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I, Jacob
The perfection against which I, Jacob, had for so long measured myself exists nowhere.
by Peter Pitzele

How do you limp?
With an orphan's wounds, an exile's sigh?
With a traitor's smile, or a sister's lie?
With sex, or drink, or dreams?
In excess of your means?
In denial or self-disgust?
What trail do you leave in the dust?
How do you limp, my fellow Jew,
My mirror image, Israel? You.

As regards my character, there is not a member of my family who would not testify against me. All right, maybe my mother would stand with me, but for the rest of them--brother, wives, serving women, sons, Dinah, in-laws, Sechemites, dwellers in Canaan, even those Egyptians who've come to know me--you won't find three good words among them. Oh, outwardly they'll show deference, but inwardly...well, all of them have their rightful disappointments.

Truly, it never ceases to amaze me that I, Jacob, am the figurehead and namesake for Israel.

Once I thought this was Divine irony. On the one hand, God sets us up as His Chosen People. On the other, our failings--mine foremost--are writ large for all to see. Perhaps being Israel means to be exalted and brought low, to be singled out and exposed, to be called to a high standard and to be broken under the impossibility of achieving it.

Then I had another thought: Perhaps by this name--the God-wrestler--God wished to commend my struggle for self-improvement. But I am not sure my life tells this story very convincingly. After all, I am that same fond, foolish father who, years later, wrapped his son in a coat advertising his special status. I might as well have painted a bull's eye on it.

So you may well ask how I came to understand my name, my fateful struggle in the dark, and the wound I received which impaired my progress for the rest of my life. I have come to understand that the lasting legacy of that transfomative night lay in my limp. It was the sign upon my flesh of an inner and spiritual turn. It was a wound that never healed and, therefore, a constant reminder. But of what? How was I supposed to understand this? Curse, blessing, or both?

That first morning, when I made my way to Esau, I limped past my wives, my concubines, my sons, my daughter, my servants. Esau saw me, a gimp, and that was enough--he dismissed the four hundred with him and met me alone. I limped back to bury my father. I limped before the chieftains of Canaan. I limped before Pharaoh. Everywhere I bore this infirmity. I left a strange scrawl in the dust.

For long time I thought my deformity an insult. Each morning in my prayers when I thanked God for making me in His image, my mind played with the words tze-leh, curve, and tze-lem, image. I had been created tze-leh elohim, in the curve and not in the image of God. A deviant. Change the yud to a mem and I would be as Adam, a perfect image of God.

And yet the yud of my misfortune is the holy letter of God.

But could I see my limp as a cradle tilted toward holiness? Not at first. I was ashamed of my deformity, disgusted by the pity, the mockery it evoked in others. I wrestled far longer with that limp than I did with any angel. At times it was the source of self-loathing--at other times, of shame. In it I tasted limitation. Whether I walked alone or with others, I walked out of step in my own broken time. That was Israel's cloddish plod. My limping halachah (from the verb to walk).

I may sound bitter, and indeed I have known a fair amount of bitterness. But I have also come to realize a strange truth that has eased my discontent with God. I limp in two worlds. Outwardly, I limp for all to see; inwardly, I have had to befriend my faults. To face them. To realize how far I had strayed from the straight and narrow, how hospitable I had become to the evil inclination.

I thought of Eve, the Mother of All Life, created as she was from the curving part of Adam, the tze-leh of man. It was Eve, her curves like the changing moon, who spoke with that curved serpent, and out of that encounter the knowledge of good and evil flowed into the world.

This perfection against which I had for so long measured myself exists nowhere. That is Israel's truth. No one is lacking for infirmity. Everything is curved. Halachah is a winding path--and were it not, what possibility would there be for teshuvah? For repentance, the sages say, is God's most glorious gift. Teshuvah humbles us as a limp humbles us. In our turnings, we discover that, God-wrestlers though we may be, we are God-limpers as well. Out of our limitations we give God a means for grace.

So I ask you: How do you limp?

Peter Pitzele is the author of Scripture Windows: Towards a Practice of Bibliodrama.


Union for Reform Judaism.