The Hasidic master, Sefat Emet, points out that Jacob is not called whole (shalem) until after he limps. (See Genesis 33:18.) This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, describes that journey, from cheating and brokenness to wholeness and peace.
Jacob, now married with two wives, two maidservants, eleven children, many slaves and an abundance of livestock, sets out to return to his native land. At the same place where he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven, he sends his family across the river and again spends the night alone. He is understandably nervous about the impending reunion with his brother Esau who twenty years earlier vowed to kill him for stealing the birthright.
That night his experience is neither a dream nor an earthly reality. He wrestles with a being that is described as divine. Unable to free himself from Jacob’s grasp the being offers Jacob a blessing in exchange for his release. This being declares, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) He wrenches Jacob’s hip causing him to limp. (By the way this is why filet mignon is not kosher. According to tradition this cut is not eaten in remembrance of Jacob’s pain.)
Jacob’s new name becomes the name of the Jewish people. Yisrael means to wrestle with God. What a remarkable statement about our people and our tradition! We can wrestle with God. We can question God. In fact we should question God. While most people understand that questioning is part and parcel to being Jewish, few appreciate that such questioning extends towards heaven. The rabbis called this notion, chutzpah klappei shamayim, chutzpah towards heaven. It is a beautiful and telling concept.
Long ago the rabbis codified action over belief, the duties of the hands over the feelings of the heart. We have books and books detailing exactly which cuts of beef are fit and unfit, when and when not to recite the Shema, even how much we should give to tzedakah. We do not have such books telling us exactly what we must believe. We have many discussions and debates about these questions, but no creeds. We have codes of action not creeds of belief.
It is this embrace of many different theologies that makes Judaism so extraordinary. I don’t have to have it all figured out. I can still question. I can still wonder. I can still ask: Why does God not heal every person who is sick and infirm? Why is there pain and suffering in God’s world? And so as you look towards heaven, what are your questions of God?
Questions are part of what makes us whole. We too cannot be called whole until we wrestle with God.