December 10, 2018

Torah portion: As long as you’re trying, you’ve won

“Newsies” is coming to the Pantages Theatre in the spring. Parashat Vayishlach is coming to a shul near you this week. What’s one got to do with the other?

There is a pivotal moment during “Newsies” that captures something I’ve felt in our parasha. The Newsies are scared. They don’t know what is going to happen, until one of the Newsies exhorts his friends to seize the day, and he croons: “Courage cannot erase our fear. Courage is when we face our fear.”

When the curtain lifts on Parashat Vayishlach, our forefather Jacob is very afraid of his brother Esau: “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed.” Jacob has every reason to believe that his warrior brother is on a mission to murder Jacob. He deals with his anxiety as reasonably as can be expected. Jacob tries a little bit of everything. He sends gifts to Esau, he employs a solid military strategy, and he prays for his life and his family. But he is still very afraid.

During the night, Jacob moves his family across the Jabbok River. After they are safely nestled in their new camp, Jacob crosses back over the river to retrieve a few last items. As if his fears of Esau weren’t enough, a mysterious figure appears in the shadows of the night: “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.”

All night long, they wrestled. As night turns to day, there is no clear victor in their Royal Rumble. At the last moment, Jacob’s opponent injures Jacob’s leg and begs off. Jacob requests a blessing. The wrestler tells Jacob that he shall be called Israel, “for thou hast striven (sahrita) with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” With that, he is gone. Jacob realizes that his opponent was godly and he names the place Peniel, “for I have seen God face to face (panim).”

Jacob must have been quite confused. Unbeknownst to Jacob during the struggle, his sparring partner was a godly figure. It’s true that they wrestled. It’s also true that Jacob did not lose the match. But he didn’t really win, either. Jacob prevailed — he managed to “not die” during the encounter. The accolades and recognition given to Jacob for “not losing” ring hollow. It sounds like the frivolous trophies some Little Leagues give to every team, even the team in last place. Jacob is declared to have prevailed and is therefore called Israel for not dying?

“Courage cannot erase our fear. Courage is when we face our fear.” Jacob desperately wanted to erase his fear. He wrestled all night because he wanted to win. He wanted to know. There had to be a clear victor. Similarly, Jacob feared the encounter with Esau because it was going to erase his fear. Either he would defeat Esau or Esau would defeat him. But either way, the fear is gone.

Jacob learned something very important that night. He was never going to be able to erase his fears. That doesn’t happen. He was going to have to wrestle with his fears. Jacob understood that facing our fear, struggling with our fear, wrestling with our fear, is true courage. Prevailing does not mean winning. Prevailing means being present in the struggle. Wrestling is prevailing. Winning ends the struggle just as losing ends the struggle. Jacob becomes Israel because Israel is the name of the one who is engaged in the struggle.

The next day, Jacob and Esau meet. Jacob no longer expects a winner and a loser in their battle. They embrace. Israel embraces his struggle with Esau. He knows they will wrestle forever. Esau does not try to kill Jacob, but he does offer a peaceful resolution to Jacob: “Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before thee.”

But Israel knows that prevailing is not the same thing as winning. Israel embraces the eternal struggle with Esau. Israel faces this fear and is ready to wrestle with Esau, with God, with himself, forever. Engaging in the struggle is prevailing. That is courage. Entering the fray and knowing that one will never escape the fray is courageous. It is the essence of Israel.

We all have fears. We all are, at least vaguely, aware of our national, communal, personal and religious struggles. There is a tendency to try to erase our fears. We don’t acknowledge our struggles. We refuse to wrestle. It’s easier to forget about the things that tug at our souls so we don’t even try to engage the more powerful things in life. That’s forfeiting the match.

When we are forced into the wrestling ring, most of us tend to enter with a gladiator mentality. We think that we will fight to the death and we expect a clear winner or loser. Parashat Vayishlach teaches us that wrestling is prevailing. Embrace the struggle. As long as we are facing our fears, we are prevailing.

We should embrace the challenge of being a light unto the nations and taking pride in our Jewishness. We should embrace the challenge of working on our relationships. We should embrace the challenge of improving our character. We should embrace the challenge of wrestling with God and our faith. We would be so much better off in a world where we all have the courage of Israel to face our fears and wrestle for eternity. That is the world of Israel.

 

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is the rabbi at the Pacific Jewish Center, also known as the Shul on the Beach, in Venice. He is a graduate of Loyola Law School. He blogs at finkorswim.com.