2016-12-07 / Religion Column

Judaism demands that we ask the tough questions

RABBI MICHAH LIBEN
Kellman Brown Academy

Parshiot Vayetze/Vayishlach
Gen. 28:10-36:43

As a Jewish educator, I’ve come to expect that students will demand answers to “tough questions” each class, regardless of the day’s scheduled topic: Are Bible stories even true? What about evolution? Do you really believe in God?

It is gratifying to receive questions like these and to see our students engaging with such issues. Sure, some of these inquiries come off more like defiant challenges, but I don’t mind; after all, these are serious issues that can induce internal struggle for students of all ages. Equanimity can be hard in the face of struggle—so why shouldn’t a drop of chutzpah be called for? A bit of brashness can indicate thoughtful engagement, and is preferable to ignoring the questions or recoiling from them. And indeed, there is precedent for this brash attitude in the story of Rebecca and her twins, Jacob and Esau.

Earlier in Parashat Toldot, Jacob wrestles with Esau while still in Rebecca’s womb. According to a Midrash, the rivals actually sought to kill each other in utero. Rebecca is distraught, but instead of throwing up her hands in despair, Rebecca takes her struggle to God—“vatelech lidrosh et Hashem.” She went to “inquire,” or to “demand,” of God. Rebecca refuses to give in without insisting on answers.

Jacob follows Rebecca’s bold example when on the run from Esau in the next parasha, Vayetze. Alone and afraid, Jacob turns his attention heavenward and declares his allegiance to the God of his fathers—albeit in a notably audacious way. If, says Jacob, God protects him on his perilous journey, then Jacob will worship God in the future. Although his bargaining sounds cheeky, it is immediately relatable for anyone who has endured a personal challenge.

In Parashat Vayishlach one portion later, Jacob brings his struggle full circle with yet another wrestling match, this time with a mysterious figure in the night. The unnamed adversary is often interpreted to be an angel, and indeed, Jacob demands a blessing from him before agreeing to let the stranger go.

With this final act of demanding, Jacob’s internal progression is complete. Having embraced a lifetime of struggles head on, Jacob emerges with a new identity and a transformed outlook. Indeed, in the opening lines of Vayetze, we read that the “sun was setting” on Jacob; but after his wrestling match in Vayishlach, “the sun rose” upon him. Jacob, now named Israel, has seemingly been enlightened.

In the context of Jewish education, the internal struggle of opposing forces is familiar. We are committed to studying traditional texts, and also to modern disciplines of science and history. Like Jacob and Esau, religion and science may appear deeply in conflict such that one cannot exist in the face of the other. The Midrash suggested the twins tried to kill each other—does scientific knowledge then kill religious conviction? Must a religious person ignore modern scholarship? Do these disciplines, like the twins, seek to destroy one another?

This conflict is both natural and integral to the process of learning and growth. In the Torah study classroom, then, every query is fair game; no one will be thrown out for questioning. Embracing this conflict and struggling with the complexity may lead us, like Jacob, to an “enlightening” experience.

So wherever you are in your Jewish educational journey, continue to ask tough questions, and demand responses. Chutzpah encouraged. 

Return to top