Parashat Vayishlach – December 6, 2020
Yesterday the governor of California announced a return to the strictest level of pandemic restrictions with masks mandatory outside of your house, period, through at least early January. I was listening to the radio broadcast of the announcement and someone asked if there would be fines if folks didn’t comply? Can mandates like this really be enforced? No. What will make this effective is voluntary compliance when people choose to do something for the greater good.
What would compel someone to comply voluntarily? Several of us have been exploring the question of “what Jewish texts have to say about voluntary compliance in a time of pandemic”*? We’ve explored several ideas including societies whose laws and values harm the victim and reward the perpetrator – like Sodomite society of which we read several weeks ago. We’ve explored the idea of “lifnim meshurat hadin” – discretion to choose NOT to do something, even though it is within your legal rights to do so.
As individuals we have rights, but as a society, we have responsibilities to one another. Where is the line between the two? How do we know when we should pull back on our individual rights (lifnim m’shurat hadin) for the good of the society as a whole? Our Torah portion Vayishlach gives us some hints.
We are in Genesis and you’ll remember that after Jacob stole his brother’s birthright, the two became estranged. Now, years later, they have arranged to meet. Jacob has sent gifts of apology to smooth the way and to appease his brother Esau but Jacob is clearly agitated. The text tells us:
That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he (the man) saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he (the man) said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he (Jacob) answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
Who is the man/the being with whom Jacob struggles? Is he an angel, a messenger from God? An actual person? Or is Jacob struggling with his own guilty conscience and his own demons over what he did to his brother? Perhaps he is grappling with his individual desire to let the whole matter be in the rearview mirror and to do nothing, but he knows that for shalom bayit “peace in the family,” he needs to eat crow and apologize. Perhaps he genuinely feels sorry. In thinking about who the being is with whom he struggles, we are specifically NOT told the name of other, “You must not ask my name!”, but after the encounter, Jacob is changed. He is changed because he has encountered God. He “has seen a divine being face to face, yet his life has been preserved.”
I am struck by three things here: Jacob is changed by the struggle. He doesn’t know the name of the being with whom he struggles, and he looks into the face of the divine and his life is preserved.
First, Jacob is changed by the struggle. When thinking about the pandemic, or any aspect of living in a society in a time of crisis, I struggle with my individual rights and responsibilities. Should I go visit my mother? Am I risking my health or my husband’s by going into Walmart? Do I really need to wear a mask in the park? What happens if I do not and I run into someone rounding the corner? As I consider how I will respond to the tension between the need to go to the market, the need to get out of the house, and keeping myself and other people safe, I have wrestled with this and this struggle has changed me. I now consider every action I take through the lens of wearing a mask and my responsibility to my family, my neighbors and my friends.
Second, Jacob doesn’t know the name of the being with whom he struggles. Why did Jacob want to know the name of the individual with whom he struggled? The Italian rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno suggests that a name “describes your essence, your function, and how you would go about performing same.” By naming the being you begin to understand who they are, to define them… you see them a bit clearer…you start to know with whom you are dealing. And once you know with whom you are dealing, you can dismiss or validate them. Personally, I think Jacob wanted to know with whom he struggled to confirm his faith in God, that God would be with him as he faced a difficult morning ahead.
We live in a society comprised of individuals and strangers. It is impossible to know everyone, in fact, in our daily comings and goings (perhaps in the old world, if not now). We don’t know the names of 99% of the people around us. Who are they? If I don’t know them, why should I care about them? Why should they care about me? What would cause them to care about me?
Lastly, “he (Jacob) looks into the face of the divine and his life is preserved.” What would cause the unknown people who live around me to care enough about me to choose to act in way that circumscribes their rights, whether it is wearing a mask today, or putting up blackout curtains in World War II, or not taking 2-hour showers in a drought? Mutuality and reciprocity would cause people to circumscribe their rights, or in the wording of texts, to act “lifnim meshurat hadin.” When I feel I will benefit in some way by circumscribing my rights, now or in the future, I will do so. I will join with my fellow citizens for the benefit of our greater good.
We are all created in the image of God. Each of us carries a spark of the divine. When we forget that, when we ignore that, then our neighbors become nameless “others.” Jacob looked at the being with whom he wrestled, he looked into the face of the divine, he recognized in the “other” the image of God, and because of that his life was preserved.
As we enter into a period of new or continuing restrictions, let us remember that like Jacob, while we may struggle with the line between personal freedom and community responsibility, when we look into the face of the other, into the faces of those around us, let us see the image of God. By looking into the face of the other, may we see the face of the divine, may we act for the greater good, and may life be preserved.
Ken y’hi ratzon
*In grateful acknowledgement of the stellar teaching of Elana Stein-Hain of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.