Have you ever had the experience of sitting down to take a final exam and the professor has given you a choice to write about one of the two topics you know like the back of your hand? And, as you write that essay, fingers flying across the page, you can’t help but feel that you are cheating, even though you know you’re not? Well, for reasons that will become clear, this is how I feel today.
I am moved and grateful that we have the zechus to celebrate today, as a community, the 90th birthday of my mother, Dr. Rita Kuhn. She sits here among us, with us, and perhaps most importantly for us as a testament to the resiliency of the human soul. All of us have faced adversity in life and overcome them. Some of us continually overcome them. I take the liberty of assuming too, that all of us have experienced private moments of existential angst and estrangement from the Divine. This is the human condition – we ebb and flow like the sea upon the shores of God’s embrace. I hope we can all agree, however, that a survivor of the Shoah, sails in a different sort of vessel. The shores are rockier and the waters rougher. Yet God’s lighthouse shines for their arrival, as for any other (perhaps just a little brighter), and the port is always open.
In this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, B’nai Yisrael receives its name after Yaakov Avinu wrestles with the angel of God and survives. Yaakov requests a bracha from the angel and it replies, “Your name will no longer be said to be Yaakov, but Israel. You have become great before God and man. You have won.” Yaakov then insists on knowing the angel’s name. The angel responds by blessing Yaakov again. After this encounter, Yaakov declares, “I have seen the Divine face-to-face and [in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s translation] my soul has withstood it.” The translation in the Rabbi Shimshon Hirsch edition, however, reads, “and my character has remained intact.”
I am not going to go into the commentaries and riddles of translation. Translation, after all, is interpretation. And, while, my Hebrew is not strong enough to delve into the exact nuance of “Tinatzel Nafshi,” I would, for today, like to go with Rabbi Hirsch’s version of “my character has remained intact.” Why does Yaakov state that? Here he is, injured, barely able to walk on the eve of a potentially fatal battle with his brother Esav, and he talks about his “character being intact”?! What about his fighting strength and battle-ready endurance that he just expended on fighting an angel all night long? Character?! Why would he say such a thing?
And yet. And yet, in doing so, Yaakov touches the Ikar – the heart of the matter.
What is the most deeply humane response to the threat of annihilation? What is the sane response to having wrestled with God in the darkest darkness of night?
I believe that I have been raised by a woman who emulates that response. Allow me, please, to tell you a little bit about my mother’s character.
Rita, born in 1927 Berlin, left Germany alone in 1948. She lost over a dozen family members, and countless school friends. She boarded the Marine Flasher, set sail for America, with the hope that her remaining family members would soon follow. When they couldn’t join her due to my grandmother’s illness, my mother forged her way ahead in New York city, as so many immigrants have, despite her loneliness and heartache. The education that the Nazis had denied her, she reclaimed.
In 1950, she was diagnosed with melanoma, caused by the strain upon her feet in shoes too small during her forced labor. Beth Israel hospital in Boston performed surgery right away, and the life that was almost taken from her yet again, she reclaimed.
My mother, upon meeting and marrying my father, was blessed with the arrival of four healthy children. After they divorced, she completed her PhD in comparative literature from UC Berkeley, while raising us as a single mother. The home that was lost to her in the war, she reclaimed.
I am still not entirely sure how she created the home for us that she did. Now that I am a working mother, it perplexes me more than ever. Home sewn clothes. All our food made from scratch. She reconditioned and reupholstered our furniture. She kept track of our chores, our music lessons, and doctor appointments. She walked up three blocks of Marin Avenue with groceries (no, she never owned a car), and somehow, in the midst of this, even our school work somehow always fell into place. She created a home that breathed peace and beauty and sanctity. The haven of home that her mother had built in Berlin, my mother then reclaimed.
For the sake of brevity and privacy, I will not recount all her losses and subsequent amazing accomplishments (of which there are many, including the upcoming publication of her first novel, Another Ruth, and Yad Vashem’s translation into Hebrew of her first book, Broken Glass, Broken Lives: A Jewish Girl’s Survival Story in Berlin, 1933-1945.)
What I would like to say to you, CBI’ers, and specifically to you, Mutti, is this:
I believe the deepest lesson in Yaakov’s struggle with the angel lies not just in the fact that he survived, but in Yaakov’s profound response to his survival. The angel did not state his own name. He was the nameless darkness, the arbiter of human courage and fate. Perhaps the angel’s name was Death, or Fear. Maybe he was Despair, or Hate, or Cowardice. Perhaps it was the angel of Esav come to test him or exhaust him. But the angel’s name is immaterial to the fact that Yaakov defeated it, and, upon defeating it, examined himself within and found that his character was still intact. He was undeterred. He was still a man of faith (though modified), he was still a man of light (though shadowed), and ultimately, he was a man of thought (though complex). He emerged and survived as a full Mensch (person), by retaining his humanity in the face of darkness, and by retaining the ability to live and wrestle with the inherent contradictions of human existence. That night, Yaakov reclaimed his soul from despair. And only then was he able to face his brother.
Mutti, you have built a tower upon your struggle with God. You have built floors upon floors within that tower. At the beginning, it was floors dedicated to your education. Then it was many, many floors dedicated to the education of your children. And, after that, floors upon floors upon floors of commitment and devotion to the education of other children. And, most importantly, during the construction of that tower, Mutti, your character remained intact.
Mutti, you and I have our disagreements. Good Lord, that’s a relief to say. How many of you here thought otherwise? But I tell you what, Mom, keep on wrangling with God because, Lord knows, you have far more staying power than I have. Keep on asking the hard questions, and keep on refusing run of the mill answers (and please, don’t ask me, because I don’t have any answers – ask Rabbi Cohen!).
Mutti, you, like so many, were marked for annihilation. Your body was enslaved and, from that enslavement, was almost broken by cancer. Your spirit could have been broken too, but it wasn’t. You chose, like Yaakov, to defeat the angel that tried to hold you back. You chose to fight for your humanity. You chose not to give up on God, but to wrestle with Him. You chose Hope. You chose to remain a Jew. You reclaimed your soul.
That is why this parsha was a gift from my Professor on High. How could I not ace the exam when the subject material is you and Yaakov?
I am humbled and grateful to be your daughter, Mutti. Happy birthday.