Vayishlach: Spiritual Heroism

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21 Nov 2007

“Paralysis by analysis” is a favorite phrase in our home. It bespeaks an intense contemplation of all one must accomplish to the point that nothing gets done. Should I first clean my desk, room or office and the most efficient approach for each, is a sterling example of why they remain so cluttered. Is it possible that some readers can relate? Sometimes it’s good to not think too much.

Imagine for a moment that you must move to a foreign country and have been given three years to master its language and conquer its social cues and mannerism. For good measure, your life situation mandates significant behavioral modification and extreme physical therapy. The task appears daunting.

Happily, however, the “situation” is birth and you are a baby. Within three years, you are expected to learn how to speak the language, (sometimes even two or three) and decipher social cues – such as smiling, frowning and the ubiquitous shushing. For good measure, you must learn how to stop burping and crying, figure out how to deal with people a bit more civilly (even if you are hungry) and transform yourself from a cute clod to a precocious walker.

And yet – Is it not a perceptible reality that we learn more and stress less in our early years than any other stage of life? Why, indeed, do young children not seek out psychologists to deal with their stress? Thankfully, they are not hardwired for deep existential awareness. It is only when blissful infantile ignorance fades away that we center our lives around questions of meaning and responsibility – thus yielding the inevitable inner angst.

As our parsha commences with the classic Yaakov – Esav encounter, there is much ado about fear. Vayira Yaakov meod vayitzer lo. Yaakov was very afraid and distressed. So much incredible Torah surrounds this double terminology.

For Rashi, Yaakov’s fear is of a dual nature: he might be killed and even worse, he might be forced to kill Esav (bringing to mind Golda Meir’s unforgettable line: “When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons”). To Netziv, Yaakov’s essential distress was precisely because he felt afraid, pointing us to the obvious question: Whither Yaakov’s fear – did Hashem not promise him (twice – on the way in and out of Charan) that He would protect Yaakov? Armed with Divine guarantees, should not Yaakov have been more confident?

Rashi, Ramban and many others cite the classic midrashic approach that Yaakov understood God’s promise to be contingent upon appropriate behavior. Yaakov’s fear was reflective of his personal humility and the ever-present recognition that a Jew must never be too spiritually self confident. Great people do not assume their greatness. Thus, Yaakov feared that perhaps the Divine deal was off. What particular sin did Yaakov fear? Different approaches pinpoint either Yaakov’s inability to show kibbud av v’eim, his inability to live in Israel, or his excessive servility to Esav as the potential culprit sins.

Abarbanel, and (about 400 years later) Rav Shimon Schwab offer a completely different answer. Within their approach, one feels the inner dynamics of spiritual heroism. They teach that an emotion or notion must first be felt/understood, cherished, and then transcended in order to create a spiritual hero. In our lexicon, this is mesirus nefesh deconstructed. One who has little regard for life can not be called a mighty warrior in battle. One who scorns money and therefore gives it away can not be called generous.

Why then was Yaakov afraid? No justification is necessary, for it was a physiological reality. The same God that promised him safety also created adrenaline and anxiety. A marvel of modern life is virtual reality; one can simulate flight conditions (and deal with personal fears) – without ever leaving the ground. Big strapping Esav and his chevra of nogoodniks were more real than virtual reality. Yaakov’s physiological reality felt fear – and that was fine. Yaakov’s greatness was that he confronted Esav and overcame. Precisely that which gave him the courage to forge ahead and confront Esav was his emunah in Hashem’s promise. Thus, Yaakov’s fear was not reflective of a spiritual shortcoming; rather its presence was critical in developing his mesirus nefesh.

The Torah is full of guarantees for those that follow its path. Yet, to deny the weight of our personal challenges is folly. My line of work gives me great exposure to people beset with a multiplicity of life challenges – special individuals whose spiritual anxieties may rightfully cripple them. Incredibly, it is precisely by overcoming their fears that they become the very people they swore they could never be. It is that real struggle, the grapple between the Divine promise and the human reality) that coaxes greatness.

Let us accept and be real with our fears and celebrate our mesirus nefesh*. In that sense, we can all be students of Yaakov Avinu.

* R. Yitzchak Hutner [Pachad Yitzchak: Igrot U’ketavim – 128], develops a similar notion in response to a former yeshiva student grappling with his entry into the “real world”. The student wrote: “I will never forget the desire that I once had to succeed and to climb ‘from strength to strength,’ but now, my hope is lost.”:

Your letter reached my hand, and your words touched my heart. Know, my friend, that your very letter belies the descriptions that it contains. Now, let me explain this statement. It is a terrible problem that when we discuss the greatness of our gedolim, we actually deal only with the end of their stories. . We recount their untainted ways, but omit any mention of the inner battles which raged in their souls. The impression one gets is that they were created with their full stature.. we all express amazement at the verbal self-control of the Chofetz Chaim. But who knows all the wars, the struggles, the pitfalls, the failures, and the defeats which the Chofetz Chaim encountered as he struggled with his evil inclination.. Your letter testifies that you are a faithful warrior in the army of the yetzer hatov. In English there is a saying, “Lose the battle and win the war.” You surely have stumbled and will stumble again, and you will be vanquished in many battles. However, I promise you that after you have lost those battles, you will emerge from the war with a victor’s wreath on your head.

The wisest of all men [King Shlomo] said [Mishlei 24:16], “The tzaddik will fall seven times and will rise.” The unlearned think that this means, “Even though a tzaddik falls seven times, he will rise.” The wise know well that the meaning is: “Because a tzaddik falls seven times, he will rise.” On the verse [Bereishit 1:31], “And Elokim saw all that He had made and it was very good,” the midrash comments, “‘Good’ refers to the yetzer hatov; ‘Very good’ refers to the yetzer hara.” If you had written to me of your mitzvot and good deeds, I would have said that it was a good letter. Now that you tell me of your falls and stumbles, I say that I have received a very good letter from you.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.