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Thief, Gambler, or Angel?

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Night Stalkers

Do you ever feel all alone wrestling with a mysterious ghost on a dark and desolate night?

And when you are alone at night — both literally and figuratively, as in: alone in your own shadows — do you feel guilty like a thief or a gambler, or proud like an angel?

Have life’s battles changed you? Have they wounded you? Perhaps left you limping?

Do you recognize yourself, or are you covered in the “dust” of the material world you are consumed by?

Most if not all of us are faced more often than not with these dilemmas. Some of us cope by simply avoiding these issues to the point of denial, or by drifting, over the years, into a state of (conscious or unconscious) resignation, peppered with the excuse that this is the “way of all flesh:” Erosion of our enthusiastic ideals, sinking into a state of silent (or not so silent) desperation.

Life, after all, goes the argument, breaks all people. The battles wear us down. We are weak and fragile creatures. Let us just be.

And as the night descends, and we crawl into our own little dark crevices, where we are left feeling all alone — what secrets do we carry? Where do we escape to as the light dims and no one is (or seems to be) watching? What dark skeletons lurk in our murky closets?

Well, if any of these questions plague you, don’t feel so alone.

Over 3570 years ago a man was left alone one dark night. All night he valiantly fought a difficult battle which, as dawn broke, he ultimately won. And in his victory he gave us all the hope, courage and strength to win any of our battles in the dark night.

His battle embodies the persecutions throughout history – the battles of life, the perpetual struggle with evil, both collective and personal.

In most dramatic terms, this week’s Torah portion relates the story how “Jacob remained alone and a stranger wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not defeat him, he touched the upper joint of Jacob’s thigh. Jacob’s hip joint became dislocated as he wrestled with him.” As a result Jacob “was limping because of his thigh.”

The stranger was Esau’s guardian angel, and the battle represented the struggle between Jacob and Esau, archetypes of the two polar forces in existence which stand in perpetual battle: Spirit and matter, the scholar and the warrior – the body’s selfish survival drive and the soul’s yearning for transcendence. (See The Dust of History and The Dislocated Hip.)

Within each of us we have both these voices tugging at us in opposite directions. Virtually every choice we make poses two options: Should I take care of my own needs or should I help another? Should I be a taker or a giver? Am I here to serve myself or to serve a higher cause? Each of us is wrestling, in one way or another, with a “stranger.”

However, the battle is not always with the same intensity; it goes through stages – night and day. The dark night represents the sinister. The morning light epitomizes the bright. We live in a dark universe, which shrouds the inner light of spirit. Transcendence in this material world is not easily gained. Yet, each of us experiences sacred moments when we feel spiritually strong.

When darkness falls and our souls are in a lull, when we cannot see clearly and our senses are numbed – we then become vulnerable to the material forces that attack at our very integrity.

Jacob’s wrestling with Esau’s angel through the night represents all the battles of our lives, beginning with the biggest battle of them all – between the material and the spiritual.

The tension between matter and spirit is deep and difficult. Yet even then, the soul (Jacob) cannot be defeated. But the material forces are relentless. Even when the essence of our beings cannot be hurt, matter’s inherent narcissism “touches” our extremities – the part of your life which is vulnerable and exposed to the elements.

As the Zohar explains: The angel saw that Jacob was strong throughout – protected on both sides by his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and he could not defeat him. So he attacked and wounded his thigh – the part that protrudes from and is outside of the body (Zohar I 146a. 171a).

“When he saw that he could not defeat him” – because the higher faculties of Jacob were completely protected – “he touched the upper joint of his thigh”, which connects to the legs, representing our mechanical behaviors and commitments. When a person acts mechanically, and his behavior is hollow – lacking intellectual intensity and emotional passion – he is at his most vulnerable. And that’s where the crass forces of materialism attack and have the power to injure.

The enemy always goes after our weakest link, our blind spots.

Spiritually and psychologically speaking: Nothing can harm you when you are on a spiritual high and feel strong and committed to your higher calling; when your mind and heart and actions are all aligned. But then there are times when we may feel overwhelmed by the struggle for material survival, overcome by material pressures, and spiritually disconnected. In times like this, we are vulnerable and prone to be wounded in the process of the struggle.

But Jacob’s experience also tells us that despite the wound, we remain intact and cannot be defeated. Moreover, we ultimately will be healed. Just as the sun came out and began to heal Jacob, until he was entirely healed (see Rashi 33:18), we too will be healed in the dawn of redemption.

As it is in the microcosm of our personal struggles, so is it in the macrocosm of global battles: The stranger’s night-long battle with Jacob refers to the long history of Jewish persecution. In the words of the Midrash: During the night of Exile, the nations of the world and the kingdom of Edom (Esau) wrestle with Jacob, until the dawn of redemption (Midrash Lekach Tov).

When the “stranger” touched – struck – Jacob’s hip socket, “he touched the tzaddikim and tzidkoniyot (the righteous men and women), the prophets and the prophetesses, that will spring from him [Jacob] in the future, specifically in the generation of the Roman persecution after the Temple’s destruction (Bereishis Rabba 77:3). Jacob’s wound is a collective scar resulting from all the battles of history. As Nachmanides explains: This episode refers to all the suffering and persecutions that the children of Jacob would endure at the hands of the children of Esau. Despite their horrible suffering, and deep wounds, they would prevail. Even the wounds that they would endure would ultimately heal, as it was by Jacob, in the final redemption (Ramban 32:25. Chinuch Mitzvah 3).

Is there a person on earth that does not carry a wound or two? How many of us are limping – even if we may know how to hide the fact – from the imbalance in our lives, the dissonance between our spirits and our bodies, between our higher ideals and the pressures of survival?

Each of us is wrestling with the conflicting forces in our lives.

But the dawn always comes. And after all the battles, the “stranger” recognizes that he cannot prevail over our spirit. So he attacks our weakest point; our doubts, our tenuous commitments, our mechanical activities. He wounds the part of us that is immersed in the “means” – in work and making a living, where we are most likely to be disconnected from our souls.

This may also explain why Jacob asked the angel (when the angel pleaded that he release him: “Let me go, for the day breaks”): “Are you a thief or a gambler, that you are afraid of the morning?” Money on its own, with no spiritual direction, becomes corrupt, either in the form of thievery or gambling. To which the angel replied: “I am an angel, and from the day that I was created my time to sing praises to G-d has not come until now” (Chulin 91b).

So when we look at ourselves coming out of night’s shadows, ask yourself: Are you going into hiding like a thief or a gambler, or are you an angel emerging to sing your song?

And despite any wound we may incur, these wounds will heal. Jacob forces the “stranger” to bless him, and all of us. Ironically, the “stranger” – the “angel” and power of materialism itself – even as it wounds us also blesses us with the name “Israel” – you will prevail over man and the Divine. Built into the very wound is the power to heal from any wound, whether it be man-made or Divine-made!

Where do we stand now?

After all the history of human suffering, we have prevailed. We are here – and the world has become a more refined place.

We are hurt but intact. Wounded, limping, handicapped, our nerves frayed, we are close to the finish line of our grueling journey.

A battle that began over 3570 years ago is about to come to an end.

We are now asked to hold on, just as those before us have held on, to never become resigned, to know that despite all the challenges and the wounds, we will be victorious – both personally and collectively.

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