Wrestling with our words
TorahParshat Vayishlach

Wrestling with our words

Genesis 32:4 - 36:43

(File photo)
(File photo)

Last week I joined a number of people in logging off of Facebook and Instagram to “hold Facebook accountable for its harms and poor practices.” We were sending a message. We were also encouraged by the organizers to share that message with friends on Facebook before logging out. Which seems complicated — something to wrestle with a little. Was The Facebook Logout an effective message? Was it sent in a way that could be heard? Was it sent in a way that could result in change and repair? I don’t know.

In this week’s parshah, Jacob is returning to Canaan after 20 years away, working for Laban and marrying Leah and Rachel. He had fled his brother Esau’s wrath after stealing Esau’s birthright. Jacob doesn’t know what kind of reception awaits him on his return. The parshah opens with: “And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother…” Gen 32:4.

The Hasidic master, Elimelekh of Lizhensk, in his work, “No’am Elimelekh,” teaches that these messengers are actually the letters and words that we use to create speech. “The blessed One created letters, which in their original state are pure potential.” In No’am Elimelekh’s world, the prayers of the tsaddik were considered to have particular healing power, using the potential of those letters and words and skillfully putting them together in prayer. He speaks about the tsaddik’s words this way: “It is known that a tsaddik’s prayer is answered when praying for a sick person or for others in need.” But he is clear that the source of power for the tsaddik’s words is not just the potential in the letters or learning the “right” words to say or praying the “right” prayers. The power comes from loving energy behind the words. It is because the Torah was created with love (as we declare in the liturgy in Ahavat Olam and Ahavah Rabbah) and that the tsaddik loves God and every person in the world. If we are meant to internalize that — well, that’s a tall order to bring into my own life. Applying the word “love” to people broadly is kind of overwhelming. It helps me to think of this kind of love, as Martin Buber puts it, as approaching everyone as “thou” instead of as an “it.” Of seeing them in their full dignity and capacity, to the best of my ability. Or thinking of love as attention. Bringing my attention, open and receptive, might be a kind of love. As Marge Piercy wrote: “Attention is love, what we must give children, mothers, fathers, pets, our friends, the news, the woes of others.”

No’am Elimelekh recognizes this struggle when he connects that opening verse about messengers to the verse about Jacob wrestling the mysterious stranger on the night before he expects to face Esau, where we are told: “And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” Gen 32:25.

The medieval commentator Rashi explains that the word in this verse for “wrestled,” in Hebrew va-yei’avek, is related to Hebrew word avek, which means “raises dust.” No’am Elimelekh admits the real difficulty of loving everyone like a true tsaddik, and the consequent difficulty of having love energize our words, like the tsaddik’s healing prayers. Often that “dust” covers that loving energy. The “dust” of my conscious and unconscious biases and my own reactivity covers up the knowledge of my fundamental connection to others. No’am Elimelekh invites us to internalize the struggle ourselves, to become more conscious of the energy behind our words on Facebook and everywhere else. PJC

Cantor Julie Newman is president of Tiferet, a Jewish spirituality project, and spiritual leader of Chavurat Shirah, an independent minyan. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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