A Wounded Leader
For the past nine years, one of my assignments in the Rabbinical School has been to lead a year long, twice-weekly seminar in professional and spiritual development for our first year students. Our overarching theme for the year is the life-cycle of the Jew. We discuss and examine the major life-cycle rituals. We explore some of the larger societal issues of each turning point in the life-cycle with an eye towards their impact on the individual and their challenge to the contemporary rabbi. Students study rabbinic sources and halakhic texts on the life-cycle, gradually integrating these texts into their emerging rabbinic personality.
Among the things we do in the seminar is listen to one another deliver divrei torah. Each week another student offers a d’var torah on the weekly parashah, and the other students share responses, reactions, and at times, criticism and suggestions for improvement. Over the past years I have listened to many a d’var torah on the Book of Genesis (which always coincides with the fall semester). The divrei torah often reflect the students’ difficulties with the text, especially with the patriarchal narratives.
What do you do when you find the patriarchs to be less than perfect? What do you do when the myth of the superhero has been shattered? Do you avoid discussing the human weaknesses of our people’s ancestors, or do you dare to question aspects of their conduct? Students face these questions yearly as they reexamine the stories of our people’s ancestors. As a teacher, I can only encourage my students to ask the difficult questions. My own view of the patriarchs accentuates their humanity. It is, I believe, their humanity, with their human failings, that makes them real, and it is the Torah’s real description of its men and women that allows it to speak to all times. As we well understand, all our leaders are flawed. Ironically, it is often their own imperfections that make them effective leaders.
In this week’s parashah, Jacob’s imperfections are given physical expression during his encounter with the “man” with whom he wrestles in the dark of the night. This encounter, which precedes Jacob’s meeting and reconciliation with Esau, is a turning point in the Jacob saga and a defining moment for Israel’s understanding of itself, for it is during this struggle that Jacob is given the name Israel. Jacob’s adversary declares, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29).
Jacob does not emerge unscathed from his struggle with his mysterious adversary, a divine being who is identified by later rabbinic tradition as the guardian angel of Esau. Jacob is wounded—his hip is wrenched in its socket. After the encounter, Jacob, who has wrested a blessing from his assailant, limps on his hip. He faces his brother as he is recovering from this blow.
Jacob’s wound is remembered in the religious life of his descendants. Genesis tells us, “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” (Gen. 32:33). This is the mitzvah of the gid hanasheh, the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve on the hind quarters of cattle, an important facet of the dietary laws. As practiced in North America, the hind quarters of kosher-slaughtered animals are given away to non-kosher distributors; in Israel and other communities, experts remove the sciatic nerve, thereby permitting the consumption of the cuts around it. According to the Talmud, the force of the law comes from the later Sinaitic covenant, but the reason for the prohibition is as stated here in Genesis.
What is the significance of this prohibition? According to the medieval work Sefer Hahinukh, a compendium on the 613 commandments according to the order in which they are found in the Torah, the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve is a reminder of the redemption: Just as the guardian angel of Esau sought to uproot Jacob and failed, so future enemies of Israel will try to destroy Israel and will not succeed. As Jacob was healed by the sun which shone on the day following his struggle with his assailant, so in the future a radiant sun will shine its healing on the people of Israel.
I see something different at work in the prohibition against eating the gid hanasheh. As a people we are commanded to remember our wounds. In recalling our history, we are enjoined not only to recount the miracle of our survival, but to remember the losses along the way. This teaching is presented here because it is in this portion that we are named Israel. Our survival, then as now, has come at a price. As we have marched through history, overcoming enemy after enemy, we have experienced great losses, and they are etched on our very side. Though we, Israel, have prevailed against those who have sought to destroy us, we, as our ancestor Jacob, have been wounded after each attempt to eradicate us.
On another level I see the gid hanasheh as representing the wounded nature of Jacob. Clearly far from perfect, Jacob, as the other patriarchs, is a flawed hero. His physical wound gives concrete expression to his human frailties, which have been clearly evident in his life struggles. Acknowledging his frailties, Jacob can move on, and can be the father of his nation.
I believe that Jacob, the wounded leader, can be a model for the leaders of our day in a way that the untainted, all-perfect patriarch cannot be. Our students seek role models, as will their future congregants and students. All of us will need to find our role models among the ranks of the flawed and imperfect. It is in our leaders’ own strivings, in their own struggles to become better human beings and Jews and to discern God’s will for themselves and the community, that their students and congregants will find inspiration to face the challenge of being a Jew in an ever-changing world. Indeed it is these strivings that make us Israel.
The gid hanasheh speaks to all of us who are wounded, who carry scars and pains from the past. It reminds us that we can overcome these wounds and, as our ancestor Jacob did, march to a better tomorrow.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,