Life throws so much in peoples’ faces. I can’t bear to see the news, a friend just told me. The earth has so much beauty, yet is beset by so many threats and troubles, and each life is a world in miniature: how does one avoid feeling overwhelmed?
Against all this I set Jacob’s words which we read in the Torah tomorrow: ‘I shall not let you go until you bless me.’ It’s his response to the strange figure which attacks him in the night as he stands alone in that liminal space which is neither here nor there, which lies outside of life’s unremitting ‘do this’ and ‘do that’, somewhere in the solitary landscape of the soul. Who is he, this mysterious assailant, who comes upon him in the lonely dark: is it man or angel, Jacob’s conscience, the guardian spirit of his wronged brother Esau whom he will shortly re-encounter, or God and truth itself? The Torah refrains from saying.
But when at daybreak this unnamed combatant sees that he cannot overcome Jacob and begs him, ‘Let me go because the dawn has risen,’ Jacob replies, ‘I shall not let you go until you bless me.’ That line is my motto and my hope.
Through all life’s troubles those words call out like the light from a far-away house at the edge of a pitch-dark moor. They shine through fear, exhaustion, sorrow, depression and misjudgement. Sometimes their light disappears from sight; then one has no choice except to put one foot before the other, keeping faith through the bleak and utter darkness, until it re-emerges. For those words ‘until you bless me’ are the inextinguishable flame in the soul, the inexpressible inspiration for all song, the source of courage and hope: Whatever you throw at me, life, I shall not let you go until you bless me.
In 1940, Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira wrote in the Warsaw Ghetto that Jacob spoke those words as a signal to the generations to come. It’s not enough to survive troubles and persecutions. One has to wrest from them a blessing. This, he explains, is the assailant’s parting challenge as he changes Jacob’s name to Israel, which means ‘one who yassar im El, who struggles with God,’ or, as the mystics like to read it, ‘one who shar im El, whosings God’s song.’
One cannot help but question if it is truly always possible to find blessings. But it remains an aspiration.
Challenges lie behind and before us. Tomorrow is AJEX Shabbat, honouring Jewish service- and ex-service- men and women. Last week was Remembrance Sunday. The terrors so many faced in war, and still confront today, are unimaginable to those of us lucky enough to have been spared such experiences.
Before us lie other battles, first and foremost for the future of life itself on our planet, for humankind and nature and a new, more humble understanding of the relationship between us.
When everything feels overwhelming, I shall set Jacob’s words before me: ‘I shall not let you go until you bless me.’
And there are blessings. This is Interfaith Week. I participated in four multi-faith gatherings at COP 26 in Glasgow and have attended in several since. We spoke with different, but never differing, voices. We drew from the distinctive wisdom and beauty of our own faith’s prayers and teachings, but the import was the same: love and humility before the dignity of life, wonder at the complex beauty of this world, and a shared determination to take responsibility, learn, cherish and care.
Soon it will be Chanukkah. I see myself sitting in my grandmother’s lounge, watching the candles burn in front of me. They are reflected in the windows at either end of the room, and the reflections are themselves then reflected. There are two, four, eight chanukkiot hovering in the night, as if lamps from past generations were signalling to the future: make light, keep hope, don’t give up until you turn the darkness into blessing.