Vayishlach: No Soul Left Behind

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

Yaakov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Yaakov’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. . . . . (Bereshit 32:25-26)

Good afternoon!

Boy it’s been one of those days. . . but not as eventful as the night before our ancestor Yaakov re-encountered his brother Esav, whom he had run away from 20 years earlier after stealing the blessing of the first born. In the famous prelude to their meeting, Yaakov sends gifts ahead to his brother, who is travelling with a small army, and remains alone by a river after dividing his household into two camps for protection. Yaakov meets a mysterious man- perhaps an angel? a dream? a representation of his conscience?- and they wrestle till dawn, eventually leaving Yaakov with a limp in his hip.

The story concludes with one of the few mitzvot, or commandments, of the book of Genesis:

That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle . . .(ibid, v 33.)

The part of an animal that is not eaten is called gid hanasheh, and is generally understood to be the sciatic nerve and the area around it, which can be removed when an animal is slaughtered according to the Jewish dietary laws.

OK, I can hear you asking, so not eating a certain part of an animal’s leg is connected to Yaakov’s injury during his wrestling. That’s fine, but what, exactly, are we being asked to remember, and why is this connected to a dietary practice?

Well, it turns out that many Torah commentators ask the same questions, and don’t, of course, all agree on the answers. Some say that it is a reminder to keep “wrestling” even if we feel injured or imperfect, and some say that is is a sign that despite the ways in which we might be limping along, there is a promise of Divine aid at the end of our struggles. One particularly poignant interpretation of this mitzvah comes from the medieval commentator Hizzekuni, who asks an obvious question: why did Yaakov’s family and servants leave him alone by the river that night? Surely they should have insisted that he come along with the rest of the camp lest he be found alone by his brother’s men!

Hizzekuni turns his question into his answer: we refrain from eating the gid hanesheh precisely to remind us that Yaakov should not have been left alone and potentially in danger. Granted, perhaps he needed to be alone to wrestle with the angel (or whatever that was) but Hizzekuni is interested in a teaching for the rest of us: do not leave another to feel abandoned, alone or afraid. Perhaps it was Yaakov’s destiny was solitude that night, but that hardly excuses the rest of us from walking away when others may need us most. Seen this way, an obscure mitzvah, that hardly fits with its narrative origins, becomes a powerful reminder of the most basic Jewish principle: you are, indeed, your brother’s (and father’s and sister’s and neighbor’s) keeper.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

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