Close Encounters of A Jewish Kind: Rabbi Joshua Caruso – Dec. 2, 2017

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple includes the D’var Torah delivered by Rabbi Joshua Caruso to the Partnership Minyan, a Modern Orthodox prayer community that has been meeting periodically at Fairmount Temple. He shared these teachings at Shabbat Morning worship on December 2, 2017. We encourage you to share comments below or post the link to this teaching on social media such as Facebook or Twitter or to share with others by email so as to continue the discussion of the topics Rabbi Caruso raises in this teaching.

Back when I was a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), I applied – and was admitted – to the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) internship through the Wexner Foundation. At that time, seminary students were not required to know how to walk into a hospital room, but I imagined that I should probably figure it out before I got my s’michah (ordination). More importantly, I wanted to grow professionally, and grow my capacity to know the other. After all, Martin Buber famously wrote that “All real life is meeting”. I was ready for the encounter.

This week’s parasha (Torah portion), VaYishlach, features an encounter of epic proportions: Jacob engages in the most historic of wrestling matches. His struggle is so transformative that he takes on a new name, Yisrael, which means, “one who struggles with the divine”. In fact, the wrestling match was so powerful that afterwards he proclaims:


וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי

Jacob therefore named that place, Peniel – for I have seen God face-to-face, yet my life has been spared.


As a soon-to-be-birthed rabbi, I resolved to aspire to such moments of meaning. And the hospital internship would be my chance to put this ideal into practice.

The first day of the chaplaincy internship at New York-Cornell Hospital was daunting. I was tasked with walking into every hospital room on a particular floor, and to work my pastoral magic with Jew and non-Jew alike. Even equipped with supervision and guidance from a seasoned chaplain, I was not convinced that anyone was interested in a visit from a neophyte pastor! They didn’t know me, and I supposed that they weren’t thinking about Martin Buber either.

My misgivings were realized when I walked into the room of a man in his 70s whom I assumed to be Orthodox, given the kippah on his head. At first, I was heartened when the man waved me in with his arms. He asked me to take a seat and proceeded in conversation. “So…nu…you’re a YU (Yeshiva University) grad, or are you still in seminary?” I tried to skirt the question; I was afraid to disappoint him. Nevertheless, I told him that I was a Reform rabbi. The visit didn’t last much longer after that.

So much for Panim-el-Panim!

That very same day, I visited a woman who looked just about the same age as the Orthodox gentleman I had met earlier. I stood at the threshold of the door and asked if I could come in. She waved me in, but as soon as she saw the kippah on my head she tried to wave me back out. “No”, she said, “I am a proud Reform Jew, and I don’t take from the Orthodox”. I explained that I AM a Reform Jew, but she insisted I couldn’t be Reform and wear a kippah (head covering).

My holy Panim el Panim encounters were not going as planned.

I share these stories with you not to solicit sympathy, but only to point out the obvious: Jewish encounter is fraught with pitfalls and struggle. What makes things even more challenging is that Judaism is a discerning faith. We are all about building fences around fences to protect Torah Judaism, and to keep at bay those forces that threaten our tradition and Jewish continuity. We faithfully serve as the Mara D’atra (master of the area) of our Judaism, because if no one else is watching the store, what will become of it?

But the notion of encounter in theory often plays out differently in practice.

While we may genuinely aspire to a level of knowing and understanding, our inner selves may not be prepared to comply. After all, we are wired with a yetzer (inclination or drive) that agitates and challenges and makes assumptions. That yetzer often operates under the radar, without rationale or even our awareness, and in ways not consistent with the ideals we strive to hold so dear.

Even when we seek to put our best foot forward, with the attendant generosity of spirit, we stumble on the same old obstacles time and time again.

There is a great Midrash (interpretative commentary) in Genesis Rabbah[1] (33:3) which tells the story of a town that suffered a famine. The rabbi decreed a fast, but all the fervent efforts of the townspeople yielded no rains for the dying crops. Finally the townspeople began to distribute charity to the poor, and a flurry of mitzvah work ensued. People got busy with giving one to the other, as if their lives depended on it (as they surely did!). In the midst of this pious activity, a townsperson observed a man handing money to his ex-wife. Word spread, and the townspeople believed the worst: that the man was paying his ex-wife money in exchange for sexual favors. When the rabbi got word of the news, he sought to learn the truth for himself. He invited the ex-husband to come see him, explain the situation, and defend this apparent unseemly act. The man explained, “I saw (my ex-wife) in (financial) distress and I was filled with mercy on her”. At that moment, the rabbi lifted his head towards the heavens and said, “Master over the worlds, just like this (man who) does not have an obligation to sustain (his wife) in distress and…was filled with mercy for her, all the more so, (may) You be filled with mercy on us.” Immediately, the rains fell and the (whole) world was irrigated.

The lesson of this Midrash is not only about kindness, but it’s chiefly about how we our actions must fall in line with how we envision our best selves. Rabbi Shai Held remarked about this very midrash saying,

“… (the townsfolk) are suspicious, even cynical…(as if to say) ‘We are righteous…he must be a sinner, and the consequences of his brazen sinfulness fall upon us.’ But the truth is quite different: They are generous only in the most mechanical way. Their hands are open, but their hearts are decidedly not.”[2]

I think my teacher, Rabbi Held, would agree that true encounter, the experience of meeting someone, Panim-el-Panim, requires more than simply a transactional exchange, or the checking off of a completed mitzvah. A true Jewish encounter demands pushing against pliable boundaries. It requires building a gate within our fence that allows us to travel inside and outside without losing the essential nature of who we are and what we believe. And venturing outside the gate requires the ability to see what we will gain rather than only what is at risk. It requires us to see the “Other” as a legitimate holder of truth and of value.

This is the great lesson of the Jacob wrestling moment. Jacob is undeniably changed by the encounter. His name changes. His physical condition changes. But most important, he is changed in his soul. This transformation could not have happened without an active struggle. What kind of transformation might have been possible had the patients in that hospital years ago been open to walking through the gate in their fences, leaving their assumptions behind?

We are overwhelmed and moved by the holy encounter that Jacob experiences with his formidable wrestling antagonist. He says, כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי – “I have seen God face-to-face yet my life/my soul has been spared”. During the struggle he may have feared for his life, but it was his spiritual death that he risked had he not engaged in that encounter.

Today, by inviting me as a guest to your Minyan, you have allowed me to walk inside your gates. And that was the idea of welcoming the Partnership Minyan into our gates, here at Fairmount Temple. We are all striving, reaching to know the one true God, and our yearnings as a people reflect that commonality – even if our observances and ritual practices may differ. We still recognize this striving in the other – and its authenticity should never be denied. We are strengthened in our achdut – in our unity. Not only must we invite each other as Jews to walk through the gates in our fences, but we must engage in an authentic struggle to know and understand each other. We must do this not only with words, but with our actions, with our hands and feet…and with our eyes as we gaze at the divine in each other’s reflection. Panim-el-Panim. Amen.

[1] Genesis Rabbah (Hebrew: B’reshith Rabbah) is a religious text from Judaism’s classical period, probably written between 300 and 500 CE with some later additions. It is a Midrash comprising a collection of ancient rabbinical homiletical interpretations of the Book of Genesis (B’reshith in Hebrew).

[2] The Heart of Torah, Rabbi Shai Held. P. 77