One of the great comments of Rashi occurs on the verse in Parshat Vayishlach that relates Jacob’s response to the approach of his twin brother Esau with a small army: “And Jacob feared greatly and it troubled him.” (Gen. 32:8) Rashi picks up on the redundancy in the verse: why did the Torah need to state that Jacob both feared greatly and it troubled him? One phrase would have been sufficient. Rashi states:  “He feared that he would be killed, and it troubled him that it he might have to kill others.”

We read this is as a classic Jewish statement on the sanctity of life: we cannot allow ourselves to be killed, and we cannot allow ourselves to kill others. Judaism values life above everything else, and whenever we are forced to commit violence against other human beings it must be done in a way that demonstrates our reluctance. This ethic is embodied in the principles of Tohar HaNeshek, the ethical code of the Israel Defense Forces.

Yet this moment in Jacob’s life is also a watershed moment in the life of all human beings–the moment of paralysis that occurs when our hopes and dreams collide with reality. In Jacob’s case this takes place in a moment of acute crisis: all of his potential choices are lousy. But in less dramatic ways all of us suffer moments like this, when we feel paralyzed between options, none of which seem desirable. And what do we often do? Just what Jacob does: we divide ourselves. “And he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and the cattle and the camels, into two camps.” (Ibid.) Like Jacob, we hedge our bets, we cast multiple lifelines into the water.

Yet Jacob cannot long maintain this division. After he has laid all his plans, Jacob is left alone to wrestle with himself, in the form of a mysterious man. Jacob’s attempts to divide himself result in a blessing and a new name, Yisrael: “For you have striven with God and man and have proved able.” (Gen. 32:29) Eventually “Jacob arrived at the city of Shechem, complete” (Gen. 33:18), which Rashi explains means complete phsyically, financially, and spiritually.

What does Jacob’s wrestling mean to us? The long dark night of the soul is a moment all of us encounter.  And in that moment we probably begin with the same sort of paralysis that Jacob did. We move on to division, and ultimately to confronting ourselves. To be successful in that encounter, however, we cannot be truly alone, just as Jacob is not truly alone. “In a time of tension, we must endure with whatever love we can muster until that very tension draws a larger love into the scene. There is a name for the endurance we must practice until a larger love arrives: it is called suffering.” These words of Parker Palmer, while probably a little more Christian in tone than I would have composed them, reflect the mystery at the heart of Jacob’s encounter and our own long dark nights of the soul.  If we do it well, we emerge on the other side of those encounters  a new, more whole person.

Shabbat shalom.

Advertisements