Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wrestling With Angels

by Susan Weinberg

The Hebrew Bible is the supreme example of that rarest of phenomena, a national literature of self-criticism. Other ancient civilisations recorded their victories. The Israelites recorded their failures.-Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Rembrandt - Jacob Wrestling with Angel 1659
Much of what stirs my thoughts comes from books. Occasionally I experience a pivotal book that leaves me a bit awestruck at what the author added to my understanding.  Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is such a book. 

Part of what I found so intriguing was Sack's analytic skills applied to biblical stories. I'm a lover of story, and what is the Bible between all the begats, but story.  Story is how we make sense of the world, so the Bible is an anthropological dig into the heart of mankind. Sacks believes we have often worked with its stories on only a surface level, playing two dimensional checkers when the truth lies in examining many more dimensions. He then proceeds to examine these stories from multiple angles, as well as longitudinally across stories.  He has us step into the shoes of each person emotionally and dissects the meaning of words. Part of my admiration is for the depth of his analytic skills. The other part is for the destination at which he arrives, one that feels anchored in truth. 

Sacks is an Orthodox rabbi, yet his thoughtful analysis speaks to people across a broad spectrum. He brings an extremely open world view to his analysis and applies his interpretive skills without prejudgments.

His focus is on the human tendency to turn on those we perceive as "other."  He attributes it to our search for identity and for those who we identify as our tribe. Inclusiveness and exclusion go hand in hand. If we have identity, "us", we also see its inverse, "them". When our world fractures, unable to cling to the tracks as we careen too quickly into change, we fall into dualism. Dualism is when we attribute evil to an outside force, simplifying the world into good and bad, us and them. Scapegoats are targeted and we tighten our group bonds by attacking the "other."

Sacks examines this concept through the lens of sibling rivalry as addressed in the Bible. From Cain and Abel, to Jacob and Esau to Joseph and his brothers, the theme comes up over and over again. Rabbi Sacks mines this material for meaning as he considers why such violence exists between brothers, looking for the model by which they resolve it. Now, he has far more tools to make sense of this than I do. He knows the intricacies within and between the stories, he knows the context of the times in which they occurred and he knows the meaning of the words that the Hebrew Bible uses to tell the story. I must confess to some Bible envy. I too wish I could dissect the language, but lacking that ability, I am grateful for guides such as Sacks. 

The constant repetition of the theme of sibling rivalry underscores that this is part of the universal human condition. And yet, instead of viewing it as a hopeless repetition, enacted countless times through history, Sacks analyzes the pattern of each occurrence and if in fact each occurrence moves us further down the road in understanding the need for and method of reconciliation.  We begin with a murder between Cain and Abel, then move to a deception by Jacob, but a reconciliation, as the two brothers stand together at their father's grave after Jacob wrestles with the angel, his metaphoric self, and returns the stolen blessing to Esau. Perhaps the most interesting evolution is between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, abandoned by his brothers in a pit and sold into slavery, forces his elder brother to participate in an experience similar to that in which he had been thrust. This time his older brother rises to the occasion and does the right thing. 

Sacks believes that it is only through stepping into someone else's shoes, that we fully appreciate their experience and can redeem ourselves. In short, we defeat dualism with role reversal, no longer viewing the other as outside of ourself, but an integrated whole. He reminds us that in these times where primitive hatreds rage, it behooves us to learn to wrestle with our angels.

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