In parshat Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles, but it is unclear with whom he wrestles. The text of the Torah simply says, a man wrestled with him, but this mysterious assailant appears out of nowhere, engages him for no reason, and then begs to be freed before sunrise — all very strange. So the rabbis wonder about this man. One tradition is that Jacob wrestled with an angel; some say it was the angel that protected his brother Esau, some say it was connected to the river he was crossing, and some simply make it an angel of the Lord, for at the end the being blesses him and changes his name to Israel, which means one who wrestles with God.
A more contemporary understanding could be that Jacob wrestled with his conscience. All his life he has run away from conflict. He has lied to get his way. And now the moment has come while he is returning to his homeland that he must confront his brother whom he wronged so many years ago. It is a moment of insight and personal growth, when Jacob is prepared to change his ways and confront his past in a more mature manner. He is no longer the fearful fleeing boy of his youth, he is now a grown man with wives and children and he is returning to face his brother and father after all these years.
In many communities, my own included, this Shabbat which marks the seventh anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy, will be dedicated to gun violence prevention. Since Sandy Hook, more than 700,000 Americans will have been killed or injured by guns. It seems that we read about gun violence on a daily basis and we have become so numb to the horror of even school shootings that they have become just another headline for the day and then the news cycle moves on to something else. After Sandy Hook, we said never again; since then there have been more than 2,000 mass shootings.
We are the only western developed country in the world that has mass shootings on the scale we experience daily. I guess we are developed, but not civilized. Studies have linked stricter gun laws to fewer gun deaths, but the U.S. has the weakest guns laws in the developed world.
While mass shooting are horrific, they account for less than 2 percent of all gun deaths. Gun violence reaches into every corner of the United States. We must demand that laws change, we must protect our children, and we must make schools and houses of worship into safe havens. There are so many organizations working to make this world a safer place; they need our support. Check out, support, and join the one that speaks to you. I am a member of Rabbis Against Gun Violence and Clergy Against Bullets. In my congregation there are active members of Moms Demand Action. Everytown for Gun Safety does good work as does the Brady Campaign and Giffords Law Center and Sandy Hook Promise. One of my congregants, a survivor of gun violence will be sharing his personal story in shul this Shabbat. It touches lives everywhere, even in our own congregations.
When I first came to my synagogue our front door was unlocked and open all day long; and then after 9/11 we began to lock it and screen those who came to our door. After the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings last year we began having armed guards at every service. Our world has changed, and not for the better. We like to think that humanity is evolving, maturing, improving, but that does not seem to be the case when we watch the news and see what people are doing to one another in this country. We cannot continue to just go on like everything is okay, because it is not okay.
In the Torah portion it says that Yisrael/Israel means you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed. (Genesis 32:29) We must strive against any who oppose change to gun laws as a religious imperative and we must prevail. I have struggled with this passage all my life. I think it is intended to be struggled with. We are the people, who, like our ancestor Jacob, struggle and strive. We must overcome the obstacles that prevent us from making this country a safer place for all her inhabitants. We are a people with a mission to fulfill and it takes on many forms and this is one of them. May you struggle and grow this Shabbat and may you find the will to help fight to protect America.
Shabbat Shalom and may God bless a free and safe America!