A Wrestling Match

Guest Contributor

The twelve-day immersion was anything but a vacation. It was an awe-inspiring, fascinating, intellectually and emotionally challenging, exhausting and ultimately life-altering experience.

Guest contributor Jean Suda was a participant in the Reclaiming the Center Study Tour May 2014.

My husband and I took a trip to Israel this past May sponsored by the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, MD. It was the perfect blend of Jewish and Christian holy sites, with both Shabbat observance and Sunday Mass incorporated into the itinerary. It seemed tailor-made for a Catholic-Jewish marriage sustained these past 30 years through hard work and the welcoming atmosphere of Chizuk Amuno.

But the 12-day immersion was anything but a vacation.

It was awe-inspiring, fascinating, intellectually and emotionally challenging, exhausting and ultimately life-altering. And in light of the renewed war between Israel and Hamas less than one month after our return, it will be difficult to replicate.

A group of 31 diverse “advanced interfaithers,” as we called ourselves, joined Dr. Rosann Catalano and Rabbi Ilyse Kramer, for an ambitious study tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Visits to the Galilee and Jerusalem, the places where rabbinic Judaism and Christianity developed in response to first-century turmoil, revealed amazing early synagogues and churches featuring stunning mosaic floors. At the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, a scale model of the city from the time of the second Temple, which dominated the landscape, put our stops at the Western Wall and the Via Dolorosa in historical perspective. In addition to these sightseeing and museum visits, our group met with organizations involved in interfaith dialogue in the region.

Meetings in East and West Jerusalem, the West Bank, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv explored contemporary complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prior to the trip, six 90-minute study sessions provided background on the political, economic, and historical forces shaping the competing narratives.

Reflecting on the almost-overwhelming exposure to the conflicting points of view, I began to relate my experience of modern-day Israel to the struggle that Jacob had when he returned to Canaan and was renamed Yisrael.

Just as Jacob “wrestled with God” before meeting with his brother Esau 20 years after their birthright dispute, I found myself wrestling with God in my daily encounters with those created in His image living in the contentious land of Israel.

To refine my thoughts further for this article, I reread the parshah Vayislach and then the excellent d’var torah on this passage written by Ellen Friedman in the book, Find Yourself a Teacher: A Cycle of Divrei Torah Celebrating Rabbi Joel H. Zaiman’s 20th Anniversary at Chizuk Amuno Congregation.[1]

Morah Friedman taught my children at the Rosenbloom Religious School and is on the faculty of Krieger Schechter. I was fascinated with her exploration of the repetition of the word “face.” Jacob struggled in a place he called P’niel or “face of God” because, as Jacob asserts, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (op. cit., p. 31).

Buoyed by the encounter and transformed by his new name, Yisrael is ready to meet “face to face” the brother who threatened to kill him. Friedman quotes 20th-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: “murder is possible, but it is possible only when one has not looked the Other in the face” (p. 31; emphasis added). Our visit as Americans to a West Bank settlement, as well as to Ramallah and Bethlehem, was just such an attempt to face and listen to the other on his or her own turf.

An example of Jacob’s kind of wrestling in modern terms was demonstrated during our encounter with the Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF). A Muslim Palestinian widow and a Jewish Israeli father who no longer has a daughter shared their experiences with us during dinner at our hotel in Jerusalem. To be a part of the Parents Circle means that one has lost a close family member in the ongoing conflict. The organization works to eradicate the motivation to murder the “other.” Its purpose is to promote reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge. This is done through sharing pain face-to-face. This process destroys the concept of the “other” because those who share both recognize the same irretrievable loss. The ultimate goal of the organization is to have no new members.

I am left with this hope: that people of good will in Israel, the disputed territories, the nations bordering Israel, the United States and the United Nations will have the courage to continue to face each other over the issues contributing to the violence in the region, and that we will all wrestle with our assumptions and persevere for peace.

The sincere efforts of religious communities to contemplate the other (most recently at Chizuk Amuno in the outstanding Paul J. Fineman Ethics Lecture featuring Middle East scholar Shibley Telhami) will help bring about the goal of the Parents Circle: No new members.

Let us pray each Passover (Pesach), “Next year in Jerusalem.” Then may we do the work to see a Jerusalem that will be a city at peace achieved through genuine face-to-face wrestling with opponents in whom we can still decipher the “face of God.”

[1] Harriet Helfand, Lee M. Hendler, Judy Meltzer, and Larry Shuman, eds., Find Yourself a Teacher: A Cycle of Divrei Torah Celebrating Rabbi Joel H. Zaiman's 20th Anniversary at Chizuk Amuno Congregation (Baltimore: Chizuk Amuno Congregation, 2000).


Image attribution: Gustave Doré