Rabbi David Walk
When I was a little kid, I regularly watched a television show called Fury (The story of a horse and the boy who loved him). I remember asking my mother if there couldn't be just one week where they didn't get into trouble and have to be saved. Couldn't there be just one episode without tension and danger? My mom said something about how there would then be no story and no one would watch. I was thinking that I'd watch. Well, now decades later, I'm still waiting for episodes without strife and struggle, but now I'm discussing my life and not a TV show. Toil is the stuff of life. From the single celled protozoan to us, life is a tussle. That's just the way it is. Ya'akov also wanted respite from life's scuffles. That's how our Sages describe the beginning of next week's parsha: And Ya'akov settled down where his father's had sojourned (Genesis 37:1). The Midrash describes how an exhausted Ya'akov just wanted a tranquil existence, but immediately began the battle between Yosef and his brothers. Serenity wasn't to be. This appeal came after the anxious moments of this week's reading. That is what we'll analyze this week.
The major stress in our parsha comes from the apprehension Ya'akov has over his impending reunion with his brother who has sworn to kill him. I mean that would make me nervous, especially since he was bigger, stronger and had an army of 400 men. The verse records that Ya'akov was very much afraid and distressed (32:8). The climax of this concern comes in the description of the quintessential struggle scene: And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (verse 25). Sorry, Linda, this is better than WWE. We all can picture this famous incident, a heavily muscled Ya'akov wrestling with a serene, winged angel. And, of course, there is the well known interpretation that this was the guardian angel of his brother Esav. Somehow this represents the grappling which will take between Jew and his enemy throughout history. Cool. But, as I've done in previous years, I'd like to give an alternate explanation.
The Noam Elimelech (Reb Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhinsk, 1717-1787) writes a fascinating commentary on the passage that Ya'akov was left all alone. He comments that the complete Zadik is one who is always worshipping God in truth. The Zadik accomplishes this great goal by constantly focusing on the exalted nature of God, by isolating himself within his thoughts. In this way his concentration and meditation on these issues can bring the Zadik to ascend step by step to the most exalted levels of supernal existence. Phew, sounds awesome, but what does it mean? When a person seeking spiritual growth contemplates and meditates alone on holy aspirations, great things can happen. But it's not easy. The Rebbe points out that in this contemplation one also notices the lower urges and aspects of oneself as well, and this can be depressing.
Let's compare this picture of Ya'akov alone at night to last week's image of Ya'akov alone at night. This week he's actively fighting; last week he was passively observing the spiritual beings ascending and descending on the ladder. This week his struggle is with that reality that part of him ascends and part of him descends. According to the Rebbe, Ya'akov's being alone is on purpose. He chooses this opportunity before his imminent clash with his brother to think through his own status. And that's when he finds the fight, not with any external force representing his brother, but with the warring factions within himself. Remember the verse states clearly that he was alone. When you're alone, there's only one being with whom you can fight. You got it. I have met the enemy, and it is me. The realization that he has lower or Esav qualities mixed in with his finer points almost cripples him. He strives to follow the model of his father and grandfather, but is shaken by these other elements within him. He wants to represent these positive qualities in his confrontation with his brother, but the last twenty years in the house of Lavan have hardened him to the point that he's not sure whether he's still the simple man of the tent or has become a carbon copy of Esav's man of the field.
This existential struggle reminds me of the scene in the third Superman movie (1983) when an evil incarnation of Superman fights the moral Clark
So, which is the 'real' or essential me? Jean Paul Satre once said that 'one never becomes anything else but what one already was.' Satre viewed that as a negative, because he wants us to evolve and grow. I think that we grow by the challenges to who we are, but eventually we must return (lehashiv, Teshuva) to whom in essence we really are. Therefore at the end of this long and dark night, Ya'akov concludes that he's not the same of Esav and cannot travel his path.
We all must go through the same battle to discover who we really are. Sun Tzu (544-496 BCE) said that strength does not come from victory; it comes from struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Hopefully, we emerge, battle scarred and hardened, but with the sure knowledge that we are the heirs to Ya'akov and his legacy.
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