“Abba, do you want to wrestle?” asked my four-year-old daughter hopefully-
“Sure,” I said, “How do we start?”
“First, you go on that side of the bed, and I go on this side of the bed. We have to make mean faces and put our fists in the air. Then, we fall forward face down… and then… we wrestle!”
When I was in seventh grade, I was on the wrestling team, but we never started a wrestling match quite like that. Hilarious. But that’s what we did: We made our mean wrestling faces, put our fists in the air, fell onto the bed, and then… we wrestled!
Wrestling with a little four-year-old girl is not exactly fair. She thinks we’re wrestling, but I'm calling the shots. I pretend to struggle, then I fall over and say, “Oh no, she’s getting me! She’s getting me!”- but really, it's an illusion.
Kind of like when we wrestle with Reality. We can groan and moan, complain and blame, and somehow the mind thinks that all this drama will get us somewhere... but of course, it's an illusion too. We can do a lot to change our situation for the future, but we can never do anything to change what has already become.
And yet, in the case of wrestling with my daughter, just because it’s an illusion doesn’t mean it’s worthless. The real value is not in the struggle itself, but the blessing of connection that comes from the struggle.
In this week’s reading, Jacob demands that a blessing comes from his struggle.
Jacob is once again in a dark place. He has received word that his brother Esau is coming toward him with four hundred men, and he fears for his life:
“Jacob became very frightened and distressed, so he divided the people, flocks, cattle and camels into two camps…” (Gen. 32:8)
If Esau attacks half of his camp, at least the other half will survive. He then sends tributes ahead to appease his brother and prays for his life.
Night falls. After sending his family across the river, a strange thing happens-
“He spent the night there… Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn…”
The “night” is his not knowing- his anxiety about the danger that might befall him. So, he “wrestles” with his situation- meaning, he resists the truth of his predicament. Of course, it’s not a fair fight- the “wrestling” is an illusion. You can’t fight with Reality.
But eventually, the “man” says to Jacob,
“Let me go, for the dawn has broken!”
In every experience of fear, anger, frustration or loss, there comes a time to “let it go”. To “let it go” means you stop telling yourself stories about it, that you stop torturing yourself with it.
But- is there a value in not letting it go?
Jacob thinks so:
“I will not let you go until you bless me!”
Jacob knows that the real value is not in the struggle itself, but in the blessing that comes from the struggle. The mysterious man concedes and says:
“No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Yisrael, for you have striven (Sarita) with the Divine and with man and have prevailed.”
Jacob insists on a blessing, so his opponent gives him the title of one who has mastered his situation.
It’s true- Jacob has done everything he could do with both God and man to take responsibility: He’s split his camp to ensure the survival of at least half of them. He’s sent many gifts to appease his brother. He’s prayed to God for safety and protection.
And now, after an all night struggle with his anxiety and fear, the dawn is breaking. He’s done his best- he has become Yisrael- and now he’s ready to let go, surrendered to whatever is going to happen.
But something is missing. He is not satisfied with the mere title of Yisrael, there’s something he still needs to learn- so he asks a question:
“Vayishal Ya’akov- Jacob asked- ‘Tell me please your name!’”
The word for “asked” is “yishal”- the same letters as his new name, “Yisrael,” except that it’s missing a letter Reish.
The letter Reish means “head”. It implies authority, as in the “head of a school” or the “head of a company” and so on.
As Yisrael, Jacob has used his head wisely- he’s thought through his situation and acted as the responsible “head” of his family. But in asking a question, Yisrael becomes Yishal- he loses the Reish, as if to say, “my head is incomplete- there’s something I don’t yet know.”
What is it that he doesn’t know?
He doesn’t know the identity of the “man” that he’s wrestling with. In other words, even though he might be ready to give up his struggle, he doesn’t yet understand the nature of his struggle.
Jacob’s opponent answers him with yet another question:
“Why do you ask me my name?”
His opponent puts a question back onto Jacob: What’s your motivation in asking?
When we experience the inner pain of resistance, there comes a time when we accept and let go. Little children do this all the time- they’re great a letting go. But that doesn’t help them stay out of trouble in the future. The next moment, they’re upset about something else. There’s no self reflection- no sense of how they create their own suffering.
But if you take the time to really look at your own motivation- ask yourself, “How am I creating my experience?” then there’s the possibility for growth, for actually responding to life with a new wisdom. That kind of wisdom can only be won through the real struggles of your life.
But the struggle itself doesn’t automatically give it to you. You have to hold on to it a little longer and deeply inquire into yourself, before the “dawn” makes you forget all about it. The wisdom you get from that self-inquiry is the true blessing.
When you experience the blessing that only comes through suffering, the suffering takes on a whole new dimension. It’s no longer your enemy. Behind your troubles and problems, there is the Divine Friend, urging you to grow, to evolve.
In Psalm 119, the psalmist says to God: “I am a stranger on the earth- hide not your commandments from me!”
On this verse, the Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh, taught:
“When a person is driven into exile and comes to a strange and alien land, he has nothing in common with the people there and not a soul he can talk to.
But, if a second stranger appears, even though the new stranger comes from a totally different place, the two can confide in one another, and come to cherish one another. And had they not both been strangers, they never would have known such close companionship.
And that’s what the psalmist means: ‘You, just like me, are a stranger on this earth, for Your Divinity is hidden by my pain and suffering. So please, do not withdraw from me, but reveal to me your ‘commandments’- reveal to me the wisdom that can only be learned through this suffering- and let us be friends…’”
On this Shabbos Vayishlakh, the Shabbat of Sending, may our personal pain and all the troubles of the world be sent far away. But before it goes, may we extract the Light that can only come from the darkness- the self-knowledge we need to evolve. And as we approach the time of Hanukah, may that Light ever increase as the lights of the menorah, helping our whole species to evolve. May we dedicate ourselves ever more completely to the revelation of this Light!