The name Israel literally means God-wrestler. Jacob earned it after wrestling all night with God and being wounded in the thigh. Anyone who has wrestled with God has been wounded somewhere, and healed somewhere, and most likely will continue wrestling forever.
My mother called it tilting at windmills, a la Don Quixote, Cervantes' anti-hero. She was not a believer, but she wrestled, just the same.
My wrestling today is with Yom Kippur, which begins at sunset tonight. It is a 25 hour total fast -- not even water. What about medication? No medication either. We are in shul tonight for Kol Nidre and tomorrow, all day for one thing and another. It is the day of atonement. For Christians, think Good Friday, cubed.
I was never a fan of Lent, and in fact at the end of that phase of my God-wrestling, I was habitually giving up Lent for Lent. I am struggling with the same problem translated into Judaism: every year I run into major problems with Yom Kippur. I can't fast. I have to take medication and drink fluids or my heart goes screwy and my blood-pressure goes screwy and my kidneys go screwy and my electrolytes go out of balance and I'm dead. I'm not ready to do that for the sake of tradition. Second, I don't believe God wants penitential stuff from us. I think God wants action and right-living. There is that wonderful passage from Isaiah 58:6-8:
6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of HaShem shall be your rear guard.
That is not to say we don't need to focus inward and attempt to fix the broken parts. Or say we are sorry for the mess-ups, and there are plenty of those. That is not to say we should not all gather together on a specific day and not wear leather shoes and recognize we are all the jerks we know we well and truly are. Tonight, in the most hauntingly beautiful way, we will all admit that we are so thoroughly jerk-like that you had better not trust our contracts and promises for the entire year. That's what the words to the lovely Kol Nidre actually say.
But if there is anything I have learned in my 71 years in this wrestling ring, it's that God uses jerks. The best stuff we ever do comes out of those wounded places where the "messenger" struck our thighs and left a permanent mark. When we are too stunned and startled to think straight (and get in the way), God uses us to do the stuff that under ordinary circumstances we are not capable of doing. And also, we are at our best when we recognize the wounded places in others because we know them in ourselves, and we show sincere compassion.
I see the rationale beyond tradition in the Days of Awe and Yom Kippur, but I still have a great desire to hide from God and sit out the wrestling match. Not a chance.
Delacroix's Jacob Wrestling with the Angel courtesy Royalty Free Images