suggest both that it was Esau himself or that it was in fact a Jacob’s inner struggle with his impulse to evil. So perhaps we need look no further than Jacob’s name change to ‘Israel’, one who wrestles with God, to enlighten us on the identity of the stranger –  is the stranger actually God?

Jacob is not concerned about who he wrestled that night, and never attempts to identify his opponent. The identity of the stranger seems to concern us, and those who came before us, a lot more. Rabbi Bruce Kadden of Temple Beth El in Washington reflects that the ambiguity in the story could reflect the ambiguity we face in our own struggles. Although we are usually convinced of our opponent we are often mistaken. Following a confrontation we can find that we have been struggling against the wrong person. Worse still we can find that the struggle is really internal, the only opponent is ourselves.

So taking a step back, does it really matter who the angel was that with whom Jacob wrestled? Surely what matters more is the transformation that Jacob undergoes through this interaction?

Jacob is never the same after his experience that night. He names the place of the encounter Peni’el, the face of God, for he claimed he saw the face of God there. Jacob knows he has undergone a transformation like no other. Physically he walks forever more with a limp, mentally his transformation allows him to overcome the fear he had about the reunion with his brother and consequently when he sees Esau he recognises the face of God in him.

And so it is for us. Every time we go through an experience we take bits of the people we meet along the way with us; and we can choose to come through these experiences with a glass half full or half empty attitude, focusing either on the dislocated hip or on the revelation of God. Our interactions change us, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but probably, ultimately, almost always for good.

Think of this the next time you smile at a stranger, think of this the next time you choose to put your headphones on and block out the world around you, think of this the next time you are in a confrontation that could end differently. It is up to us to struggle with strangers and it is up to us to find the face of God in the other.

Student rabbi Hannah Kingston

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