"Because you have struggled with God and with people and prevailed": Thoughts on Parshat VaYishlach

I always wonder just how personal I should get on this blog. On the one hand, writing about what I know and care about the most, consistently leads to my best writing. On the other hand, my one cardinal rule of blogging is: Do not to blog anything that, if the whole world knew I had written it, would hurt or embarrass me or anyone I know. There are some things that you just don't need the whole world to know about you.

As a compromise, I am going to write about something very personal, but in such general terms that it could be about almost anything or anyone. We'll see if it works or is irritatingly unsatisfying. (You can let me know in the comments if you feel so moved.)

One reason that I persist in writing, despite receiving no remuneration and precious little feedback, is because once in awhile, someone sees their own life or issues reflected in mine and reports having learned something about themselves from what I've learned about myself, and that is one of the best feelings in the world. So I'm hoping that by writing in general terms, that effect isn't lost.

In this week's parsha (Torah portion), Jacob prepares to encounter his arch-enemy for the first time in over two decades. His arch-enemy happens to be his brother Esau, from whom he stole both the birthright and his father's blessing. In preparing to meet Esau, Jacob was so afraid for his safety and that of his family that he did what my grandfather, ztz"l, used to do while flying: he divided his family into two so that if one should perish, at least the other would survive. He then beseeches God with a very simple, direct prayer. (I like it because Jacob tells it like it is.) The heart of his prayer is:
יב הצילני נא מיד אחי, מיד עשו: כי-ירא אנכי, אתו--פן-יבוא והכני, אם על-בנים. 12 Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children.
He and his family spend the night there, in Machana'im. In the morning, he sends gifts of cattle to soften Esau up, and gives very specific instructions to his servants for their delivery. That evening, he sends his nearest and dearest across the river at the Yavok river crossing, along with his possessions, and he sleeps alone, on the opposite side of the river. He is all alone, and he fears for his life (as well he should, in my humble opinion).

You can imagine that he does not sleep very well that night. In fact, in the same verse that reports that "Jacob was left alone," we find out that "a man struggled with him until sunrise." The story is sufficiently succinct and beautiful that I feel it's worthwhile to include it here in its full glory.

כה ויותר יעקב, לבדו; ויאבק איש עמו, עד עלות השחר. 25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו וירא, כי לא יכל לו, ויגע, בכף-ירכו; ותקע כף-ירך יעקב, בהאבקו עמו. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז ויאמר שלחני, כי עלה השחר; ויאמר לא אשלחך, כי אם-ברכתני. 27 And he said: 'Let me go, for the day breaketh.' And he said: 'I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.'
כח ויאמר אליו, מה-שמך; ויאמר, יעקב. 28 And he said unto him: 'What is thy name?' And he said: 'Jacob.'
כט ויאמר, לא יעקב יאמר עוד שמך--כי, אם-ישראל: כי-שרית עם-אלהים ועם-אנשים, ותוכל. 29 And he said: 'Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.'
ל וישאל יעקב, ויאמר הגידה-נא שמך, ויאמר, למה זה תשאל לשמי; ויברך אתו, שם. 30 And Jacob asked him, and said: 'Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.' And he said: 'Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?' And he blessed him there.
לא ויקרא יעקב שם המקום, פניאל: כי-ראיתי אלהים פנים אל-פנים, ותנצל נפשי. 31 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: 'for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.'
לב ויזרח-לו השמש, כאשר עבר את-פנואל; והוא צלע, על-ירכו. 32 And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh.
Again, I find myself without adequate secondary sources, but traditionally this man is thought to be an angel. However, the text calls him a man, and it makes sense that whatever this man/angel may be, he represents multiple things to Jacob--perhaps he is Jacob's fear, perhaps he is Esau, or perhaps he is some kind of amalgam of Jacob's feelings (vindication, guilt) about having taken the birthright from Esau and duped his father so many years before. I don't know.

