Jews often self effacingly quip about our penchant for arguing, for fighting ... whining. It's almost like a badge of honor: Two Jews, three opinions.
Argumentation is the very fabric of one of our holiest texts, the Talmud. It is written with snappy back-and-forth dialogue that would be worthy of a stage play. Rav Jehuda said this ... But then Rabbi Yonaton retorted that ... And then five hundred years later, Rava replied, quoting Rashi ...
We joke about our arguments, or discussions as some families call them, but there may be a deeper insight hidden behind our self mockery.
We're going to take a look at Jacob. The third of the patriarchs, his life is probably the most complicated of the three, which is really saying something given that Abraham left everything he knew to go on a journey with no known destination and that Isaac was almost killed by his own father.
Jacob's fighting and arguing starts in the womb. He is vying for position with his twin brother Esau. The oldest son, the first out of the womb, will receive the birthright. As the Rebecca gives birth, Esau is just a bit ahead of Jacob, and Jacob pulls on Esau's heel to try and drag him down. But alas, Esau is born first. Jacob is named for this little maneuver, as ya'akov means 'heel.'
After Jacob swindles Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup, he also tricks his dying dad into thinking that he is Esau. He and his mother glue hair all over his body so that he will resemble his hirsute older brother.
And after this, he runs away.
In this Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob prepares to meet his brother for the first time in twenty years.
He travels with gifts of reparations for Esau - including 200 she-goats, 20 he-goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, 30 camels. He also brings his two wives, two maidservants and eleven children.
But, on the night before he reunites with his brother, he is alone.
The Torah wastes no time:
A man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not won against Jacob, he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket. Then he said, Let me go, for dawn is breaking. But he 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 brings divine and human and prevailed.
Our ancestor has two names, and both revolve around this notion of arguing, fighting, struggling. While in the womb, he physically fought with Esau so that he would emerge as the first-born son. Later in life, he wrestles with a man, or being, or perhaps even God as many commentators suggest ... And after this wrestling his name is changed to Yisrael, literally meaning 'struggle with God.'
In my first year of rabbinical school, a rabbi came and gave a talk. Over and over he said, Comfort is not a Jewish value.
What could this possibly mean?
Surely there's nothing wrong with desiring comfortable lives: lives of financial security, physical well-being, surrounded by loved ones that we can count on and trust. These things provide comfort. An immeasurable amount of comfort.
And no, that's not what this means.
What it means is this: to have a holy relationship with God means that each of us must struggle with God. It teaches us that struggling is a holy endeavor that is equated to maturity and growth.
It's important that Jacob's name is not changed until after he struggles with God. We are Jacob's namesake ... We are b'nei Yisrael. We struggle, wrestle, argue.
I could spend another 800 words or so on the encounter that happens the next day, the meeting between Esau and Jacob, two brothers who have not seen each other in over twenty years.
Suffice it to say that it is an amazing moment of love and forgiveness. They both embraced and wept.
Isn't is possible that it was exactly Jacob's struggle which allowed for the moment of catharsis? It is precisely our arguing, our struggling, our discussions which help us become brothers, sisters, friends, congregational family members, b'nei Yisrael.
On this Shabbat let us live up to our namesake. Let us struggle with God. Let us struggle with what it means to be a Jew. And in the process, we too will receive God's blessing.