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Vayishlach Sermon

One of the wonderful things about this country is its mixture of different ideas and cultures.  That is what I choose to think about as we approach the holiday of Thanksgiving: an embrace of disparate values.

Years ago when I was a student at college the person who opened for me the world of Jewish philosophy and theology was my religion professor, Robert Mickey.  Professor Mickey was a United Church of Christ minister so it was a bit of a surprise that this Christian minister sent me right back to my Jewish traditions.  He could have pointed the ever searching soul that I was then and still am today toward any book, but he chose instead Martin Buber, in particular his Hasidism and Modern Man and I and Thou.

It was Buber who taught that the essence of God and God’s nearness is in relationship, it is in how we treat others.  Buber’s famous book was I-Thou.  In it he argued that the world is divided into two realms, the I-It and the I-Thou.  We spend most of our hours and days in I-It.  It is in this relationship that we approach others with the question of what is in it for me?  This is normal and natural.  Everyday life is about I-It.  In the I-Thou however the two sides are mutual and fully present for the other.  We do not lose ourselves in the other as in a mystical union.  We exist for a brief moment in perfect symmetry.  It is such moments that are transcendent.

For me that moment of reading this book was the moment that I reclaimed my Jewish tradition.  Here was an idea of God that I could embrace.  It was not about miracles and otherworldly occurrences but instead about the here and now.  It was a God that existed between people and one that I could claim as my own.

That was the moment as well that my questioning and wrestling returned to the Jewish fold and I stopped reading as much Zen and Eastern philosophy.  It was then that I realized I could be forever changing my ideas about God.  It was not right belief that defined me as a Jew.  It was instead striving for right action that defined my Jewish life. 

This questioning is the essence of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach.  In it we see Jacob wrestle with beings described as both human and divine.  It is unclear who and what these beings are.  It is clear that Jacob struggles and wrestles with this being.  It is clear that he forever limps because of this encounter.  And most importantly it is clear that he earns a new name, Yisrael.  He is called Israel, meaning to wrestle with God.  From this we learn our identity: to struggle with God.

Since college I have explored Kaplan, Soloveitchik, Maimonides, Fackenheim, Hartman and others.  It was Mordecai Kaplan who argued that the essential Jewish notion was the idea of peoplehood.  It wasn’t that God commanded us but that the commandments emerged from the voice of the people.  We pray to solidify our bonds to the Jewish people more than we reach toward heaven beseeching the Almighty.  God does not tell us what to do. We in community command ourselves.

Most recently I find myself pulled to Abraham Joshua Heschel. He gives the greatest voice to the meaning and power of Jewish ritual.  Start with his masterpiece, The Sabbath.  It would also be his voice to whom I would turn when asking this week’s question of why do bad things happen to good people.  He would boom in the face of questions about the Holocaust that such events are not an indictment of God but of human beings.  He writes of the mountain of history being held above our heads and demands, “God is waiting for us to redeem the world.  We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfactions while God is waiting constantly and keenly for our effort and devotion.” (“The Meaning of This Hour”)  It might not be answer to our question but it is most certainly a response.

In speaking of other faiths and our own, Heschel writes most profoundly.  He writes: “Human faith is never final, never an arrival, but rather and endless pilgrimage, a being on the way.  We have no answers to all problems.  Even some of our sacred answers are both emphatic and qualified, final and tentative; final within our own position in history, tentative because we can speak only in the tentative language of man.  Heresy is often a roundabout expression of faith, and sojourning in the wilderness is a preparation for entering the Promised Land.” (“No Religion is an Island”)

In the end the point of all this philosophy is not to tell you what you are supposed to believe.  I am not one who subscribes to the idea that the people ask questions and the rabbi answers.  All have questions.  All struggle.  All wrestle. 

Today’s world would be better off if less shouted answers and more screamed questions.  We live in a world where everyone is an expert, everyone is a pundit and no one is a student, no one is a reader.  The first book does not answer all questions.  It is the beginning of a lifetime of answers and many more questions.

It is this questioning and wrestling that makes us Jewish.  Let’s have more questions.  And less answers.  Questions are the foundations of a Jewish life.  These are the notions that lend legitimacy to the name Yisrael, Israel, the God wrestler.

And it is these never ending questions and the diversity of responses we accumulate through a lifetime of reading and learning and asking that I choose to think about as we approach our holiday of Thanksgiving.