The Holiness of “Becoming”

This week’s Torah Portion is a special one for me.  Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43, contains the story of Jacob’s struggle with G-d as he comes back home to face the brother he wronged many years before.  Jacob “wins” that wrestling match with G-d and receives a new name, Israel.  To the location of his over-night struggle with G-d, Jacob gives the name “Peniel,” which is a reference to seeing the face of G-d.

When I converted to Judaism, I chose to make “Peniel” part of my Hebrew name because I had spent so much of my life arguing with G-d that it was as if I was carrying “the place of the struggle” inside me.  At that time, I viewed my incessant struggle with G-d as a burden … as a character flaw that I hoped could be eliminated with sufficient study and prayer.

Now, after years of study and prayer, I remain “the place of struggle,” but I no longer see that trait as a flaw.  Rather, I believe “carrying Peniel” is my greatest strength.   Why the change?  What did I learn that turned my struggle with G-d from a burden to a blessing??  I learned struggle is affiliated with change, and our ability to change might well be our holiest attribute as humans …

When Moses met G-d at the burning bush, G-d told Moses that G-d’s name is eheyeh asher eheyeh – which translates as “I will become what I will become.”   And Jacob’s story is a beautiful example of how we humans are made in the image of G-d, of how we can take advantage of our holy ability to “become what we will become.”

Yes, Jacob begins as a man whose unethical and deceptive acts “miss the mark.”  But he was also a man who honored his mother’s directive, who dreamt of a ladder that allowed angels to travel from and to heaven, who fell in love, who was deceived by another man, who worked hard, and who listened to G-d’s instruction that he go back home to his family despite his fear of the brother he deceived.  Jacob’s story is a story of growth, of change, and of becoming … different and (I would like to believe) better.

And, just like Jacob, none of us is a static being frozen in space or time.  The present is only the place where we stepped from our past and from which we will step into the immediate future.  Every brief moment of life is a new “present,” a new opportunity to change the course of the future, such that, really, our lifetimes are composed almost entirely of what we were and, more importantly, what we choose to become.

Our very existence as humans is inseparable from our ability to become, and there is no shame to be found in the fact that we still need to grow, change, or improve.  After all, if our G-d is not yet “done” becoming what G-d will be, then why would we ever expect a human to be finished???

We ought not expect to be finished, because such an expectation can only set us up for heartbreak or, worse yet, prevent us from growing.  Our tasks are: (1) to remain aware of our deficiencies, (2) to trust that G-d will help us improve in the future, and (3) to keep learning, striving, and growing.  For example, not long before his wrestling match with G-d, Jacob prayed saying,

G-d of my father . . . I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth, which you have shown to your servant, [but] Save me, I beseech you, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he will come and strike me, and the mother with the children.

Genesis 32: 10-12.  Jacob realized he still had faults, he admitted his fear, and he asked for help … but Jacob did not run away.  He stayed, and he struggled all night, and when the darkness lifted to reveal a new day, Jacob was a new man with a new name.

This is how it can be for us, if we are willing to admit our imperfections, to humbly ask for help, and to keep struggling to learn and grow.  Our “night” of struggle may actually be a week, month, or even years; we may be injured (as was Jacob); and we may find ourselves facing seemingly insurmountable fear, which will repeatedly urge us to deny fault and to resist change.  But if we can muster the courage to remain at Peniel and stay in the struggle, we can harness the holiness inside us and become a better version of ourselves. Baruch Hashem.

The Legacy of a Matriarch

This week’s Torah portion begins with the death of the first Jewish matriarch, Sarah. Thinking about Sarah’s death reminded me of the death of my paternal grandmother, the matriarch of my family. As I thought about these two women and their lives, I began to feel sorry for Sarah, and then I began to appreciate how truly blessed I was to have had my Granny.

Sarah was barren into her old age, gave her handmaiden to her husband so that he might have an heir, and then severely punished the handmaiden for having that child. When she heard she would have a son within the year, she bitterly “laughed within herself” and, in the end, she forced Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away into the desert. While our tradition has portrayed Sarah as an equal partner in Abraham’s “hospitality to the stranger,” the actual text of Torah portrays her personality in a much less positive light.

My Granny, who no doubt had her fair share of heart-breaking experiences in her 88-years of life, was the polar-opposite of bitter. Instead, Granny was the picture of hospitality and love. On the rare occasion when she would not have a homemade dessert on the counter when someone arrived at her house, she would apologize profusely and then offer a store-bought substitute from her cabinet. Until her final stay in the hospital, she was still making pies for church gatherings and family visitors. In fact, even when we visited in the hospital, she would offer us a cookie from her cafeteria tray or a piece of chocolate that had been sent to her as a gift.

The night before Granny’s final surgery, I stayed over-night at the hospital with her. Granny talked to me about how tired she was, how weak she felt, and her fear that she would not live through the surgery. I tried to comfort her, telling her that I was sorry she felt badly but that I believed she was strong enough to have surgery and recover to go home. As I was leaving her room the next morning to head to work, before she was prepped for surgery, she gave me not the usual one, but ten, kisses on my cheek. Granny did not awaken from the anesthesia of surgery and was placed on life-support for a few days, until it became clear there was no hope for her recovery. After being taken off life-support, she regained “consciousness” only long enough to say the names of each of her children and grandchildren and to tell us not to worry, because she would be okay.

My Granny’s love for her family, and really for everyone she knew, was unfathomably large, and she never failed to find a way to show her love – with homemade desserts, with genuine interest in anything anyone wanted to tell her, with gentle comments to help bring understanding of the harsh reality not yet accepted, with “extra” kisses to cherish after she was gone, and, yes, using even her dying breaths to comfort all of her children and grandchildren.

It’s incredibly difficult to recover from the loss of a person who gives love like that . . . because her absence is felt at so many moments and in so many intangible ways. Even now, nearly two years later, I still have to remind myself that I cannot allow my fear of experiencing another loss that devastating keep me from loving or opening myself to others. I do not want to be like Sarah, who allowed her disappointments to make her bitter and afraid . . . because bitterness and fear breed only more of themselves . . . and cause us to treat others harshly.

P!nk’s recently released album, “The Truth about Love,” contains a song (“Timebomb”) that I’ve adopted as my anthem this month because it contains the following lyrics:

Screw fear it’s contagious, infecting everything.
It makes me do such stupid, stupid stuff.
I say things I never mean.
What exactly do I think? Who am I protecting?
If I fall, I’ll blow up in my face?
That’s just crazy.
* * * * *
It’s only love; give it away (it’s only love).
You’ll probably get it back again (it’s only love).
It’s simple, it’s a silly thing, throw it away like a boomerang.
I wish we all could lighten up – it’s only love, not a time bomb!

I imagine Granny would not have cared much for P!nk or her music. But I am positive that Granny would approve of the sentiment expressed in those lyrics and of my adopting that song as my new anthem. I know Granny’s life contained disappointments, and I know there were people who misunderstood or did not appreciate her for who she was. But Granny just kept giving away love to anyone who would take it.

It’s time for me to shake off more of the fear and disappointment of past losses and misunderstandings. It’s time to be more like Granny . . .

. . . So, who wants dessert??