18 January 2010

Another Story

Another story. This one, "The Winner," a midrash-like story about Jacob.

***

My mother used to tell me the story of the creation of the world. How God made a garden and put everything in its place -- plants, shrubs, animals. How God placed the serpent, the most clever of all creatures, at the top of creation. And then how God created people, and told them to tend the garden and to nurture it. How God told the people that they could eat from any green plant in the garden ... except one. How the serpent convinced them to eat even from that one, and how, as a result, God told the serpent that it and the people would never again get along. The people would crush its head; it would strike their heel.

I've always admired the serpent. The serpent reminds me of ... me. And it's not just that I came out of the womb with my little fingers fast to Esau's heel, though that makes for a good story to tell the grandkids. No, it's more than that.

I think it's the fact that the serpent noticed that it has lost its place at the top of creation and decided to do something about it. That's what I've admired. That willingness to ask whether the rightful order of things things really is right, and the determination to change that order to your advantage. Even when changing that order is not your responsibility. Even when changing that order means challenging your creator.

As a second child, striving constantly to prove myself, I could relate to the serpent. I knew what it was to want to change my lot. So I wrestled with my creator. Not directly, of course. Like the serpent, I wrestled through others.

I, too, have always been more clever than those around me. Not that it's been any great challenge.

Take Esau. Esau is, how can I say this charitably?, Esau is not the greenest oasis in the desert. Certainly, he has skills--he leaps to the chase before I see the quarry. But Esau doesn't think ahead very far. I don't know how often I've watched him return from a hunt, gaunt and haggard, desperate for whatever food he could eat because he had not considered that perhaps, just maybe, he'd need to eat something for the few days he was hunting. So one day when he returned, famished, as usual, I placed myself where he would see me enjoying a hot, hearty lentil stew. And he saw me. And, like a true firstborn, he demanded some. So I told him he could have my bowl in exchange for his birthright. And he accepted. You bet I took his birthright. It's hardly my fault he's dumb, any more than it's my fault he's hairy. Another three steps around the corner of the tent and he could have served himself from the pot. But why should I accept being the second born?

Or take my father, Isaac. Growing up, it was clear to me which of my brother and I our father loved more. Esau could do no wrong. So when father asked for some fresh game for the blessing ceremony, I watched Esau leave for the hunt and I entered the tent offering food far more quickly than any person could have hunted and prepared it. I was barely disguised. Goat skins?! Who's deceived by that?! As it turns out, true believers don't recognize caricature. My father so wanted to believe I was Esau--the hunter hero returned triumphant. It's not hard to use someone's pride and prejudice against them. Why should I accept being the lesser son in my father's eyes?

Or take Laban: after living with his family for just twenty years I had successfully wrested from him most of his flocks, some of his servants, and both of his daughters. Why should I accept his prospering on my back?

I've wrestled all my life, and won every battle I've entered. Except one.

You see, most battles I've fought have been against opponents I knew to be weaker than me. That's how one wins battles--choose a weak opponent and fight them. But on one occasion I got greedy. One night, as I camped near the Jabbok crossing, I challenged my creator directly. I demanded that God appear to me as to my ancestors. And God did. That night, God took human form, and we wrestled. Oh, did we wrestle.

For seven hours we struggled, back and forth, and back and forth, neither gaining the upper hand. Finally, as dawn approached, I knew I was nearly spent. My strength gone, in a desperate move I simply grabbed hold of my opponent. Latched on, and refused to let go until my opponent had given me a blessing and revealed his name.

Well, he gave me a name; but not his. And some blessing.

All my life I refused to accept things as they were. All my life I questioned. All my life I challenged the rightful order of things and won every battle I entered. And then, once, one time, I overreached, and I'm left with this hip. This, and a name that reminds me how I got it. Israel. God-fighter.

I don't wrestle with God, anymore.