Wrestling With Life

Thursday, 18 November, 2021 - 1:07 pm

Life is beautiful. Life also has a way of presenting us with struggles, both from within and from without.

For example, human beings are born with a tendency toward selfishness, and we need a lot of effort to rise above it. When a strong appetite or impulse grabs hold of one’s psyche, it’s difficult to control, even when our mind, and our heart, knows that it’s wrong.  Or maybe we’re facing an existential funk that threatens to paralyze our day, or a more destructive drive that can bring negative consequences in its wake.

Think for a moment and you can fill in the blanks for your own life: each person has their own unique set of appetites and opportunities. But rest assured, we all face hand-to-hand combat for self-control.

Torah wisdom teaches us that mental clarity is the key to victory. Life throws up a lot of haze in the form of unhelpful triggers and attractions, and this opens the door to the less-than-high-minded behaviors that get us into trouble.

So we really need to pierce the moral fog, and carefully examine our decisions in a thoughtful light.

This week’s Torah portion tells that our Patriarch Jacob was once accosted by an angel, a threatening spiritual energy, with whom he wrestled all night.  At daybreak, when the angel recognized that Jacob was tenaciously persevering, the angel gave Jacob a second name: Israel. Israel is a contraction of words that means “you have wrestled with the Divine (angel), and with humanity, and have overcome.”

Israel means wrestling with life’s challenges. Our very name reflects the attempt to conquer life’s shallowness, the hedonistic veneer with which G-d papered this beautiful world.

While describing this epic scuffle, the Scripture throws in a seemingly trivial detail, saying that they “kicked up dust.” The Talmud focuses in on that phrase and adds that the wrestling pair kicked up dust that rose so high it “reached the [anthropomorphic] Heavenly Throne.”

Why this focus on dust?

Because that’s a central part of the lesson. Dust in the air obscures vision; it distorts perception. That’s what Jacob’s struggle was about: cutting through life’s haze to find clarity and healthy direction. We become ‘Israel’, rising to the meaning of our collective name, when we recognize – and actualize - the Divine beauty that lies within and behind the confusing smog.

The dust isn’t a detail of the story, it’s the challenge. How effective we are at seeing through the dust speaks directly to our connection with the Heavenly Throne. Finding clarity in a confusing world is what life’s all about.

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