Parshat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
“Someday soon this rhyming volume, if you learn with proper speed/Little Louis Sanchez, will be given you to read.” So wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in a poem for a young nephew who had been named for him but who he’d never met. The poem ends: “[W]hile you thought of no one, nearly half the world away/Someone thought of Louis on the beach of Monterey!”
The author wrote the poem for someone who was not yet able to read it, hoping that someday he would. When, as a child myself, I read “To My Name-Child,” it gave me chills to imagine this poet imagining the nephew he had never met. Both Louises were long dead by then, yet the poem was still speaking to me who would never meet either of them.
I get that same, eerie, almost breathtaking feeling every time I read one particular, otherwise-anticlimactic verse in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach. In the Genesis narrative, Jacob has just finished wrestling with an angel and has been given the name “Israel,” meaning “one who wrestles with God.” He is wounded in his hip and limps away from the encounter. Finishing this story of Jacob’s struggle, the Torah then seems to tack on this historical note: “That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle” (Genesis 32:33).
Gid ha-nasheh is the Hebrew phrase translated here as “the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip.” And “to this day” refers, of course, to the time in which the story was written down. The Torah is justifying an existing practice of not eating an animal’s gid nasheh because of an experience that Jacob had presumably had many many years before. It is understood by Jewish tradition to refer to the sciatic nerve. In fact, people who keep kosher do not eat this part of land animals to this very day.
But what’s the connection between Jacob being wounded in his sciatic nerve and our not eating the sciatic nerves of animals? Hizkuni, a 13th-century French rabbi, offers two possibilities. One idea is that this practice is meant to be for us a glorious reminder that we trace our lineage to one who wrestled with angels and prevailed. The other idea is that Jacob swore off eating the sciatic nerve as some kind of healing bargain: “Heal me and I’ll never eat that part of an animal again”. (I know many sciatica sufferers who would gladly make such a deal if they thought it would do any good!) In other words, teaches Hizkuni, “to this day” we don’t eat sciatic nerves as a way of holding up Jacob’s end of the bargain.
This verse is also the first time that the term b’nei yisrael/ children of Israel” appears in the Torah. Though Jacob has just received his new name, Yisrael/Israel (Godwrestler), “the children of Israel” here is used to mean the people, and not just Jacob’s own children. So this connection with Jacob’s Godwrestling, whether because we are proud of him or because we want to participate in his healing, somehow creates us as a people.
Every time I read this passage, it takes my breath away. The text suddenly pops into three dimensions: There is the story unfolding in its own time on the page, on the parchment; there is the sudden turning of the narrator to the audience and saying, “I see you living people reading this text”; and there is us, the readers reading it this very day. The words pull forth from me a connection with the ancient, stretching across thousands of years as thin but as obstinate as a sciatic nerve. The narrative, the narrator, the reader, and the practice itself in that moment become links in a chain, reaching down, down, down through time and anchoring in the very bank of the river where Jacob spent that fateful night.
Many aspects of keeping kosher are not given any justification other than, at best, God saying the divine equivalent of “Because I said so.” And certainly some people who keep kosher like to engage in retrofitting the laws of kashrut with rational explanations (e.g. “Weren’t our ancestors smart not to eat pork; they saved themselves from trichinosis!”). I have always found these rationalizations thin and not compelling. But the idea that a practice that I am engaging in was written about thousands of years ago as an already ancient way of remembering the inventor of Godwrestling? That I can definitely get behind.
I am anchored by this remembering of Jacob, himself anchored, pinned to the ground in his struggle with forces unknown. I am reminded, as Little Louis Sanchez must have been of Stevenson when reading “To My Name-child,” of who my people are named for: this God-wrestler, this angel-dreamer, this imperfect human who is wounded in his struggles and not always at his best around his own family. Reading the verse this way, on “this very day,” the whole Torah becomes for me a poem written by an ancient relative, imagining generations of future readers who would keep alive this memory of God-wrestling.
Minna Bromberg is a singer, songwriter, rabbi, and voice teacher who lives in Jerusalem with her husband, Rabbi Alan Abrams, and their daughter. Believing that singing both demands and teaches an integration of body, mind, and spirit, Minna teaches voice to rabbis, rabbinical students, and lay people who use their voices in leading prayer. Ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, she currently runs the school’s Year-in-Israel Program for rabbinical students.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.