VAYISHLACH 5776 28 November 2015
150 years ago this week, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published. On Monday I went to look at the British Library’s anniversary exhibition, which included some early illustrations made by Lewis Carroll himself, in his neat and tidy original manuscript of what he first called “Alice’s Adventures Underground.” Amazing how popular the story still is. Wonderland and the sequel Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There have been part of my life ever since as a young child I read them in the small red hardback volumes belonging to my mother. When I went to Oxford it intrigued me to discover that the original Alice was the daughter of Henry George Liddell, co-author of Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon; that’s a book I used at that time daily and which is still the largest single volume in my book collection.
Then, when I was still a student, along came a book called The Annotated Alice and with it the discovery that so much of Alice can be taken really seriously – are you a creature in my dream, or am I a creature in your dream? And if you are a creature in my dream, will you die when I wake up? These questions linked to current theological questions about the nature of reality, especially those of the Irish Bishop George Berkeley (1685 -1783) who believed that all physical objects are composed entirely of ideas. Lewis Carroll was poking fun at such thought, which could indeed make us simply creatures in someone else’s dreams.
In this week’s Torah reading, Jacob, like last week, has a night vision, this time as he returns to the land he had left 20 years earlier. This second dream is much less comforting. A man wrestles with him all night, hurts his thigh so he limps, refuses to give his name, but changes Jacob’s name to Israel, the one who “wrestles with God.”
On this Alice anniversary, I’d like to suggest a connection. The two Alice books are themselves two dreams. Both of Jacob’s dreams changed him profoundly. Both of Jacob’s dreams and the Alice stories raise profound questions of identity.
‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
I think the Caterpillar can help us understand the effect of Jacob’s night of wrestling. He is told by his unnamed opponent: Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel (Genesis 32:29). So who exactly is he? Is he the same person who stole his brother’s blessing, the brother he is about to meet again after all those years. Is he the same person as he was before the night vision? As with Alice, Jacob’s new identity effects the whole story. Were Jacob and Esau really reconciled? Did Esau kiss him, or as some rabbinic commentaries suggest, bite him? Can the brothers ever really be reconciled? Can Judaism and Christianity ever really be reconciled? As with Alice, the Torah stories wrestle with the nature of a current and a future reality.
The underlying similarity is this. Lewis Carroll constantly merged dream ideas with waking consciousness, until you don’t quite know what is real and what isn’t. Very biblical. And madness lies close to Alice. The inability to differentiate fantasy from reality was at the heart of Victorian theories of mental illness. Only five years before Alice was published British psychiatrist Sir James Crichton-Browne objected to what he called “castle building” or “flights of fancy” in children, believing it could lead to madness in later life. Lewis Carroll knew of these theories and objected to them. He created a dual frontier of a dream world and a child’s mind, just as the narrator of the Book of Genesis was able to merge the story of wrestling at night with a strange man into Jacob’s psychological development. There was a great fear in the middle nineteenth century that dream states could spill over into waking consciousness. This is precisely what is described with Jacob. Do the people of Israel avoid eating the sinew of the thigh just because of a dream? Not so. The reason given is that Jacob limped after he had woken up. He is a changed man. He had had a vision that he had striven with God and with men and prevailed (Genesis 32:29). He awakes able to meet Esau feeling stronger, more assertive, less afraid. When he meets his brother he is able to say to him: “I have seen your face as one sees the face of God.”
Consider this from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
“ I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
We are not so very far here from Jacob’s dream in which he appears to have entered a world in which the person he meets apparently has no name. Call it Wonderland or Genesis, it is a topsy turvy world which makes us rethink what is real and what is not. “I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”
Was that Jacob speaking? No, it’s a quote from Alice.
Who exactly was Jacob? What does it mean when we call ourselves the people of Israel? That’s our puzzle, on this notable anniversary. When we enter into the stories of Genesis, we enter our Jewish wonderland, and we as readers do not emerge unchanged.