Solo Wrestling

It has become common in some corners to speak of “wrestling with G-d,” a phrase intended to evoke Jacob’s violent encounter with an angel, after which G-d told him: “You have struggled with elohim and man and overcome” (Genesis, 32:30). The Hebrew word for “struggle” forms the root of the new name given Jacob at that moment – Yisrael, the name that will collectively characterize his descendants, “Israel”, or the Jewish People.

The word “elohim” literally means “forces” and, in most contexts, refers to the One from Whom all forces emanate. The proponents of the “G-d-wrestling” notion seem to interpret the word that way here too, pronouncing the Jewish mission inherent in our collective name to be the challenging of G-d’s commandments when they discomfit us.

That approach, though, is diametric to the true Jewish mandate, which, our tradition teaches, is to heed G-d even when we don’t understand His will, to embrace even as we endeavor to understand. What Jacob struggled with, moreover, the Talmud tells us, was a spiritual manifestation of his twin brother Esau, who represents the physicality in man that seeks to overcome his spiritual side. Jacob, in other words, was wrestling with something very close to himself. In a way, with part of himself.

Among the collected letters of the late Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the famed dean of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn from 1940 through the 1960s, is one that was written to a student whose own, earlier letter to Rabbi Hutner had apparently evidenced the student’s despondence over his personal spiritual failures. The yeshiva dean’s response provides timely and nourishing food for thought.

Citing – in English, although the rest of the letter is in Hebrew – the maxim that one can “lose battles but win wars,” Rabbi Hutner explains that what makes life meaningful is not beatific basking in the exclusive company of one’s “good inclination” but rather the dynamic struggle of one’s battle with the inclination to sin.

King Solomon’s dictum that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up” (Proverbs, 24:16), continues Rabbi Hutner, does not mean what most people assume, that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to get up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is only and precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles – even the failures – are inherent elements of what, with determination and perseverance, can become an ultimate victory.

Rabbi Hutner’s words are particularly critical at this Jewish season, as thoughtful Jews everywhere recall and confront their own personal failures. For facing our mistakes squarely and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of repentance carry a risk: the despondence born of battles lost. But allowing failures to breed hopelessness, says Rabbi Hutner, is both self-defeating and wrong. A battle waged, even if lost, can be an integral step toward an ultimate victory to come. No matter how many battles there may have been, if we are alive, the war is not over. We must pick ourselves up. Again. And, if need be, again.

And so, wrestling does indeed define a Jew. Wrestling, not with G-d but with ourselves.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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