“Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at the socket. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking. But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He said, ‘What is your name?’ and he replied ‘Jacob.’ ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and man and have prevailed.’”
In this week’s parasha, on his way home to an uncertain reunion with his brother Esau, Jacob has a experience in the dark which transforms him. As a result of this experience, he becomes disabled due to a wound at the hip. His identity also shifts — he becomes Israel, the one who wrestles or struggles. Finally, he refuses to let go of his mysterious visitor until he receives a blessing.
This summer, I had an experience in the dark which changed me. As part of the experience, I had a temporary disability: my eyesight was taken away. I wrestled with an unfamiliar challenge and as a result, a shift occurred in the way I think about myself. And it all happened because I had the blessing of being accompanied by a mysterious stranger, someone whose face I couldn’t see but who graciously allowed me to hold him tight and not let go until I had crossed to safety.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when our bus pulled up to Dialogue in the Dark. In this Israeli museum, you are given a tour completely in the dark. You learn how it feels to be blind. Throughout the tour, you are led by a blind tour guide.
When we entered the darkened room, I felt a wave of panic slowly begin to rise. It was an unfamiliar and even frightening experience to be suddenly sightless. I literally could not safely take one step forward without help. Into this confusion came the voice of my guide. Calmly, he found my elbow, pointed me in the right direction, gave me instructions about what to expect and where to step. Slowly, I was able to calm down by depending on him.
What a reversal! How many times have I seen a blind person at an intersection and offered to help them? The museum provided a context for me to personally experience two important challenges to my preconceived notions of ability and disability. First, it is hard to adequately describe the feeling of fear and vulnerability that is aroused when you cannot see your own hand in front of your face. I came to appreciate what it feels like to be dependent on physical assistance from others. At the same time, I was able to experience how a person with a disability could be infinitely more “able” than me. For my guide, the dark was no problem. He had developed all kinds of compensatory strengths that I lacked. He was at home and comfortable in a situation that, for me, was a challenge way beyond my abilities. And his response was to use his strength to help me.
We spent some time with our guide after the tour, talking. His name was Chaim. He was a grandfather from Tunisia who told us about his life in Israel when his family first immigrated. He was a very kind and dignified man and I will not quickly forget how graciously he led my friends and me and enabled us to learn something about him and about ourselves.
After Jacob’s own dialogue in the dark, he seems to possess a new sense of humility. This may well be the blessing he was waiting for in the text above. When his brother Esau initially refuses the gifts Jacob has brought, Jacob responds, “Take them, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Jacob may now have a limp, but he also was spiritually strengthened by what he experienced that night.
Rabbi Anne Ebersman is the Director of Jewish Programming at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School.