Jacob Remained Alone

One subject that almost invariably generates uncomfortable chuckles is that of professional wrestling….On Shabbat, I asked for a brief show of hands of anyone who is a relative of, or who knows someone who enjoys pro wrestling.   Several prominent members of EB indeed put up their hands.

I, too, am no exception: One of the fondest memories of my childhood was the “Cage Match” between Igor, the Polish strongman, and Dr .X, on January 4th, 1969.  I attended the match with my grandfather, who was of course convinced that wrestling was “real”!  (Someone from the Kahal asked me if they ever unmasked Dr. X.  I just did some research and found him to be Dick Beyer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Beyer)….)

I even have some great “yichus”, as my uncle was the famous “Crusher Kornberg” in the 1950’s…He assured me that wrestling was not real, but that the referee actually “directs” the matches, instructing the participants what to do next, as Grace Angel writes:

Although it is usually the responsibility of the wrestlers to call spots in the ring to signify what move is going to be used next, the referee can sometimes be used to relay spots between wrestlers. This is especially important if there is a minor injury and one of the wrestlers does not remember the rest of the match as it was laid out in the locker room before going in front of the live crowd. A referee can also be used to make sure that the time of the match is properly slotted into the show. If the referee has an earpiece, the agents in the back can pass messages to the wrestlers through the referee.

One wrestling match that was most certainly real – was the match between our forefather Ya’akov and the mysterious man in Perashat Vayishlach.  In this forum, we cannot explore the full depth of meaning in this episode, but I would like to offer my own modest insight.

Prior to the appearance of his combatant, the Torah tells us “And Ya’akov remained alone”…..

Soon, he was engaged in a struggle.  In Hebrew the words read: ויאבק איש עמו.  Rashi cites two possible explanations of the verb ויאבק, both stemming from the root א.ב.ק:

a) They stirred up dust with their feet while they were struggling – the word “avak” means “dust”

b) They became intertwined.  A Havadalah candle is in the shape of an “avuka” – with its wicks intertwined

I recently saw a beautiful parallel between the language and themes of this struggle and one of the sorcerer Bilaam’s blessings in Perashat Balak.  Here, Ya’akov, left alone, engages in a struggle with someone attempting to defeat him by wrestling with him, stirring up dust in the process.  Similarly Bilaam, when he blesses the Jewish people, says:

I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations…..Who can count the dust of Jacob….

The wrestling match and the imagery of dust find their way into a profound observation by Rabbi Chaim Volozhin in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers.  The mishna reads:

Yossi Ben Yo’ezer from Tzreida said:
“Let your home be a gathering place for scholars,
cleave to the dust of their feet,
and drink in their words with thirst.”

The Hebrew root used in the last line is א.ב.ק, and what I recorded above is one interpretation.  The standard reading of the text is consistent with the image of students sitting humbly at the feet of their teachers in Mishnaic times, absorbing every word of Torah.

Rav Chaim adds another layer:  The dust of the mishna is a symbol of struggle: A student is allowed and even encouraged to struggle with the rulings and explanations of his teacher in order to gain clarity.  Pursuing truth through challenging the validity of certain points made by one’s teacher is not considered inherently disrespectful; it’s an essential component of the learning process.  One must strike a subtle balance between reverence for the tradition handed down and a drive for clarity.

This approach to religious truth is unique to our people.  A Jewish study hall is called a Bet Midrash, where students are “doresh”, seek to find out the truth.

Jacob Remained Alone.

“I see a people who live apart,” Bilaam says..

Of all of our forefathers, the one most identified with Torah study is Ya’akov.  He is referred to as a “perfect man, who dwelt in tents.” Our sages understand this to mean that he studied and meditated on Torah.

The angel who struggled with Ya’akov, tradition teaches us, is the ministering angel of Esav.

Ramban explains that this dramatic encounter foreshadows the persecutions that we Jews would face throughout the centuries.

What in our belief system irked so many throughout the ages?

What triggered the numerous incidents of the burning the Talmud in the Middle ages?

I would like to suggest that this unique respectful, but tenacious Jewish struggle for clarity and truth played a significant, if subliminal role.  Ya’akov, the student of Torah, stands alone in his method of seeking truth: A curiosity and critical edge buffered by reverence.

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