Friday, December 12, 2008

Wounding, Vulnerability and Identity: Jacob's Scar


The most famous scar in Western Literature is that of Odysseus. Disguised as a beggar, he returns from his voyages to Ithaka; to prove his identity to the still faithful servants, he shows his wound. Not his driver's license, or his college ID, but the scar on his thigh. Odysseus's scar is what defines him.

What's in a name, Shakespeare's Juliet asks Romeo: 'would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?' The answer for Homer - as for Shakespeare - is no! Odysseus's name is central to his identity: his grandfather, in the Homeric version of the bris, names him: 'I have suffered and caused other to suffer says his grandfather, let his name be Odysseus' - a name which means to suffer and to cause suffering. Not the name that proud Jewish parents would bestow! And so Odysseus lives out the fate of his name, suffering, causing suffering, and winning glory. As a young man, he hunts a dangerous wild boar - which 'hooks him aslant,' ripping 'his flesh just beneath the knee.' The young Odysseus finally triumphs over the wild beast; and when he returns home, he 'spins the tale' of how he got his wound. His wound defines him. When, he returns home, disguised as an old beggar, his old nurse washes him, and only when she runs her hands over the groove of his wound, only then does she cry out, 'Odysseus, it's you!'

Odysseus's scar is famous, but there are other famous wounds.

Fearing the vengeful wrath of Esau after having taken the birthright, Jacob sends emissaries to his brother with gifts; takes special precautions for his family; and then finds himself alone, isolated on the banks of the Yabok river in the middle of the night:

And Yaakov was left alone, and someone wrestled with him until break of day. He saw that he could not prevail against him, so he touched the upper joint of his thigh - which was dislocated as he wrestled with him.

Our sages say that the dust which whirled up from these two wrestlers 'rose up to the Throne of God.' Not any ordinary wrestling match, Jacob was in battle with the 'ministering angel' of Esau - a battle between Israel and the culture of the West which Esau represents. Jacob also suffers a wound - his thigh was dislocated. And as a result, Jacob limps through history. In the end, the sun does shine 'for him,' and the healing light promises an end to the painful traumas - the experience of suffering and exile. But for now, Yaakov limps through history. After their meeting, Esau receives instant gratification - he travels directly to Mount Seir to the seat of his inheritance - Jacob builds a sukkah, a temporary structure, anticipating the path of the people of Israel - a path of wandering, first in the desert, and then throughout history.

Odysseus uses his wound - narrates his suffering - to win himself glory: 'I am Odysseus!' he proclaims to the Cyclops he defeats. Jacob's wound, by contrast, has a different purpose. Following Jacob's triumph over Esau's 'guardian angel,' G-d commands that Jacob abstain from eating the gid hanashe - the sciatic nerve. 'Nashe' means weakness or vulnerability. Odysseus suffers and brings himself glory -through retelling his exploits; Jacob however embraces the law of the sinew of weakness, foregoing the physical strength of this world. Esau in his physical prowess - our sages tell us that he was born with hair, fully formed - cannot recognize the infirmity of others. The law of the sinew - bringing glory or cavod to G-d in its observance - reminds Jacob to embrace his vulnerability, not to forego it. Esau expects - in his desire for instant gratification - perfection from the world. Those of us who are in constant search of 'happiness' or constantly affirming our own contenment may have a bit of Esau in us.

In acknowleding his vulnerability, Jacob is prepared to see the vulnerability of others. When Esau invites Jacob, 'come with me,' the latter refuses, he rather 'leads on softly' - accommodating the pace and needs of his cattle and 'tender' children. Jacob will one day fulfill the fate of his name of Israel - when the dawn breaks, at the end of history, and Israel will prevail over his brother. But in the meantime, he is Jacob, the one who comes from behind, who is incomplete, and who lacks. So Jacob leads on softly.

The wounds of Odysseus and Jacob stand both as a testimony to the sufferings of life. The wounds - in the respective frames - define what it means to be alive. But how does one respond to suffering? Odysseus pursues glory; Jacob pursues cavod shmayim - glory to heaven - all the time recognizing his own vulnerability, allowing him to be open to the vulnerability and needs of others.

2 comments:

Shira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shira said...

Interesting to think about the general idea in America being immediate gratification. Odysseus, as well as the other characters we have been discussing, wants glory, and accomplishment. Now. Yaakov, on the other hand, has glory that directs towards G-d, knows that his people will suffer, but will wait for the Jewish people's ultimate glory in the redemption. Gratification now: the outside world, verses later, The Jewish people. More suffering but faith in G-d that future holds greater reward