|The following is based on an address given in the Warsaw Ghetto on November 25, 1939. It discusses the Biblical story of Jacob’s wrestling an angel. This story obviously has much allegory as to the nature of the battle. In classical Jewish wisdom, the angel represents Jacob’s nemesis, his brother Eisav (Esau). Eisav is not only a physical person, it is a force working against Jews and Judaism. When the Eisav idea is understood, it sheds light on understanding anti-Semitism over the centuries as well as how the world presently views Israel and the Jewish people. This is an edited version of a talk given to the downtrodden Jews of the Warsaw ghetto by Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Chassidic Rebbi of Piaseczna, Poland. He perished with his family during the war.)|
And he (the angel) said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” but he (Jacob) said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:27)
After battling the angel, Jacob didn’t let his opponent go until he got a blessing from him. Why did he insist on getting a blessing from his opponent? The angel represented Eisav (Esau), the force from then onward that would seek to destroy Jacob. Jacob knew there was something more than just winning the battle not only for him but also for his decedents. After we suffer at the hands of our enemies, does it just mean that we will merely survive? Did G-d choose a nation to carry His message just so that they should survive—nothing more? People crave purpose and meaning in life, not just survival. Jacob realized that winning the battle, but limping home dejected would be devoid of meaning and would be theologically lacking for Jews in the centuries that followed. Do we just return home after a pogrom, racial cleansing, or Holocaust?
The angel grants Jacob’s request for a blessing and asks, “what is your name?” This is a peculiar question because if G-d sent the angel, so surely knew Jacob’s name. When Jacob tells him his name, the angel says that “this will no longer be your name.” Jacob is derived from the Hebrew word for heel because when his twin brother Eisav was born, Jacob followed him, and was under his heel. The angel was giving Jacob the message that he would no longer be at the heel of his enemy.
…Jacob will no longer be your name, but (you will now be called)Yisrael (Israel), because you have wrestled with G-d and men and you have won.
Here’s how the Rebbi from Piaseczna explained this passage that day in the Warsaw ghetto. Yisrael (Israel) would now be the name of the Jewish people. The message is that we don’t need to live in the limiting mindset just hoping to walk once again—limping in survival after we have been beaten. When Jews hide in basements and listen in fear to Nazi boots stomping above, there should be more than just hoping that they would not be discovered because that would mean that they were just living under the heel of Eisav, nothing more; but Jacob knew there was more.
The name Yisrael (Israel) symbolizes that from that point onward, you have the ability to master the situation. How? The Hebrew word for wrestle (sarita) is derived from nobility, and the blessing was that Jews from then onward would have the ability to retain their nobility no matter how much they were persecuted. In the moment, our persecutors might laugh at us but at that same moment we are cognizant that we are part of a resilient and gallant nation, who have had the opportunity to bring teachings that have literally transformed the world. We remember that even though our enemies attempt to dehumanize us, we have the ability to retain our nobility. Remaining noble amidst pain and suffering might sound bleak, but it has enabled Jews to maintain their dignity and hope for the future. The Rebbi’s message in the ghetto was that even though they were living in horrid conditions, they were nobility because they were the true rulers because they ruled over their spirit. The German’s had a rich history of culture that had produced some of the world’s greatest works of art, music, and literature but right now they were animals; the only place nobility was found was in their victims. The following story demonstrates this.
One of the towering figures to have survived the war was the Klausenberger Rebbi, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, who lost his wife and eleven children at the hands of the Nazi’s. After the war, he remarried and reestablished himself; he built schools and other Jewish institutions in America before moving to Israel in 1958. He spearheaded a vibrant community in Netanya, Israel and personally undertook to build the city’s first (and still only) hospital in the city.
When the Nazi’s came to Klausenburg, the town in which he served, he was told to come outside; all the people in town were watching.“Rabiner ”(Rabbi), asked the German commander, which nation is the chosen nation?” “The Jewish nation,” replied the Rabbi.The commander hit the Rabbi with the back of his rifle and continued to do so after he had fallen to the ground.
“Do you really think you are the chosen people?” “As long as you are the ones doing the beating, and we are the ones being beaten and we still believe in G-d and our mission; we are the chosen people.”
Although he permanently lost hearing in one ear as a result of that beating, he never forgot who he was and what he stood for. He was a nobleman of the highest caliber and that sense of nobility is obviously what motivated him to become a huge builder of Jewish causes and communities after the war.
The battle between the Rabbi and the Nazi officer was, in a certain way, a modern-day wrestling match between Jacob and Eisav. The officer walked away strong and healthy while the Rebbi was lying in a pool of blood, but who ultimately won?
The blessing given to Jacob and the Jews who followed him was that we have the ability to be victorious—even when things look bleak. It might not look like it at the time, but we will not only survive, we will build, grow, and develop until the end of days. This was the message given during this Shabbos eighty-one years ago in the Warsaw Ghetto, and it applies today also.Judaism isn’t a feel-good religion, it’s about being a seeker and living a life of meaning. The beaten Rabbi was in a pool of his own blood and probably thought he would die on the spot, but he would die as a nobleman. We, too, are nobility and the more we internalize it, the more internal strength will come our way.
What are your internal demons (fear, anger, self-pity, and the litany of other character defects)? You are a decedent of a nation of wrestlers, which means you have access to tools to help you wrestle with your demons and even though it sometimes appears bleak, if you stick with the program, you will be victorious and be living a life of meaning in the process.If you have no motivation to wrestle or deal with life on life’s terms, there’s hope. Chanukah begins this Thursday evening. The Talmud says that certain wicks and oil cannot be used for a Shabbos lamp because they sizzle or don’t burn well. Even though they are disqualified for use on the Sabbath, they can be used on Chanukah. A Chassidic insight (Imrei Emes, Miketz 5671) suggests that this is a hint to the idea that certain people might not be inspired on Shabbos but might be inspired by Chanukah. Many people don’t light candles on Shabbos but do light candles each night on Chanukah. Other aspects of Judaism might not inspire you to confront your demons, but reading about and observing Chanukiah might. The small band of devoted Jews who fought the powerful Syrian-Geek army won against all odds. If you haven’t been ready to deal with your life, Chanukah, a time of miracles, is a great time to begin.
Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah
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