Parshas Vayishlach

This weeks Parsha describes the dramatic encounter between Jacob and an angel, who, according to our Sages, represents the forces of anti-Semitism. The angel hurts Jacob in his sciatic nerve causing him to limp until the dawn, when Jacob is healed. The Torah goes on to say that for this reason that we don’t eat the “gid hanasheh,” the sciatic nerve of an animal. The Sefer Hachinuch, a 13thCentury encyclopedia of the commandments, explains the symbolism of this prohibition as a sign of hope for the Jewish people.

Anti-Semites have unceasingly attacked us and fought with us throughout the long night of exile and they have indeed caused us to limp badly, like Jacob. However, just as our patriarch Jacob was healed with the approach of dawn, so too the Jewish people will be healed with the coming of the redemption. Our observance of this law, not eating the sciatic nerve, serves as a symbol of our confidence, optimism and faith that in the end, we will succeed, be redeemed and our limp will be completely healed. This faith and optimism that Jews have sustained throughout the exile has been a crucial factor in our survival. As Golda Meir, prime minister of the State of Israel, once said, “Jews don’t have the luxury of being pessimists.” 

It is interesting to note the Hebrew word for hope, tikvah, is related to the word for line, or string (kav). One reason for this connection is that hope is the string which keeps us attached to our destiny. If a person loses something, it is no longer in their possession and no longer under their control, yet there is still an obligation to return the object to the owner. What line, or string connects the owner to the object, in what way is still considered his? His hope of its eventual return and recovery is the string that keeps him connected to the lost object. Similarly, we, the Jewish people were dispossessed of our land 2000 years ago by the Roman legions. What has kept us attached to the land even while in exile? The hope of our eventual return, the confidence that we would eventually once again live there, that is the string, or line that has kept us in possession of our land even when not there.

The mystical work, the Zohar, tells us that “one who eats on Tisha B’Av is as though he has eaten the sciatic nerve.”  Tisha B’Av is the day that we mourn the destruction of the Temples and the tragedies of the exile, and it is this very mourning that shows that our hopes are still alive. One who ignores that is as though he has “eaten the sciatic nerve,” and given up hope of redemption. Jacob limps, but is still here, and his limp will be healed as the redemption dawns.

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