In this time of increased antisemitism and anxiety about Jew Hatred, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what makes Judaism great and good. Our instinct at times like this might be to hunker down into a protective stance, but there is a value to standing straight and tall and proclaiming for all to hear our pride in our Jewishness, and where that pride comes from. Among our many qualities as a people and a tradition is the way we relate to words—especially debate. We joke about two Jews, three opinions, and may even grouse over our differences (a good kvetch is also a Jewish value) but if we pause and reflect for a moment, our people’s willingness to engage with debate not just as an intellectual exercise but as a process through which we attain holiness is something worth celebrating. In a time when we say we value true freedom of speech and the ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time, Judaism shows us how to do that.
An example of this is a favorite debate of mine from the Talmud. Some number of rabbis are discussing which is the most important verse in Scripture. One says it’s from Leviticus 19, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s a good verse! Coincidentally, it also happens to be what Jesus argues in the book of Mark. But that’s not the end of the debate, another rabbi says, well, that’s a good verse, but that’s not the most important. The most important is the verse from Genesis telling us that we were all created in God’s image. Because, the rabbi argues, what if we don’t love ourselves? Then we can’t love our neighbor. But we can acknowledge the holiness, the godliness in another person, recognize the divine in them, and treat them accordingly, irrespective of how we feel about them.
I bring this up in the context of our text tonight. Jacob is standing by the river Jabbok, at which point he finds himself wrestling with a man—is it an angel, or God, or his conscience, or something else? We’re not told. But it is through this wrestling that Jacob earns a blessing, and a new name, our name, Yisrael. When we read this text we tend to focus on the wrestling match, and for good reason. But there’s other important parts to this story, including the very beginning. We are told that Jacob is “Levado”, alone, when he is attacked. Now, that might seem like a contradiction—how can he be alone when there’s someone there to wrestle with him? Which might mean that the text is challenging us to think about what it means to be alone. To be alone is something other than being by yourself. Many of us are often by ourselves—on walks, in the quiet of the night, in our offices—but we aren’t really alone. We know that there are people who will be there for us; that each of us have a community—friends, family, colleagues, our congregation—who are in our corner and who would come to our aid in a time of need. Jacob, standing on one side of the river, his family separated from him, is utterly alone. There is no one who will come to his aid, no one who is, in this moment, in his corner. Caught between his uncle’s home in Haran and his former home in Canaan, between the threat of Laban and his brother Esau, he is isolated, he is, in the truest sense of the word, homeless.
Homelessness takes many forms, but they all have commonalities. Whether temporary or long-term, to be homeless is to be unmoored, the ground falling away from you. And while at first there may be couches to crash on or hotel rooms to rely on, eventually one is left alone. There are state and local resources, charities that one can turn to, but they are limited and sometimes hard to access. You need the means, the wherewithal, to fill out the paperwork or work with the social worker or transportation to get to the food pantry. There may be fear of having ones’ children or pets or last possessions taken away, or the police chasing them out of town or harassing them, or a feeling of shame and abandonment, to say nothing of the mental health issues.
Our job, then, must be to make sure that those who are homeless or housing insecure are not abandoned, are not alone. That can mean supporting Joseph’s Pantry, and The Hope Center, and Ministry of Caring, and Family Promise—with our funds, our volunteer hours, our skills and abilities. It can also mean remembering to look the homeless in the eye and treat them with dignity, not ignoring them or looking through them when we see them on the street, because, as that earlier debate reminds us, they too are created in God’s image, and are worthy of our attention, even if we don’t necessarily have a dollar to give them. For us, even in that brief moment, remind them that they are not alone.
There are other resources as well, that Rabbi Sonya Starr from the Delaware Housing Alliance will be sharing on Sunday at 10am here in our board room, I hope you will come and join us for that program. For now, it is important for us to remember that Jacob was alone, and we must strive to not let that happen to anyone else, to provide support and encouragement and be present for them in their struggles. To bring them, as the angel did that day, a blessing. Amen.