Vayishlach: Wrestling to Righteousness

Vayishlach: Roasted potatoes, apples and leeks

Vayishlach: Roasted potatoes, apples and leeks

In Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with an unknown force in the night. At dawn, Jacob’s foe wants to leave. But, before letting him go, Jacob  demands a blessing from him. He replies by asking Jacob his name and responds, “your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”  Afterwards, Jacob realizes he had been wrestling with God. So, “Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.'”

Black Rock Orchard. DuPont Circle Farmers Market. Washington, DC

Black Rock Orchard. DuPont Circle Farmers Market. Washington, DC

Prior to this event, Jacob was dishonest and deceptive.  The wrestling is transforming, not just in name but spiritually.  Rabbi Brad Artson writes in The Bedside Torah, “through the process of introspection, remorse and a commitment to confront his own failings, Jacob is able to make himself into a better, more empathetic individual.” This is also about Jacob doing the “right thing.” The Sefat Emet taught, “this may be an account of Jacob’s wrestling with his conscience, torn between his human tendency to avoid an unpleasant encounter and the divine impulse in him that urges him to do the difficult but right thing.”

Jews wrestle with moral questions including those about food and agriculture issues. For example, what does or should kosher mean in the 21st century? Is junk food worthy of a hecksher (kosher certification)?  Should an animal raised under inhumane conditions but slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer) be deemed kosher? Why aren’t all GMO crops considered treyf (not kosher)?

Potatoes. Sunnyside Farm & Orchard, DuPont Circle farmers market, Washington, DC

Sunnyside Farm & Orchard, DuPont Circle farmers market, Washington, DC

What are our roles beyond the Jewish community? What is the Jewish responsibility to farm workers, who plant and grow our food, but live in extreme poverty and often don’t have enough to eat?  (Check out the new film, Food Chains, about this topic).   In Vayishlach, we also read about the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, by Shechem. A Human Rights Watch report describes on the job rape and sexual harassment of farmworker women and girls. What should Jews being doing about it? What is our obligation to support striking fast food workers in non-kosher restaurants who struggle to survive on minimum wage salaries?

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz asks, “when do we encounter God’s presence today? It is when we wrestle, when we ask difficult questions about ethics and behavior. It is only when we confront “the other” that we truly rise to our potential and enter into God’s presence.”

Individuals and organizations are engaging in such questions and responding with their Jewish values. It’s not always the easiest task, but as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments, “great leaders have the courage to live with unpopularity.”

You might see Jews marching in agricultural fields and supermarkets in support of workers. There are Jews who are re-examining what and why foods and animals are given kosher certification. Other Jews are join picket lines with fast food workers around the country. And, this being a Shmita year, Hazon has for the first time encouraged Diaspora Jews to have conversations and  take actions that infuse our food systems with “Shmita values” outside of Israel.

Chopped leeks

Chopped leeks

The recipe I created this week is about wrestling and transformation. In the same way that Jacob was deceitful and became upstanding and humble, after wrestling and changing his name to Israel, the potatoes in the dish represent this struggle. Potatoes are inedible until they are transformed through heat.  In this dish, they are cut into sticks to represent the straight honesty of Israel but they also fall over, symbolizing his humility and the limp that he walks with after his hip was damaged for the rest of his life. I’m in Washington, DC with family and there are so many gorgeous apple varieties available at the farmers market, that I just had to include some in the recipe!

Roasted Potatoes, Leeks and Apples


4 potatoes, scrubbed and cut into rectangular slices
1 apple, scrubbed and cut into rectangular slices (I chose a Red Winesap apple which is great for baking but didn’t become soft)
1 leek, washed and cut into halves
olive oil
salt and pepper

Black Rock Orchard. DuPont Circle Farmers Market. Washington, DC

Black Rock Orchard. DuPont Circle Farmers Market. Washington, DC


1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Slice apples, leeks and potatoes. If there are scraps, save them for a stock or roast separately. Line pan with apple and potatoes and sprinkle leeks on top

3. Drizzle with olive oil (if it becomes too dry during roasting, add water to pan) and season with salt and pepper.

4. Roast for approximately 40 minutes until crisp.

5. Remove from oven and serve on platter.



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