William Hamilton

Is there anything you can set down?

First-time hikers of the Appalachian trails commonly overpack. They pile in an extra cooking pot or bulky down blanket. When they come to the first stop along the trail, more experienced hikers who know how long and arduous the trails are, will helpfully ask, “Is there anything you can set down?” Bestselling author Kate Bowler concludes her telling of this story by saying, “Life will be heavy, Is there anything you can set down?”

We carry a lot. Life can feel overpacked with weighty burdens. Setting something down feels like such warm advice.

It’s interesting, then, that Jacob’s blessing in this week’s portion of Torah results from his refusal to let go. Having enduring a nocturnal ordeal, wrestling with an unknown opponent, Jacob refuses to accede to his request for release at the break of dawn. “I won’t let you go until you bless me” Jacob replies (Gen. 32:27). I take this to mean, “I refuse to part company with this painful experience until I have extracted something positive from it.”

Days include disappointments. Bad news never feels good. A colleague you were counting on forgets a commitment they made to you. So, which is it, is it better advice to let go or to hold on?

Normally we’d imagine it’s better to let go painful things and hold on to comforts. But this week’s lesson from Jacob’s struggle reminds us that inverse can also be helpful. When you hold on to something painful a bit longer, you may find some way to insist that it become fruitful and not remain pointless.

There is a fascinating detail I’d never before noted when his wrestling opponent wounds him, the Hebrew verb used to describe the touch that dislocates his sciatic nerve is va-tekah. The only other times in the Torah when this word appears are associated with Tekiah, the shofar’s wakeup call. Perhaps the New Year’s wakeup call can been heeded whenever we need it most.

It may seem odd to invoke the shofar days prior to Hanukkah’s lights, but taking time this Shabbat to listen to our feelings may be just what we need. In so doing, may we not miss what we face by tarrying with the troubling until the dawn of a sunnier outcome.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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