I won’t let you go until you bless me

I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I won’t let you go until you bless me.

Bless me anyway.

Prior Walter is wrestling with an angel. He is dying. Many of his friends have died. It’s the 1980s, New York, and he’s living with HIV. This is the climax of my favourite play, Angels in America.

An angel has come and delivered a prophecy. He does not want it. The prophecy tells him that everybody needs to stop moving around so much and making so much noise. It tells him to stop modernity. He refuses. He tells the angel to take her prophecy back.

I won’t let you go until you bless me. Free me! Unfettter me! Bless me or whatever, but I will be let go.

The angel refuses.

Bless me anyway. I still want my blessing. Even sick. I want to be alive.

Eventually, the angel relinquishes and accepts back the prophecy.

This exchange sheds so much light for me on this week’s parasha. Jacob wrestles with an angel, and receives a new name: Israel, one who struggles with God. He prefigures a new people, a people who will struggle with God. A people who will not blindly follow God but will enter a two-way relationship, fraught with conflict. A people who will not slavishly enact rules of tradition, but who will fight over them and grapple with them.

Encapsulated in this story, I find the essence of Judaism: a process of struggle; with ourselves, with our society, with meaning itself. I like this in Judaism. I love the idea that Judaism is an approach to struggle. Whereas other religions talk about being saved from struggle or releasing the individual from the cycle of struggle, Judaism embraces it. Life is a struggle, it says, let’s get stuck into it. Let’s fight with ourselves, let’s fight with our society, let’s fight with God.

I like this version, because I’m good at fighting. I grew up in a very political house and spent most of my formative years involved in activism. I’m good at saying what’s wrong with the world and setting out to change it.

But this is not all of what that story is about. I’ve embraced the conclusion, but I’ve neglected what it took Jacob to get there. Yes, Jacob becomes one who struggles with God, but he gets there by telling the angel: I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I won’t let you go until you bless me.

Jacob’s starting position is not conflict. Jacob’s starting position is that he wants to be blessed. He wants to get the best thing possible out of this situation. He has run away from his home and his brother Esau. Now, he has run away from his uncle Lot. Jacob has got into fights with everyone. Jacob is fighting with his own conscience.

But when he is fighting with the angel, he doesn’t set out to win. He can’t physically overpower an angel. He can’t intellectually overpower an angel. By definition, these creatures are stronger, more enlightened, closer to God than human beings. All Jacob can do is ask for a blessing. All Jacob can do is realise that he has to make the most out of the situation he is in. Only when he realises this, and discovers that it’s not about winning, does Jacob find release and receive his blessing.

Over the last few months, I’ve realised how important it is not just to struggle, but to know when you can’t win; not just to fight against the bad, but to bless it too. In our morning prayers, we thank God who creates the darkness and the light, the good and the bad. All of it comes from God. Sometimes all we can do is resign ourselves to it, and ask the bad to bless us anyway.

Last year on Lag B’Omer, my friend went into hospital with liver failure. My boyfriend has known him for years. We spent months waiting for him to receive a transplant and hosting his family while he recovered. It looked like he was on the mend, and he had started working again at his job in the library.

About five weeks ago, he was rushed to hospital again. His liver was failing and other organs were at risk too. He has been in hospital, in an induced coma, on life support, since then. A week ago, the doctors told us that if he did not receive a matching organ by Thursday – today – that it would be too late to perform a transplant.

These last few weeks have made our house a strange place. It’s been filled with friends and family coming to stay, hoping for his recovery. We’ve filled the place up with laughter and tears – and, of course, prayers.

That’s all anyone can do when faced with a problem that is impossible to fight against. All of us have been helpless to decide whether he can receive a transplant or not. Whether he lives or not has been in the hands of amazing NHS doctors and nurses, but mostly it’s depended on that Great Being way beyond anybody’s understanding or control.

So I’ve had to learn a new skill: to bless it anyway. Everyone in our house has found ways of praying, at home and in the hospital. We’ve prayed hard for a recovery, while accepting that what might happen is way out of our hands. Life is complicated, fragile and inexplicable. What exactly it is that keeps it going or ends it we’ll never quite know. I have had to try to find new ways to bless the Source of all the good and all the bad in the world. That’s easy when things are good, but harder when things are bad.

On Sunday morning, our friend went into surgery for an organ transplant. Twelve hours later, we heard that the operation had been successful. That doesn’t mean he’s fine yet. It will be another week before he wakes up. The road to recovery is long, and there is no telling what will come next. But we will bless it anyway. We will say to him, to God and to this shitty situation: bless me anyway. I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I won’t let you go until you bless me. I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I won’t let you go

angels in americaI gave this sermon at shacharit on Thursday for Leo Baeck College. At the time, I included more names and personal details, which I’ve edited out for this version. I wanted to share with my fellow students what had been happening over the past few weeks.

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