By Rabbi Elyssa Cherney
Wrestling. We, as Jews, wrestle with so many things. With identity, with being a minority and with when and how to live out our Jewish values.
Last week, in parshat Vayetzei (Genesis v. 28:17), we see Jacob in a state of awe. “Ma Norah ha Makom Hazeh.” He awakes and says this line. … Wow, how awesome is this place?! This must be the place of G-d! He is presumably in just an ordinary place that he has stumbled upon during his travels. The Hebrew word that is used for awe, Yi-rah, is also the same word that is used for fear.
This verse of Torah is the same verse I use in a niggun (a wordless melody) to open up a beautiful wedding ceremony. Why? Because I know that G-d is surely there. That celebrating love is indeed a place of awe. Yet somehow, it is also a place of great fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what life will throw at this marriage. Fear of lack of support from the community and world that surrounds the couple.
Sometimes when we are in the thicket of the weeds, it is hard to see the miraculous vision of awe that the Torah speaks about. We may be stuck in the fight, in the wrestling. Yet, when we get to the other side, I hope we are struck with wonder and gratitude for having gone through the journey. As Torah teaches us, it isn’t just about the joys but the griefs and challenges as well.
In this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with an angel and prevails. He then asks to be blessed by the angel before the angel departs. The angel replies, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.”
Through this wrestling, Jacob overcomes his fears. The question I am left with is: How do we wrestle with that which we fear? Is it in fact wrestling with something that turns it from fear into awe? Or is awe always there as the trembling curiosity and we must stop to engage with it instead of running the other way?
I think about these two verses from time to time. I think about this concept of awe/fear and how it relates to the Jewish community. I think about how the Jewish community I grew up with and the one I am a part of now are shifting. I think about the ways in which the Jewish community itself must wrestle with its own identity and definition of Judaism.
I’m in awe of the way in which Jews and those who love them are being more and more embraced in a world that once feared their very existence. I marvel at the way that I see non-Jewish partners being welcomed into Jewish spaces. Yet, many of these couples still enter Jewish spaces with that fear. Fear of rejection and fear of having to defend their love. I don’t think interfaith families have fully come to be accepted for their similarities over their differences within the Jewish community and are still, in fact, wrestling.
When Jacob is blessed by the angel and his name shifts, he no longer lives in fear. Jacob instead lives with confidence in his new identity, and his new name Israel. He is able to approach his relationship with his brother Esau in a way that works toward peace versus agitation.
I wonder what that type of radical acceptance would look like in the liberal Jewish world. I can understand both sides of the word Yi-rah as fear and as awe. As if fear is, in fact, the reverence of trembling in disbelief at the infinite possibilities before us.
There is always going to be the fear of change, and the foresight of amazing miracles as well. Perhaps we can only experience true awe once we, like Jacob, have gotten to the other side and prevailed past fear.
Jews and those who love them have already prevailed in so many ways. For those who still wrestle with what it means to hold a Jewish identity, I hope you feel more blessings of awe than fear in the journey ahead.
Rabbi Elyssa Cherney is the founder and CEO of Tacklingtorah. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.