But what I do know is that I derive great comfort and strength from this story, particular from this one line, pronounced by the man after he changes Jacob's name to Yisrael (Israel): "כי-שרית עם-אלהים ועם-אנשים, ותוכל"--"Because you have struggled with God and with people and prevailed." (Each verse could spawn at least one meaty post, but I'm focusing on verse 29 today. )

Each and everyone one of us struggles with something in our lives. Nobody is born and goes through life all "lah-di-dah" with no problems.1 Sometimes it appears that people go through life that way, but it's an illusion. People struggle with God and with people, with physical illness, poverty, fear-of-poverty, social difficulties, overwhelming isolation, disability, mental illness, infertility, difficult children, difficult parents, violent neighborhoods, domestic abuse, difficult bosses, difficult subordinates, exhaustion, sexual harassment, sexual assault, verbal abuse, war, famine, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, blizzards...Shall I continue? The poor struggle. The rich struggle. The young struggle.2 The old struggle. The secular struggle. The religious struggle. Democrats struggle. Republicans struggle. Ordinary people struggle. Extraordinary people struggle.

In Judaism, we have this great story to along with the struggle: When you struggle, and prevail, you become a new person with a new name, even though you might limp forever because of your struggle.

Sometimes I fear that my particular struggles in life mark me as defective or deformed in some way. Like Jacob/Israel, I find myself walking with a pronounced limp at times. I recently decided, though, that prevailing after a struggle has defined who I am only in good ways. I do not consider myself to be "damaged goods" because of my struggles, despite my limp. My struggles are one part of my experience of life, just as everything about me is part of my experience of life--my childhood, my parents, my schooling, my friends, my relationships, and my jobs. The fact that I have struggled--as Jacob and so many others did--does not reflect negatively on me, any more than the fact that I have three siblings and went to a particular day camp do. They are just additional facts about my life, part of the complicated stew that went into making me who I am today.

Although I would never voluntarily undergo the struggles that I underwent, I can't imagine turning out this well (modest I ain't!) without the struggles over which I have prevailed. The depth with which I feel my pain and others' pain, the joy I have upon arising every morning, the overwhelming gratitude I sometimes feel for the sun, the moon, even the ducks in Central Park, and the deep and persistent desire I have to form a family and be a parent one day are all inseparable from my former struggles. Maybe I would have achieved those things or more without struggling, but something tells me not.3

I love the phrase "כי-שרית עם-אלהים ועם-אנשים, ותוכל" because it is said from a position of strength after a difficult time. That is how I finally feel about myself. I had a stand-off with a an enemy when I was all alone in the middle of the night, and I won. That doesn't mean I won't ever struggle again. It would be stupid to hope for that because there are no promises like that in life.4 All it means to me is that I will win again. I will win again because of the person I've become as a result of having prevailed in the past is a person who knows how to prevail. Because of my ancestor Israel (he who struggled with God [and man and prevailed]) and because I call myself a child of Israel, by definition I am one who prevails.

This piece of Torah was inspired by a conversation with EDA. Thanks, EDA! May we continue to talk Torah for many years to come.

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I feel a bit odd posting this post this week. I wrote it weeks ago, but this morning, I returned from the unveiling of my cousin David's gravestone, which was, as expected, a very difficult thing to be present for. Posting about human suffering in such a positive "we can prevail!" light seems callous right now. I don't personally know of any suffering like the suffering of a parent who loses a child, and I daresay that one who has suffered in this way would do anything possible to undo the suffering. Screw prevailing over adversity! Can't you just prevent this kind of adversity, God? Would it really be so difficult?

There is no silver lining, no lesson to be learned from the death of one so young, except, perhaps, that none of us knows how long we have here, so you'd better make every moment count. It's hard to remember that when you're actually busy living your life, though. Things like laundry, grocery shopping, commuting to work, and scrubbing down the bathroom tile all get in the way.

I did learn a few things over the past few days, though. The first is that the human spirit is incredibly resilient. The idea that a parent could lose a child and still go on living a productive life is nothing short of miraculous. I don't know how my aunt and uncle go on. Yet, somehow, they do. Not, of course, as they were before the tragic loss. But, still, going on itself seems like a miracle after the loss of a child.

