Thursday, December 10, 2009

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Andrew Schwartz on Vayishlach

Shabbat Shalom!

Today’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, contains the famous encounter of Jacob and a stranger which meeting turned out to be one of the most famous wrestling matches of all time, and one of the great sports moments in the Torah.

According to the text, this struggle occurred as Jacob was crossing the Jabbok River, returning to Canaan after many years away. Jacob was just about to meet his brother again and was very worried about what would happen.

Jacob won the battle and the stranger gave him a new name, Israel, which means the one who has wrestled with God and prevailed. That incident changed Jacob, and the rest is history. But Jacob did not come out of the fight unscathed. I was amazed to discover that at the end of the battle, Jacob actually came away limping.

For those of you who may not know, this past Fall I was on my school’s varsity football team, and at the end of September, I suffered a season ending leg injury – much like Jacob at the end of his fight. However, unlike Jacob, I wasn’t even able to limp - I had a broken leg and was stuck with crutches for seven long weeks.

Like Jacob, I learned a lot from the experience of being injured. Even though he won, Jacob came out of the encounter a much more humble man. I’ve learned some humility, too. When I went back to school, the simplest tasks were so much more difficult. Simple things like going up the stairs or carrying my books. People offered to help and I was very grateful for that. But they were grateful too, since they would get a hall pass and could arrive late to the next class. I’ve learned what it’s like to be dependent on others. I know that now, when I see others in this situation, I will respond quickly with help.

Jacob also learned how important it is to stand up for himself and his wrestling match gave him the courage to stand up to his brother the next day. I’ve learned the same thing from playing football; standing toe to toe with opposing linemen in the trenches. And that’s why it’s good to play football, Mom!

Another thing that we learn from this portion of the Torah is the importance of rivers. Throughout World literature and history, important things happen when people cross rivers. Their lives change. Washington crossed the Delaware. Joshua crossed the Jordan, and that pilot landed his plane in the Hudson. Strangely, it is by a river that I have also learned a lot about myself.

At a young age, I came to love paleontology - dinosaurs, fossils, dirt and rocks; it all fascinated me, and still does. One year, I made an amazing discovery by a river in New Jersey called Big Brook. I found a lot of shark’s teeth in the riverbed. Now that might not seem that unusual, except that Big Brook is many miles inland and there are no sharks there. But millions of years ago, this part of New Jersey was, in fact, under water so these teeth actually came from sharks that lived at the time of the dinosaurs. In fact, I found a dinosaur bone there once.

Who knows, maybe Jacob was looking for fossils at the river and he and the other guy were fighting over a priceless claw from a Dryptosaurus that happened to have lived in the area.
When I make these discoveries, one thing it teaches me is that we are all connected. The things that we stumble over at the river today, were possibly parts of living creatures a few million years ago. Who knows, in a few million years, people, or whatever inhabits this area, will feel similarly connected to us. That shark’s tooth connects me to all living and formerly living things.
So it’s no surprise that this major moment in Jacob’s life happened at a river. Come to think of it, my football battles are also connected to a river – “Turn of the River” Middle School…
It is also interesting that in Jacob’s case the river and the person have almost the same name – if you switch around the letters of Jacob in Hebrew, you get Jabbok.

Our lives are never the same once we cross those rivers and suffer the wounds of battle. For me and for Jacob it was not so bad; especially when you compare it to what Elie Wiesel had to go through when he was my age. He survived the Holocaust. Now, he has taken that experience and used it as an inspiration to help others who are suffering. For my mitzvah project, I have been raising money for The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. So far I have raised almost $2,000! I had the honor of meeting Mr. Wiesel several weeks ago. He told me that he was very grateful that I was helping to rebuild his foundation. I am also going to be adopting a Holocaust survivor to help chronicle their life so their stories will never be forgotten.

Next year, I am planning to be back on the football field (sorry, mom – I’ll be really careful, I promise!) While I was definitely disappointed that my football season was cut short this year, I realize now that this year hasn’t been a total loss. In fact, it has been a great year, even if I did have to limp my way through some of it.

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