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The Legacy of Yisrael

In this week's parashah, Vayishlah, Jacob is reunited with his brother Esau some 20 years after stealing their father Isaac's blessing. As he spends the night alone in preparation for the fateful meeting he encounters a man/angel who wrestles with him through the night. As the sun begins to rise the angel begs Jacob to let him go, but he will do so only if the man/angel blesses him. And so he is blessed with a new name Yisrael, meaning "one who struggles with God. From then on Ya'akov is also Yisrael and his descendants become B'nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel.

On that life-changing evening our ancestor becomes not merely Ya'akov, the one who held on to the "heel" (akev) of his twin brother at birth, but Yisrael, the God-wrestler (to borrow a term from Rabbi Arthur Waskow). He is no longer simply the one who hangs on to his big brother trying to prevent him from getting what is rightfully his (the blessing and the birthright), but the one who is ready to forge a new path for himself and his descendants.

And so here we are today, the Jewish people, named after his son Yehudah/ Judah. The line of tradition continues. And yet will it always be that way? Will be able to continue the tradition of God-wrestling that has sustained us through the years or will we instead become more like Ya'akov, the one desperately trying to hang on and hold back the other from superseding us?

In the New York Times of November 20, 2002 Douglas Rushkoff wrote an Op-Ed piece entitled "Judging Judaism by the Numbers". In this article he discusses the fact that we are poised to receive the results of the latest demographic survey of the US Jewish community. Unfortunately, the full results were not released at this week's General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities (the parent body of Jewish Community Federations) here in Philadelphia. This was due to incomplete data and errors on the part of the statisticians. Rushkoff believes that this is actually a blessing.

He proposes that focusing on our dwindling numbers, the increase in the average age of the community, and the continuing number of Jews marrying outside of the faith will simply cause a panic among the community, just as the 52 percent intermarriage rate did after the release of the 1990 census. He claims that this is detrimental because it perpetuates the myth that we are a dying race rather than, as he believes, a people poised on the brink of a true renaissance. He berates the organized Jewish community for using "negative" statistics as a means to help increase Jewish philanthropy and for perpetuating the belief that we are a race that could possibly become extinct.

He calls instead for us to remember that "we are [actually] the descendants of a loose amalgamation of peoples united around a new idea." We replaced this identity with the concept of a Jewish race based on theories proposed and expounded by our enemies, whether Pharaoh (the first to call us Israelites) or the Church in the Middle Ages or the Nazis.

Rushkoff implores us to reject a Judaism "more dedicated to safeguarding the Jewish race than to teaching Judaism [and that has] led to a Jewish culture based not on faith or spiritual inquiry but on the mechanics of preservation."

I also believe that this is what we must do and what we try to do within the Reconstructionist movement. I believe that our goal is to foster a love of Judaism and belonging to the Jewish people (the amalgam of different peoples and not the "race") and not to simply fight against assimilation and destruction no matter what the cost. I also believe that we, and others, have the ability to see that one person's "disaster" can also be viewed as an opportunity for growth and change. We have seen this in the way that we have integrated interfaith couples into our community and how much they have added to the texture and make-up of our community, rather than bringing about its demise! The statistics may not show this, but we know this from our experience.

Framing this in terms of this week's parashah we must continue to see ourselves as the inheritors of the legacy of Yisrael - the one who struggles with God to forge a new path, and not of Ya'akov - the one desperately struggling to hold on no matter what the cost. If we continue to struggle and to work towards developing communities filled with the love of study, prayer and acts of kindness, if we continue to hear and follow the call of then we will continue to build Jewish communities that have a meaning and a purpose even thought the shape, color and size might change.

Our numbers may continue to decrease or they may increase, but that is not the point. Focusing on the numbers means hanging on to the past and grasping at something intangible. Focusing instead on the content of our community's character is building and growing for the future and is something that will help to continue the renaissance within Judaism that I believe has already begun - regardless of what the latest census might tell us!
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah