Plant-Based Torah – Parashat Vayishlach: Living Up To Our Namesake

November 18th, 2021


In this week’s Parsha, Jacob spends a sleepless night wrestling with a Divine being, which some interpret to be an angel, others to be a manifestation of God Godself. Regardless, Jacob spends his entire night in a stalemate wrestling match with this being. The context of this narrative is key – that next morning, Jacob will be facing his brother Esau for this first time in over 2 decades. The last time they had confronted one another, Esau had been so enraged with Jacob that the latter had to flee for his life. Uncertain of what his future holds, it is understandable that Jacob had a sleepless night – but wrestling with a Divine being is certainly extraordinary. In his tussle, Jacob’s hip is injured by his otherworldly opponent.

As dawn breaks, the Divine Being requests for Jacob to let go, which he does in exchange for a blessing. The blessing is a change of his name – from Jacob to Yisrael, meaning to have wrestled with God, as it is written “for you have striven with God and people, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:29). Jacob had experienced quite a bit of personal turmoil in his life up to that point, but nevertheless had survived and thrived in spite of the odds. Like his grandparents before him, Jacob had merited his name being changed. As my teacher Rabbi Mel Gottlieb teaches “when you change your name, you change your life” – and though Jacob continues to face personal struggles for the remainder of his life, it is clear that he is a changed person from this point onwards. Gone is the trickster who extorted his brother for his birthright – instead is the wiser, humbler Jacob, who reintroduces himself to his brother as “your servant Jacob” (Gen. 32:19). After two decades of personal turmoil and self-sacrifice for Jacob, this seemingly insurmountable existential issue – Esau’s murderous revenge – instead plays out as a heartfelt, tearful reunion between the twin brothers. 

How much we can learn from this! In our time, the children of Israel and the rest of humanity faces a seemingly insurmountable existential issue ourselves! The climate crisis is here, following 150 years of fossil fuels, 80 years of disposable plastic usage, and 50 years of factory farmed animal agriculture. The mortgaging of the future has finally caught up with us, and we risk hurtling past the climate cliff if swift action is not taken on a global scale. As Jonathan Safran Foer, author of We are the Weather, writes “We are the flood, and we are the ark.” Just as Jacob could have given up throughout his numerous struggles, we also have the ability to merely throw up our hands and continue on the path of ecological bankruptcy. 

Nevertheless, Jacob persevered beyond the challenges he faced, becoming the humble & wise Israel, we, too, must follow his example and address these challenges head on! We are not a people who keep our mouths shut to the problems of our world – we are the children of Israel! We tackle these issues head on, both through our words and our deeds, with humility and decency.

What might we do? In addition to personal steps – reducing or eliminating our use of fossil fuels, reducing or eliminating our use of plastics, reducing or eliminating our consumption of animal products – we must also tackle this issue upstream, by making our environment a top priority on all levels of our government. As we learned this week, the effects of the climate crisis are worse than previously thought by scientists. There is no time for half-step solutions, nor is there time to commit to single steps. Numerous steps must be taken by individuals, communities, and nations if we are to prevail in this most daunting of wrestling matches.

Our tradition teaches that saving one life is like saving the entire world – how much more so should we commit to truly saving the entire world! It will take sacrifice – including economic investment and rejecting some of the creature comforts that allow for the convenience we might be accustomed to. We will have to be more resourceful and less beholden to our appetites, and supportive of others who experience cognitive dissonance to protect themselves mentally from the thought of environmental calamity. In truth, these small individual choices are obvious, when compared to the potential future disaster for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. Combined with placing political pressure on our elected officials and economic pressure on corporations, we have the opportunity to reject the most destructive forces in our society and world. 

Though it may seem like as a collective species there is little we can do, on an individual level there is so much we can do, both for ourselves and for those around us. Volunteer for a political candidate who supports sweeping environmental policy. Call your elected officials. Help people register to vote. Find a local vendor of reusable household items and bring them to your synagogue. Join Shamayim’s Synagogue Vegan Challenge or Campus Fellowship and encourage your friends to join you at our Annual Retreat this March.

Our Sages teach that “we do not have to finish the work, but that does not exempt you from starting”. If we stand together, as individuals united, we certainly can prevail against the mightiest foe our people have ever faced. We cannot panic – instead, we must act.

Wishing you a Shabbat of strength, wrestling, and growth. Shabbat Shalom.

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