Monday, May 10, 2010

Wrestling Fear into Transformation


My hevruta Shmuel Shalom Hacohen teaches experiential Torah. It's often difficult to explain what that means, but our study this past week really made it clear to me. It's when studying Torah is not simply the intellectual process of trying to make sense of the text. It's when studying Torah makes sense of one's life. The process of making sense of the text is the process of making sense of one's own life and self. If that process links directly to one's heart, then the study becomes a healing ritual to connect one to God and break through klipot (barriers) and blockages.

The story we studied was Yaacov's first meeting with Esau after years of separation. Yaacov had a lot of fear about the meeting. He'd been told by God to return to the land of his birth, but that meant seeing his brother Esau.  The last time he saw Esau, Esau was swearing to kill him. In Genesis 32:10, Yaacov prays to God that his meeting will go well and expresses many of his fears. What follows is the wonderful story of his wrestling with an angel all night. A close reading of the text will show that this was a night of transformation for him, allowing him to move beyond his fear, beyond his image of himself, and transform the relationship between himself and Esau.

The story begins with Yaacov leaving his camp, at night, with his wives, handmaids, and children. He crosses over the מעבר יבק which literally translates as the "empty passage" or "the passage of desolation". He helps his family to cross a river, but remains behind alone. He is in the midst of his family, but isolated from them. When fear is in control, it separates us from those we love. His family has moved on in the journey, but he remains stuck in his own desolation.

He then struggles with a man until dawn. Another aspect of a person lost in fear is their anger with the world, especially when the fear is about one's personal safety. It doesn't matter who this man is (Gn 32:30), Yaacov would have found a way to fight with him. Had he not been lost in fear, he might have welcomed the man in to talk, but as is, he struggles and fights with him.

It becomes clear that they are evenly matched and so the man touches Yaacov's hip and dislocates it. The man then begs to be freed from the struggle as the dawn is approaching. Yaacov asks for a blessing in return. The man asks for his name. Yaacov, he replies. Yaacov יעקב derives from עקב ekev, or heel. He was named that way because when he was born, he was grasping the heel of his twin Esau. עקב ekev also means footstep. Yaacov had been following in his brother's footsteps his whole life.

The man changes his name to Israel, one who struggles because Yaacov struggled with God and with man and was up to the challenge. Israel, ישראל can also be interpreted as ישר אל straight to God. When the sun rises, he names the place Paniel for here was the place where he saw God face to face (Panim פנים).  On this night of struggle, after injuring himself, Yaacov was finally able to connect directly to God and was no longer trying to imitate his brother.

The result? "He raised his eyes and saw, and there was Esau coming with 400 men" (Gn 33:2). Esau was also clearly expecting a fight. But with his fear no longer in control, Yaacov could truly see Esau and understood that he no longer wanted a fight. By changing himself, Yaacov had changed Esau and their relationship. The work done on himself reflected into Esau and both were changed by Yaacov's night of struggle.

So when Yaacov approached him, he sent his wives and children first, not his fighting men. When the two brothers saw each other, they embraced and cried. Yaacov was truly Israel then - no longer following or fearing his brother, but able to stand as equals and truly love Esau.

This interpretation arose during our Hevruta study. When I was going over my notes later on, I suddenly realized that this was me. I am going to be in the states in a few months and will be seeing an old friend with whom I've had some problems over the past few years. I've been worried about the meeting and trying to figure out how we can avoid fighting. I realized I need to find out what I'm afraid of, experience it for myself, and allow that change to shift my relationship with my old friend. It feels as if most of the change has already happened as a result of this study. This is the essense of experiential Torah study.

Photo courtesy of Docman

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Animal guides

Photo courtesy of Kirklandj

A common question I hear is if Judaism has animal spirit guides or totem animals. There are  references to angels that appear in the form of animals, but the idea of an animal spirit guide is not commonly found in Jewish mysticism. During a Zohar class, we studied a story of two men who went on a journey and were led by an Eagle. It conversed with them and eventually turned into a man who brought them to the heavenly beit midrash (house of study).

I'm not a person who has ever been attracted to animal spirit guides or totems. Most of the souls I encounter are in Human form, if they have a shape. I share this reference in answer to the questions I've received and for those who do interact with spirit animals.

From the Zohar, part III, page 161 bet, parsha Shelah. Translation by my teacher.

He [the spirit guide] turns to them and says, go out from here, you are meritous, you are righteous. They went out. That appointed being gave them each a rose and they went out. When they went out, the door of the cave was closed and couldn't be seen at all.


They saw that Eagle that was coming down from that tree. And he went into another cave. These two they smelled their rose and they entered into there. And they met the Eagle by the opening of the cave, he said to them: “Please come in true righteous ones, friends, because I have not seen the joy of friendship from the day that I'm here. Only with you.”


They entered into the cave. They arrived in another orchard and the Eagle is with them. They found people there studying the Mishna. So then the Eagle transformed into the image of a person in garments of glory shining like them [the masters of the Mishna]. And he is sitting like one of them. He said to those that were sitting there [the two people in the story]. Give honor to these masters of the Mishna who came here because their master has shown them great wonders here.


One of them said, Do you have sign? They said yes, we do. They took out their two roses and smelled them. The masters of the Mishna said “please sit down master of the yeshiva, sit down true righteous ones.” They were happy with them, and they sat down. At that time, they learned there 30 Halachot that they did not know before this, and others secrets of the Torah.