The human mind is a marvelous machine – always scanning and planning. Among the mind’s “programs” is worst-case thinking, wrestling to assert control over potential threats. Maybe you do this: I know I do. A delayed diagnosis could be an incurable disease! A work mistake could cost my job! An encounter could ruin a relationship! If we’re honest, we might sense that we live life on the run from feared consequences of worst-case thinking. We might know this consciously, or we might sense it deep within – just beyond routine awareness – in feeling unsettled, vulnerable, stressed or afraid.
Those feelings are byproducts of holy wrestle. Humans are wrestlers, and our wrestles are gateways to the soul. Jews are named for this. Before we were “Jews” – Yehudim, descendants of Judah, son of Jacob – we were “Israel,” descendants of Jacob renamed “Israel” because he “wrestled God” (Yisra-El). The story of Jacob’s wrestle is the story of our own.
Jacob came to his fateful night unsettled, vulnerable, stressed and afraid. On returning to Canaan from Haran, he feared that his brother Esau would be violent. Jacob tricked his father (Isaac) into giving him the birthright that was Esau’s; to escape Esau’s wrath, Jacob fled to relatives in Haran. There Jacob earned further intrigue, manipulating relatives to acquire flocks and then sneaking away. Now with two cousins for wives and twelve children, Jacob returned to Canaan wealthy but unsettled, vulnerable to others’ anger, stressed at the risk to himself and his family, and afraid for the future. He sent his family ahead, then spent the night alone.
Jacob’s night alone was his “dark night of the soul,” as theologian Eckerdt Tolle described it. Perhaps you’ve known this anxiety that keeps you awake wrestling mind and heart. You consider your life – not in comfort, but in feeling vulnerable, stressed or afraid. The mind’s “marvelous machine” kicks in. Worst-case thinking focuses on looming loss, real or imagined. Maybe you don’t sleep, or maybe you do sleep but restless from wrestling.
What is that wrestle? Jacob sensed his wrestle as an angel. Jacob’s wrestle left him renamed (“Israel”) and limping – and also more whole. The risky encounter Jacob feared with Esau portended not war but peace: the estranged brothers fell on each other in tearful reunion. Jacob’s worst-case thinking had been incorrect factually – but it opened his heart and brought the dark night that renewed his soul.
What is our wrestle? Is it mind and heart battling? Is it soul struggling to set psyche straight? Is it deep-seated psychology and inner gears turning, or is it a message – Hebrew’s first definition of an “angel” (messenger) – trying to get our attention?
After the dark night, life can have new purpose or different meaning. Perspective can shift: what seemed important can become trivial, what seemed peripheral can become core, and fear can give way to gratitude.
The dark night of the soul “works” its magic because, in the wrestling hours, a kind of death occurs. Part of the self-protective ego dies, and with it protection from perspectives and priorities that had battled for attention. The wrestle sloughs off a layer of skin that, in tradition’s words, was a “foreskin over the heart.” Inner vision grows clearer; perspective on life becomes more honest.
That’s our wrestle, our namesake as “Israel,” and our human purpose: to slough off whatever keeps us from our best and most honest selves. Life’s challenges – and feelings of guilt, anger, remorse and shame – conceal the holiness of a struggle for our souls. We might run afraid from the dark night, and the wrestle can leave us limping. But Jacob shows that we can emerge stronger and more whole – with renewed purpose and a fuller sense of what it means to be alive.
R’ Evan J. Krame & R’ David Evan Markus
Originally published at The Jewish Studio.