The second thing I learned, which I sort of already knew (but it was good to be reminded), is that family is an amazing thing. These people, some distantly related, will come and be there with and for you when you need people to be there the most. The caring, compassion, and warmth exhibited by all of my relatives over the past few days was incredible. Just the act of showing up--of being another warm body on a cold day at the cemetery, staring at the gravestone that marks a tragically short life--is sort of incredible. I feel so lucky to have these people in my universe, these first cousins twice removed and second cousins once removed.

Go on! Tell the people you love how glad you are that they're alive. Tell them that you'll be there for them whether they need you or not. And be aware of their struggles, big and small.

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[For some beautiful thoughts on suffering, healing, and the scars that remain forever, read this post by DoctorMama. Read the comments, too. They touch on a lot of what I wrote about here.]

Categories: Torah, parsha, life

1. "You won't have to struggle" is not something God ever promises us either individually or as a nation. In fact, he sort of promises the opposite in Deuteronomy 15:11, where it says that there will always be poor people and therefore there will always be a need to give to them. There will always be people who struggle and suffer in this world and thus we will always be compelled to help them in their struggles and alleviate their suffering to the best of our ability. In doing so, we emulate and honor both God and humankind. See Proverbs 14:31 for a nice succinct statement to that effect:

לא עֹשֵׁק דָּל, חֵרֵף עֹשֵׂהוּ; וּמְכַבְּדוֹ, חֹנֵן אֶבְיוֹן. 31 He that oppresseth the poor blasphemeth his Maker; but he that is gracious unto the needy honoureth Him.

Also, possibly my favorite line in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah is from Sefer HaMada, Hilchot De'ot 1:11:

יא] ומצווין אנו ללכת בדרכים אלו הבינוניים, והם הדרכים הטובים והישרים, שנאמר "והלכת, בדרכיו" (דברים כח,ט). [ו] כך לימדו בפירוש מצוה זו: מה הוא נקרא חנון, אף אתה היה חנון; מה הוא נקרא רחום, אף אתה היה רחום; מה הוא נקרא קדוש, אף אתה היה קדוש. ועל דרך זו קראו הנביאים לאל בכל אותן הכינויין, ארך אפיים ורב חסד צדיק וישר תמים גיבור וחזק וכיוצא בהן--להודיע שאלו דרכים טובים וישרים הם, וחייב אדם להנהיג עצמו בהן ולהידמות כפי כוחו.

I read it at my high school graduation, and it resonates as much for me today as it did almost ten years ago.

One final parenthetical note: This story tells us that struggling is, in some ways, the core of our existence as Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel. Anyone who won't accept the status quo of the universe is bound to struggle, and one thing about Jews is that they don't accept the status quo, or they ought not accept the status quo.

2. If you look at a third-grader and see someone who has never struggled, you clearly don't remember the myriad frustrations of being an eight-year-old. All the things you couldn't do, all the rules and regulations that dictated what you had to do! All that face-washing and teeth-brushing. I shudder just to think of it. (Oh, don't worry, I cheerfully do those things now. They just seemed entirely unnecessary when I was eight.)

3. I actually think that there would not have been any way to avoid these struggles or really any struggles in life, so it's sort of a moot point. Another observation: People who contort themselves to avoid one struggle most often find themselves smack dab in the middle of another. So my feeling is that you might as well face the challenges you were dealt in life.

4. "Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes."
--Benjamin Franklin


HDS said...

Don't forget about friends - they are the family you can choose.

Ms. SpaceCadet said...

That was awesome, beautiful, and inspirational. If only....
where I am now the struggles have only made me weaker, but maybe there is hope. Please continue to write and share your talents and thoughts.

ALG said...

Ms. Space Cadet,
There is definitely hope. I didn't feel this way--that my struggles have made me into a better person than I otherwise might have been--until fairly recently. I spent a lot of time (years) moaning and groaning, "Why me?" first, which I think is entirely understandable. Best of luck finding your way through this complicated life we live, and thank you so much for your kind words. They give me strength.

MUL said...

By golly, she's got it! She's finally got it!
Re: the damaged goods metaphor. You know those tags that sometimes come on your nice cotton clothes saying that there me be irregularities in the fabric that are not flaws? The irregularity in the fabric of your psyche attests to having been made carefully, arduously, and quite lovingly, by hand. By your own hand, in many respects. Kudos on turning out a product so fine