I saw a moon over rush hour yesterday, in the early evening, hovering above buildings, winking confidently through the hues of a proud city sunset. Cars lined up on Varick Street, nudging their way toward the Holland Tunnel: slipping out of town just as that rounded lesser sun made a brief evening bow.
You have to be looking to notice, in the city; but when you do the reward is great. It's not necessarily a benefit on the scale of descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky or sand of the sea but it's not chump change, either.
It's cognition. The awareness that there is privilege in being after someone and before someone else. And that maybe there's even a story to tell of how you got there and where you might be going.
My father and his grandmother, on the other hand, are fixing their glance a bit up and to the left. I haven't the faintest notion what it could be. The photographer's elaborate flash mechanism? A toy bird or monkey to distract the child? We'll never know. And that's the best part. We get to keep making it up over and over again.
The night before Jacob meets his brother Esau, he lays himself down by the banks of the Yabok River. His family is safe on one side and he goes to meet his fate, alone, on another. When he last saw his brother he was running for his life, their rivalrous fire stoked by their mother's ambitious plan to elevate Jacob, not Esau, as the leader of the family. Deep within his soul on that terrifyingly dark night of fratricidal fear, moral searching, military strategizing, or at best, simple, quiet confusion, Jacob dreams of wrestling. With whom, we'll never really know. The Torah says "a man" though after the dream he whom Jacob struggles with declares that "thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed."
It was never clear to me that the one wrestling Jacob was God or even angelic. On the other hand, who is really to know? What matters more is what Jacob said of the event himself: "Jacob called the name of the place 'Peniel, for I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.'"
The angel/man/God never said that. Jacob did. He ascribed to an event of the unconscious the strivings and perceptions of a spiritual seeker. Like a baseball player who crosses himself before a 94 mile per hour fastball comes steaming across the plate, God is his invocation to power, his wish for success, his lucky rabbit foot on the dangling key chain to the many doors of life he will always walk through.
Another player on the scene might simply say, "Keep your eye on the ball. And when it comes at your head, duck."
My sense is that my great-grandfather made the decision, somewhere either in Minsk, on the steam ship, at Ellis Island, or on his horse and buggy in Western Wisconsin--somewhere out there on rivers both mythic and real--to lose his faith and build his family. To survive at all costs. He hedged his bets, it seems. A "learned layman" on the scene; a Mizrachi Zionist president. But by 1942 when he died, with that first American grandson in the war to save human civilization from Hitler, not a single one of his children were living any kind of serious Jewish lives and his grandchildren would virtually opt out of anything but the most tangential connections to the Jewish narrative. It's as if the dark night of those dark years of wrestling his own conscience, half a world away from the land he fled, yielded the end of the family line.
The Sages teach that according to one view, the man who wrestled with Jacob "threatened him with spiritual annihilation." Forced to argue for his own existence in such a way that would tempt Jacob into admitting that the fight for survival simply wasn't worth it. I know Jews like that. I meet them all the time. And it pains me, to be quite honest. Cuts to the quick, as they say. Not like a knife but like a baseball barreling down at you so fast you can't get out of its way.
But then again there's that moon over rush hour. It reveals an outcome that is sometimes unexpected.
So there's that.
And then there's the other thing, too. Like when people sit in the stands and watch a ball game. There's the guy who sees the whole history of the game, from its inception to its latest iteration, with his revered players from his favorite eras, who have risen and fallen with every challenge along the way. And then there's the guy who's there to just take in the game on a sunny afternoon. Its rhythm soothes him; the sounds of the fans in the stands, the crack of the bat, even the lad in the aisles sustains him with the sentimentality of ballpark fare. It's fun once in a while, nostalgic.
Jacob at the river is either a monumental spiritual hero or a spiritually annihilated forefather whose only surviving last resort is a nostalgia for crumbling sepia prints.
Or a moon over rush hour, storing secret light for an unforeseen future.