From the moment of conception our lives are filled with struggle.
From the competition of the sperm to enter the egg, from the struggle to exit the narrow straights of the womb. The struggle to learn, to make a living, to marry, to deal with family, health, war. Everyone with their own struggle.
Over the course of our lives what changes is not our exposure to struggle but our attitude to it.
Gradually we begin to fear struggle, and we try at all costs to avoid struggle.
In the Bible , Jacob was someone who did not like struggle and who avoided conflict. From the earliest portrayal of Jacob we see him described in stark contrast to his twin brother
וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים׃
“When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.”
However conflict was to be a constant part of Jacobs life. Amassing wealth, wives who were also sisters , 13 children at odds with each other, there was to be no peace.
When Jacob was about to confront his twin brother, the skillful hunter , he sent ahead all his family and possessions, (in a display designed to appease his brother), whilst Jacob stayed behind alone. At last, with no encumbrance or possession, this should have been a moment of respite. Instead it was a climactic moment of struggle. The passage in Genesis reads:
וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃
Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
וַיַּ֗רְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָכֹל֙ ל֔וֹ וַיִּגַּ֖ע בְּכַף־יְרֵכ֑וֹ וַתֵּ֙קַע֙ כַּף־יֶ֣רֶךְ יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּהֵֽאָבְק֖וֹ עִמּֽוֹ׃
When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שַׁלְּחֵ֔נִי כִּ֥י עָלָ֖ה הַשָּׁ֑חַר וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אֲשַֽׁלֵּחֲךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּֽנִי׃
Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו מַה־שְּׁמֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹֽב׃
Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.”
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃
Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (The word Israel in Hebrew means to have struggled with gd)”
From the above passage I now understand that we the Children of Israel are actually the Children of the Struggle, or more accurately “the Children of the one who Struggled and Overcame”
The struggle is not without pain, Jacob was permanently injured from the confrontation but it was also his lasting moment of greatness.
In fact this episode may be the founding philosophy of Judaism. Heschel writes “Judaism is a confrontation with the Bible .. the biblical period is the grand chapter in the history of mans wrestling with gd (And of gd wrestling with man)”
R Nachman the founder of Breslov Hassidut from the 18th c elucidates in his beautiful meditation on disputes/ “mahlokot” :
“The world is full of mahlokot. These disputes are between the nations of the world, as well as between cities, between houses, neighbors, and every man and his wife…
Know that every debate between man and his family, etc., is also the very mahloket that is between kings and nations…
and even if one doesn’t want to dispute and wants to sit in silence and serenity, he is forced to be as well in mahloket and wars.
This is also true of a nation that wants to sit in peace, and doesn’t want any war, still, it is forced into war against its will, for [other nations] claim it is on their side, until it is in the war…
And therefore at times when a person sits alone in the forest, it is possible for him to go crazy. This happens because he is alone, and he contains all of the nations of the world inside himself, and they are fighting with each other, and he has to change at every time to the aspect of each nation….and because of this it is possible to go completely insane…
However when one sits among people, there is room for the war to express itself in others, in his house and neighbors…“
Yehuda Fogel writes in his must read essay “ In this unifying cosmic vision of mahloket, all disputes are played out in every possible dimension. A given conflict can be an inner conflict, as well as the dispute between nations. Because of this, conflicts that remain internal, bottled up, can cause insanity.”
R Nachman also writes how struggle is a force for creativity in the world, as we confront ourselves, our family our neighbors we make space for growth and creativity.
It appears we can not avoid struggle. It is a built in part of our existence.
Struggle is our friend and our destiny.
May we learn to confront it with faith in our ability to overcome and excitement for our potential to grow from the experience.
Link to Fogels essay
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