Torah with Star

Parshat Vayishlach: Genesis 32:4-36:43; Obediah 1:1-21.

When we have conversations about climate change, it often feels like doom and gloom. Scary facts, worst-case scenarios and ticking clocks. Even our language: “fighting” climate change places us in an adversarial relationship. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

Rabbi Nate Degroot
Rabbi Nate Degroot

In this week’s portion, Jacob wrestles an adversary. We don’t get many details of the match, but commentators typically see this man as a hostile angel who attacked Jacob unprompted. We know the struggle lasted until dawn when the man wrenched Jacob’s hip.

But what happens if we reread four different elements of this story according to commentaries that aren’t as often referenced to rethink our relationship to climate justice work?

1. Jacob wrestled himself:  According to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (37), Jacob wrestled himself that night: “And [the angel] called [Jacob’s] name ‘Israel’ like his own name, for his own name was called ‘Israel.’”

2. Jacob was the one to engage: Based on noteworthy grammar, biblical scholar Aviva Zornberg argues that Jacob initially approached the angel: “Perhaps, in some enigmatic sense, Jacob is the aggressor.” (The Beginning of Desire, 234).

3. There was embrace: There seems to be an element of embrace to this wrestling (Rashi and Ramban). Zornberg: “This is clearly a passionate experience, involving the closest confrontation (literally face-to-face) of the whole body” (ibid).

4. A blessing: Jacob refused to let the “angel” go without receiving a blessing. Regardless of the tenor of the encounter, Jacob demanded that its conclusion be blessing.

I suggest we consider our approach to climate justice in this light:

1. Let us recognize that we are really wrestling with ourselves. Individually, it is upon us to make choices that we are proud of and that contribute to a healthier, more sustainable and more equitable world for all.

2. It’s up to us to engage first, to read that article, recycle that container, call that representative.

3. Climate work must be rooted in love. We embrace nature because we’ve been nourished by nature’s embrace. Let that drive our work, even as we struggle.

4. We won’t stop until we are blessed. Despite whatever hardships and challenges, our North Star is abundant blessing for us and all of God’s creatures.

Jacob is transformed by his encounter and given a new name, “Yisrael,” the one who wrestles with God, namesake of our people.

In our pursuit of climate justice, may we be inspired by Yisrael, wrestling with the Divine for personal growth, taking initiative, centering embrace and stopping nothing short of blessing. In so doing, may we honor the Divine creation of which we are all part.

Rabbi Nate Degroot is the Hazon Detroit associate director and spiritual and program director.

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