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Wrestling With Ourselves

In this week’s reading we have the tumultuous reunion between the two estranged brothers, Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov is returning to the land with his wives, children, servants, and herds that he acquired while living with his father-in-law Lavan. He hears that Esav is approaching with 400 men and is seized with fear and anxiety. He is afraid that Esav is still angry with him for his skullduggery and fears for the safety of himself and his family. So he plots out a strategy. He sends Esav herds as gifts, hoping to assuage his brother's ire. He also divides his people into two camps, thinking that if one is attacked the other can escape. He also puts his favorite wife, Rachel to the far back, protecting her the most.

Yaakov then proceeds to wrestle “a man” that night. It says “And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob's hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him.” This text is rather ambiguous using nebulous pronouns. This has given rise to different interpretations of what is actually happening here.

The prophet Hosea says in our Haftarah reading today “He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor.” Rashi agrees with this and adds that it wasn’t just any angel, but it was Esau's guardian angel. But Rambam argues that it was not an angel but merely a prophetic vision that Jacob had. A midrash states that it was the archangel Michael.

Nechama Leibowitz, was a great Torah scholar and teacher of the last century. She held the view that Jacob wrestled not with an Angel but with an aspect of himself. In fact he was wrestling with the Esau-like aspect of himself, the part that motivated him to steal his brother's birthright.

Rashi depicts Jacob being very methodical and careful in planning his encounter with his brother. Whereas Rashbam sees Jacob as being consumed with fear and anxiety despite the fact that God had promised him safety and many descendants. Jacob is in a panic and is doing everything that he can think of to try to survive his encounter with his brother. And it turns out that his fears were entirely unfounded according to the text . Rather than finding a vengeful angry brother he finds a brother who is willing to forgive and to welcome him home. Esau weeps as he hugs his brother and reconciles with him.

This is true with us as well. We often find ourselves in situations where the future is uncertain and we become inflamed with fear and anxiety and panic over what is going to happen. We end up wrestling with these emotions just as Jacob did. And in many circumstances we do not prevail like Jacob did but instead find ourselves defeated. But then as events transpire we realize that what we were wrestling with was an illusion after all because our fears do not come to fruition.

I learned this lesson in spades this past spring. My work had announced that they were going to lay off 1400 people and they took two and a half months to decide who was on the list. I found myself tortured with anxiety, fear, worry and doubt. This was largely fed by the fact that I was just recently laid off from another position and the prospects of employment for older people in the IT industry is not great because ageism is rampant as I discovered while looking for the job I currently have. I was so consumed with anxiety and fear that I found it difficult to pray and it was a strain to focus throughout the day. I also had frequent nightmares. I was not so much wrestling with the angel as I was just getting my butt whipped. He was tossing me around like a rag doll, frequently getting me in head locks and pinning me to the floor.

Sylvia Boorstein, an author who is both a practicing Jew and a practicing Buddhist, coined the phrase “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. What she means with this is that there is no denying that we will encounter pain in this world. We will indeed encounter illnesses, losses, and disappointments. But we can accentuate the pain by being consumed with worry, anxiety, and fears. When we cling too hard to the outcome, cling too hard to the outcome that we want, the angst surges. This is exactly what happened to me. I could only look at one possible desired outcome, that I keep my job. Peace came for me when I accepted that the decision was out of my control and that I would be OK no matter what happened. I had to accept that I may have to adjust things in my life if I did get laid off. I might have to move away to get another job, or find a job that wasn’t in the IT industry. But in the moment that I accepted this, was the moment I won the wrestling match with myself.

The root of the Hebrew word for prayer, Tefillah, is PaLaL which means to judge or discern. Rabbi Nosson Scherman in his introduction to the ArtScroll Siddur carries this further. He states, “The Hebrew word for praying [mit-pa-layl]... is a reflexive word, meaning that the subject acts upon himself. Prayer is a process of self-evaluation, self-judgment; a process of removing oneself from the tumult of life to a little corner of truth and refastening the bonds that tie one to the purpose of life.”

My experience testifies to the validity of this statement. I needed to remove myself from the tumult of life so that I could refasten myself to Hashem. I could only do this by overcoming my desire for one particular outcome. I could only do this when I recognized through prayer that all things work for the good of those who love God. And turned my eyes to the Master of the Universe who holds all outcomes in His hands. It was at that point that I found peace.

We all are faced with situations in our lives that elicit fear, worry and doubt. We wrestle with an aspect of ourselves, often the selfish part of ourselves. We add suffering to our pain. We deny Hashem’s sovereignty as we insist on one particular outcome. And we often find that we are wrestling with illusions; fears that will never become reality.

Wrestling with these things are an unavoidable aspect of human existence. But we can shorten the length of the struggle by turning to Hashem in prayer and recognizing these things for what they are.

May we wrestle with our angels. But may we quickly overcome them in prayer. May we, in the words of our Haftarah today, daily return to our God, practice goodness and justice and constantly trust Him. And thereby experience the peace that passes all understanding.


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