05 December 2014


It is interesting to think of Jacob wrestling the angel on the banks of the Jabbok River, moments before meeting his sibling rival Esau (from whom he wrangled birthright and blessing) in the context of our nation's coming to terms with issues of race, violence and the law in the era of Ferguson & Michael Brown and Staten Island & Eric Garner.

Jacob, the dweller in tents, as a lad; Esau, the man of the field.  The privileged white child of the manor and the slave, the toiler, the real builder of a nation.

Jacob, the kid from a good neighborhood, sound schools, college and workforce bound; Esau, dodging bullets and mired in poverty, suspicious and always suspected.

Jacob behind the invisible gilded walls of power where it's not even necessary to ask for protection; Esau, who in the wrestling, can't breathe.  Can't breathe.  Can't breathe.

In from the fields in the heat of the day.  Exhausted.  Spent.  In need of a bowl of lentils.  The tradition often credits Jacob for his cleverness in discerning that Esau was not of the moral stature to lead the covenanted people of the God of Abraham and Isaac.  But turn the narrative on its head and it becomes a tale of exploitation:  the starving manual laborer who would be satisfied for a crust of bread, a bowl of soup, and in his haste with the cards stacked against him trades away an unseen future for the immediacy of sustenance and temporary relief.


Yesterday I took a ride around Brooklyn with some friends.  We began in the bricked and brownstoned order of Park Slope; rolled into Gowanus, Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg, ending up back in Crown Heights for a beer.  The admirably singular growth, creativity, and vibrancy of gentrification were everywhere to be seen and, in real time, were gestating social and economic challenges that ought to occupy our imagination and devotion for a generation.

Education.  Health-Care.  Housing. Work.  Like words of Torah, as the Sages say:  Each cried out, "Interpret me!"  Meaning:  Deal with the issues.  Create solutions.  Fulfill the covenant of our own national sacred scripture, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

I see my doctor in an office tour across the street from Carnegie Hall.  It's a very pleasant experience to go there.  We speak the same language; we're of the same world.  Yesterday I drove for blocks and for the life of me couldn't figure out where one would go if one needed a doctor except a hospital emergency room.  The inherent wrong in that was as discernible as the distinction between, well, black and white.

If you drive into the Gowanus from Third Street, just after Staples and Pep Boys, the new Whole Foods comes into view.  Solar powered parking lamps and wind turbines tower over a lot filled with large, new, well-fueled cars.  Building and development is churning up earth at a rate that far outpaces the herculean effort to dredge the contaminated canal.  Among its many deleterious qualities are PCBs, coal-tar wastes, heavy metal and volatile organics.

Volatile organics indeed.  The people are restless.  As the sun set and day turned to night, helicopters buzzed overhead. Demonstrators blocked roads throughout the city, their bodies wrestling injustice, monitored by a hovering whir above.

Drive down Bond Street from Whole Foods and you'll see an abandoned factory about to be converted into artists lofts and galleries; luxury housing rises on the now fetid waters, but renderings envision redemption.  The Ample Hills Ice Cream factory leans into Royal Palms Shuffleboard.  One wonders whether or not Brooklyn's ironic brand has lost its way--they say it's now the most expensive place to buy a home in America.  What a bowl of lentils goes for on one side of the Jabbok River is not what it goes for on the other.

Across the street from the NYCHA Gowanus Houses, with 1134 apartments and 2836 residents, there's a C-Town, the dystopic meme of Whole Foods.  What is sold in the aisles of both stores we ought to know.  Food and Justice bring us back to the elemental fundaments of Torah.

To say that we brothers have our issues is an understatement.


Jacob was terrified the night before he met his brother Esau.  We don't know what Esau felt but we discern his anger, the pain and suffering of disappointment, of being on the outside, of having had to sell his fate in anguished hunger, of simply never having been equitably, fairly, brought in.

"And Jacob was left alone and there a man wrestled with him until the break of day.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, "Let me go, for the day has broken."  And Jacob said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."

It is the greatest challenge of our generation to realize, yet again, that when we wrestle with black and white in this country, that conflict still too often leads to violence, prison, and most tragically, death.

After receiving his blessing from the angel, from his conscience, from his twin Esau, from God--Jacob awakes and prepares to meet his brother.  At this stage, Esau had been left alone long enough to create his own life, accumulate his own wealth, and regain the dignity he had lost in selling off his birthright in a moment of vulnerability and need.  He had the self-respect of being his own man, in charge of his own destiny.  Expecting confrontation, even war, both brothers fall upon one another's neck and as the Torah indicates, embraced and kissed as brothers.  Their hunger not for food but for love, sated.

No wrestling.  No chokehold.  Just two brothers, by a river, reconciled to the possibilities and blessings of life.

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