How Do We Find Meaning In Our Internal Struggles?
Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )
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A mysterious encounter takes place in this week's Torah portion. The Torah describes it as follows (Bereishit 32:25-32):
"And Jacob remained alone and a man [an angel] struggled with him until daybreak ... And he [the angel] said 'release me for the sun has risen', and he said 'I will not release you until you have blessed me'. And he said to him 'what is your name?', and he said 'Jacob'. And he said 'your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with men and you have overcome..."
It's an intriguing episode shrouded in mystery. What's clear is that it is one of the formative moments of the Jewish people. Jacob's (Yaakov) name is changed to Israel (Yisrael) - which ultimately becomes the name of the Jewish people. But, what does it all mean? To unravel this, I would like to share with you the commentary of the Kli Yakar, but before delving into his thinking and commentary, we need to reflect on some background.
We know that every human being is created with free will, the means to make moral decisions. At the heart of free will - the ability to choose good - is, of course, the possibility of choosing bad. God created human beings to do good - to choose good - and to live in accordance with higher ethical and spiritual ideals (as set out by the Torah). But, at the same time, God gave human beings the power to live in accordance with our lower selves - to completely subvert the purpose of creation.
Free will is what gives humans real agency and the ability to be self-actualised, and is the greatest gift God could have given us. In fact, the Rambam writes that among God's creatures, human beings are the unique recipients of this gift. Angels are pre-programmed to actualise the will of God and are unable to deviate from this programming. Animals function purely on instinct; while they make decisions and choices all the time, they wouldn't make a choice that goes beyond their immediate wants.
And so, in a certain fundamental sense, God steps back and gives us human beings the space to make our own moral choices. Certainly, we have to bear the consequences of our actions - and the notion of reward and punishment is integral to Judaism - nevertheless, the choice to make these moral decisions is entirely ours.
But, this choice is made even more real by the fact that it's not just a theoretical choice, but that God actually created human beings with two drives - with a drive to do good, and also a natural drive that takes a person away from God. These are two equal forces within the human being. Our sages refer to the drive to do good as the yetzer tov (the good inclination) and the lower drive as the yetzer hara (the bad inclination).
Back to the Kli Yakar. He says the struggle that takes place here between Jacob and this angel is really symbolic of the internal struggle that all people have between the forces of good and evil within them, between the good and the negative inclination. This angel represents the forces of negativity within a person, and Jacob was struggling with it. The Kli Yakar explains that the struggle begins because Jacob shows spiritual weakness by leaving the camp and travelling alone in the dark, putting himself in a situation of danger simply in order to retrieve a few small pieces of property they had left behind on their journey. This preoccupation with material possessions left him vulnerable to the forces of spiritual negativity embodied by the angel.
The Kli Yakar brings the Talmudic tradition that this angel's name was Samaeil - a derivation of the phrase, "one who blinds from seeing God". The Kli Yakar says the negative inclination within a person is exactly this - a blinding force. When we have moral clarity - when we have God consciousness and a deep understanding of our own moral responsibilities and spiritual potential - then we have the strength to overcome the negative drives within us. But, when our vision becomes blurred - when the right thing to do becomes obscured, and seems out of reach or unappealing - then the yetzer hara is difficult to overcome.
To bring home this concept, the Kli Yakar cites the idea from the Talmud that the dust kicked up during the struggle between Jacob and the angel "rose up to the Heavenly Throne". The dust symbolises the fact that, in some sense, the Heavenly Throne, God's presence, was obscured to Jacob, who, in the midst of the struggle, battled to perceive his responsibilities and his place in the world. Eventually, though, Jacob overcomes the angel and reclaims his clarity. The Torah alludes to this when it says the sun rose and Jacob was able to see clearly again. It was not just Jacob's physical sight that was restored, but his spiritual sight. The rising sun revealed the majesty and physical beauty of God's world, reinvigorating and reigniting Jacob's moral sensibilities and spiritual vision in the process.
Jacob was wounded in the encounter, meaning the yetzer hara inflicted serious spiritual damage. Nevertheless, Jacob's yetzer tov ultimately emerged victorious. With this victory, he was granted the name Israel, which the Kli Yakar says comes from the Hebrew word yashar, which means "straightness", while the name Jacob is derived from the word "crooked". He translates the verse, "...that you have striven with man and with God and overcome" as, "...that you have achieved moral straightness in the eyes of God and man". And so Yisrael refers to that victory over the negative inclination.
The Torah goes on to say Jacob named the place Pniel, which means "Face of God". This refers to the clarity of perceiving God and His direction for our lives, which was achieved by Jacob through his victory in his struggle with the blinding forces of the negative inclination within. Jacob's tussle with the angel reminds us that our lives are characterised by struggle. Forging a straight path: living a Godly life, making good moral choices, finding God and "seeing His Face" is not something that comes easily. Resisting the force of the yetzer hara is the most difficult thing there is. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says: "Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations." Even our forefather Jacob was wounded in the struggle and limped afterwards. It shows that even the greatest of our leaders had the free choice and had to confront their own weak points. As it says: "There is no righteous man on earth that only does good and doesn't sin."
Mentally preparing ourselves for the struggle is vital. We need to be aware that the straight path is the path of most resistance. If we expect that forging a straight path is going to be easy, we are setting ourselves up for failure, and we will fall prey to the yetzer hara without even realising it. The Ramchal, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, explains in his book, Mesillat Yesharim (literally, "The Path of the Straight") that the very first step to achieving spiritual greatness is to cultivate zehirut, which means a sense of heightened awareness.
The Ramchal says the starting point of all spiritual endeavour is to clarify our purpose in life, and our goals and objectives. He also cautions that we need to actively set aside time to reflect on these things, and that if our lives are too busy, we'll remain in a state of oblivion. But, once we realise why we are here - to choose good and do good, and bring goodness and Godliness into the world - then we can stay focused on that goal and dedicate ourselves to achieving it. With this sense of heightened awareness, we can ready ourselves for the struggle. And when the struggle intensifies and the going gets tough, we will not lose heart, even when, like Jacob, we are wounded and stumble.
The sages of the Talmud give us a number of different strategies on how to confront this life-long struggle. One of the key approaches is learning Torah. The Talmud says if the negative inclination assails you, you should "drag him into the Beit Hamidrash", the house of learning. A person who learns Torah learns to see with clarity. When we immerse ourselves in its Divine wisdom, we are able to discern the "path of straightness" - understanding our moral duties and our greater purpose, and attaining God-consciousness.
But, while we can maximise our chances of success, there is no way to exempt ourselves from the struggle itself. Indeed, the struggle is what makes life worthwhile, it is what lends meaning to our moral accomplishments. If there was no struggle and there was no real free choice then there would be no option to achieve greatness in this world. If there was no struggle, the victory would be meaningless and life itself would be meaningless. It is free choice alone - the ability to choose good over bad, but also to choose bad over good - that makes our choices, and the lives we lead, and the moral victories we achieve, meaningful.
And so the soul enters this world ready for the struggle, ready to do battle, ready to overcome. And this picture of Jacob's lonely, overnight wrestling match with the angel of his conscience is the picture of our own lifelong struggle - the struggle is lonely, the adversary is formidable, but the rewards are unimaginable and eternal.