We Wrestle with Our Stories Too

(Preface: Thumbnail image for this blog is “Jacob’s Dream, Polymorphous” by my brilliant brother. © Daniel Gottsegen)

“Enough with the Torah stories!” This was the comment of one of my non-Jewish spirit brothers recently. Actually David didn’t say it quite like that. His comment was much nicer, more that he doesn’t know the stories, so he can’t relate to the references in my blog. I just like to infuse the conversation with a little more drama. Although I try to write these blogs with what I hope are universal observations, they are obviously inspired by Torah stories. I’m sure my references fall flat for plenty of Jews too, so his comment is a fair sentiment. It raises the obvious question though. Why do we keep revisiting these stories? Isn’t this just some old dusty book? Are we just living in the past (to paraphrase El Duderino)?

Now for the obligatory Torah portion reference, just for David’s benefit. 

Our forefather Jacob, once again in his sleep, wrestles with a mysterious “man.” It is one of the most famous scenes in Torah. He receives the name Israel, the one who wrestles with G!d (although there’s some debate whether he takes the name or is given the name). Is this man an angel, the spirit of his estranged brother Esau? Is it a messenger from G!d? Perhaps it’s Jacob’s shadow self, or perhaps it’s his destiny, his entelechy, the part of him that needs to become Israel. Or it may be G!d, G!dself! Such possibilities are considered by our sages, at least most of them are. Also interesting is the word used for wrestling has the connotation of rolling around in the dust.

In revisiting Torah stories, we are creating new midrash, which I always picture as a very proactive process of inquiry. We wrestle with scripture. Like Jacob, we wrestle with G!d.

This is not an idle pastime. It is our soul’s calling. In the Jewish tradition, it is our practice to constantly create new midrash. We turn the stories over again and again, as Rabbi Irwin Kula suggests. Our deep tradition actually says that all of these possible understandings were part of the revelation on Sinai. None of them are new to the Source of Revelation. 

Rabbi Arthur Waskow has described how for his community Torah wasn’t just “ ‘Bible,’ not a bound and boundaried book. It was a process. Not Law, as it is sometimes translated, but a word from the world of archery: Pointing, Aiming.”

Why wrestle? Why not just listen to what those learned folks with titles or letters after their name say? Also isn’t wrestling kind of violent?

Wrestling is active engagement. It requires constant awareness of leverage, openings, when to push or pull and when to relax. It’s also intimate, occupies one’s whole person, and it requires trust. It can be done with love.  

Wrestling with scripture, with our ancestral stories, is what brings them to life. It’s what makes them real so they can inform the choices we make now, every day. It’s how we love them. Otherwise they are just part of some ossified, old book. 

In the process, we connect with our own myth and the myth of our lives. We connect with the scroll of our own life, as the translation of Psalm 40 says. We activate our capacity to address the deeper, spiritual questions that we tend to ask, the primordial questions that men and women live with, as Carolyn Gratton says. 

What if we apply this to our lives too? We live fully consciously, when we “wrestle” in every choice. I’m not talking about criticising every decision, but rather about being mindful of every choice. In process theology, G!d is in the set of choices set before us and the process for making those choices. We aspire that each choice increases the balance of love, compassion, and justice in the world. Maybe this is less wrestling and more like aikido or tai chi.

Let’s go even further. Even every breath is a chance for an ongoing process of discernment. Rabbi Waskow has said the Jewish prayer nishmat kol chai tevarech et shimcha, typically translated as “the soul of all life blesses your (G!d’s) name” carries the meaning that every breath should be praise. Every breath can be an engagement with the Divine. Andean shaman Puma Fredy Quispe Singona goes even further. Every breath is ceremony. I don’t know that this level of awareness is truly possible. We are human. after all. But it is a beautiful aspiration, isn’t it?  

I do know that each of us has midrash deep in our souls, our own torah waiting to come out. This is, in fact, the basis of spiritual direction. It is like the oak tree encoded in the acorn, to paraphrase James Hillman’s soul’s code. As spiritual beings in a physical body, this wrestling with our primordial stories is our encoding. It’s our yearning. Jewish mystical tradition says Torah is written in black fire on white fire. In fact, we are the ones who ignite this fire. Our souls are the hearth where that fire burns.

3 Responses

  1. I am breathless and breath-filled, certainly breath-blessed by all of this, Jon. This posting is more… is more than anything I have read or seen on this parasha. I am in awe, appreciation, awwww over the beauty of your words and thoughts here. Todah from my heart for bringing them from your heart to here. I am asking humbly for your permission to share this writing with my sTORy Journey Study class, and with my Jewish Storytelling Initiative Cohort (total of 28 people) . I can think of no better commentary, from Rashi to Steinsaltz. Really.
    Our stories tell us; this much is certain. And it is only in the telling and the listening that they achieve life. And so we wrestle. And as for the rolling around in the dust wrestling: it is like the in and out of breath in our lungs: fill to be depleted; give in order to receive. I saw in a video Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l speaking of how there are the letters, which make the words, which make the paragraphs and thence the stories. So out of the breath of one sound comes the stories which give us life. And so we have words on the breath of life, which is the very most Divine connection. The widow of Carl Sagan said that we are the species who tell stories. Todah for your words, your wisdom, your heart.

    • Thanks so much. You are way too kind. Please feel free to use these thoughts as you see fit. I’m quite flattered and honored that you, a master storyteller, would consider using them.

  2. Robert Bly Said:

    All philosophy is a frozen form of mythology and if you really love a philosopher, then try to recognize the philosopher as being a kind of an ice over the water on which you could walk. And that’s nice, but try to go below and see what the water is doing down there. And in that case…every philosophical idea has a mythological image underneath it. (From: What Stories Do We Need.)

    Sometimes reading holy texts and understanding them as fact is not as useful and can be somewhat “frozen.” When we read and use Active Imagination; a state in between sleep and wakefulness, where people may be partially aware that they are dreaming, that is a way to get below the frozen surface and see what those words and images can do for us in our lives.

    I have found that this state of consciousness can be useful if we are looking to make time go by faster. What I mean by that is if I am at an airport and have several hours to wait for a flight I can concentrate on a mythological image or a spiritual reading and let those images take me wherever they may. Before I know what happened the time has gone by and it is time for my flight. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.