Facing Ourselves: 3 Elements In Spiritual Development

The weekly Torah portion is always relevant to our lives and the fascinating story of Yaakov Avinu’s spiritual journey in our parsha is no exception. When Yaakov faces the “איש,” understood by Rashi to be שרו של עשו, the angel of Esav, he must find courage from within to stand alone and face his adversary while coming to a place of acceptance of himself and all that has been given him.

Let’s explore three significant spiritual guideposts that can be gleaned from this well- known encounter:

Experiencing Aloneness

Yaakov experiences being utterly alone on one side of the Yabok river, while all of his family and his belongings are on the other side. He has taken his two wives, two maidservants and eleven children across the river along with his material possessions. All he is left with is himself, and it is in this state of aloneness that Yaakov encounters the Divine, as the pasuk specifically relates ויִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּו   …And Yaakov was left alone, and in conclusion of the encounter, the verses relay …כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹקים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים  that Yaakov saw Elokim face to face (בראשית לב: כה,לא).

There is something potentially quite empowering and magical about being alone, even if at times one may also feel lonely. Experiencing aloneness allows for greater opportunity to connect to Hashem, and to hear the voice within ourselves, or in the words of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “…this very experience of loneliness presses everything in me into the service of God.” (Lonely Man of Faith p.4).  The significance of being alone in a quest for G-dly encounters is seen by several characters in Tanakh.  Perhaps most notable is when Moshe Rabeinu goes up Har Sinai, the verse in Shemot (כד:ב), tells us emphatically that Moshe alone went up to Hashem, and the others should not approach, and the nation should not go up with him   וְנִגַּשׁ מֹשֶׁה לְבַדּוֹ אֶל-ה’, וְהֵם לֹא יִגָּשׁוּ; וְהָעָם, לֹא יַעֲלוּ עִמּוֹ. This element of aloneness is intrinsic in forging one’s individual and national identity as part of the Jewish People (see דברים לג:כח, במדבר כג:ט ).

Being alone is not merely the absence of people with you. Rather it is an experience with intention, where we allow our outward focus to dissipate and instead delve within ourselves and seek spiritual connection. In today’s modern age of smart phones and constant connectivity, the struggle to be alone is more challenging than ever but it is a critical component in seeking the Divine and growing to new heights.

A Face to Face Encounter

We noted above that Rashi says the man with whom Yaakov fought is the angel of Esav.  The two wrestle with one another,… וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּו… (בר’ לב:כה) perhaps kicking up dust ( (אבק in the course of the fight. The Maharsha builds upon this perspective and turns the struggle into a more internal one, explaining that the guardian angel of Esav is in fact the evil inclination, as he explains in Gemara Sukka (52a), saying  “…כי יצר הרע הוא כוחו של עשו” In a similar vein, Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, in his book, Wrestling Jacob, analyzes how Yaakov must “muster the courage to face his internal demons” and wrestle with the “mirror of self.” ( p.127). The Gemara in  Hulin 91a offers a fascinating description of the scene as well:

ורבי יהושע בן לוי אמר אמר קרא בהאבקו עמו כאדם שחובק את חבירו וידו מגעת לכף ימינו של חבירו

And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said the angel grappled with Yaakov like a man who hugs his friend, and his hand reaches to the right thigh of his friend. To add to the image, Rashi clarifies how are they hugging?  מלפניו– face to face, perhaps even looking into each other’s eyes.

One might think that the best way to walk away from a negative trait or an unhealthy pattern of thinking is to quite simply, do just that, walk away, turn one’s back and move on. Conversely, one might think that to “wrestle with the yetzer,” you come out with your hands poised to attack, ready to kick up the dust and tumble until you are the last one standing. However the image of how Yaakov is facing himself, and his inner demons is profound and insightful. The language in the Gemara depicts an encounter between two figures who are indeed enemies but are referred to as one another’s friends (chavero), looking at one another in the eye and surprisingly, hugging! Verse 31 ,as noted above, supports this image as well, for Yaakov named the place “Pniel” on account of having had a face to face (פנים אל פנים ) encounter.

This idea of relating to the yetzer is reflected in a story attributed to the Chafetz Chaim, Reb Yisroel Meir HaCohen. He was sleeping in the early hours of the morning, about to leave his warm bed to get ready for Shacharit, when he hears a voice. The voice calls out to him “Yisroel Meir, you are old and frail, stay in your nice warm bed, why get up so early?” And the Chafetz Chaim quickly responds to the conniving yetzer hara- “you are right, I am old! But you are even older and you are up before me!” And Reb Yisroel Meir quickly got dressed and ready for the early morning Vatikin prayers. Only when we can acknowledge the clever koach of the yetzer, the inner voice that leads us astray, can we truly battle it.

Seeking a Blessing

This brings us to our third lesson in spiritual and moral development from Yaakov Avinu. He is injured, exhausted and is given an opportunity to send off his adversary. Shockingly, our forefather responds to this request by asking for a blessing instead, as he says “לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי…, I will not send you, unless if you bless me!” (בר’ לב:כז).

The yetzer hara constantly throws challenges at us.  Even if we’ve stumbled and fallen and gotten injured along the way, we have an option to see the struggle as having worth.  There is some good to be gained, some blessing to be seen in every situation. Before moving forward, we can choose to find an often hidden gift or something positive to be gained. Yaakov wrestled with his inner dark side in the dark of night and as dawn broke, he was blessed to also be a person of angelic nobility (see חזקוני  בר’ לב:כט).  The verse tells us “And the sun shone on him… even as he limped; וַיִּֽזְרַֽח־ל֣וֹ הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ… וְה֥וּא צֹלֵ֖עַ עַל־יְרֵכֽוֹ (בר’ לב:לב). At this juncture Yaakov Avinu emerges  physically impaired yet spiritually strengthened. So too, we all bear the scars of our seen and unseen battles yet we carry hope of a new dawn, a new beginning and a new blessing as we propel ourselves forward in our personal development.

Conclusion

We learn from Yaakov Avinu’s spiritual journey that we cannot and should not erase our past or our pain but we embrace our stories and our struggles. We learn that we celebrate our time alone and cherish it as an opportunity to meet the Divine. How can we emerge victorious against our yetzer hara as did Yaakov? How can we create a new spiritual reality for ourselves? We face our inner adversary head on and before trying to overcome it, we lean in for an embrace, saying,  “You are like a great mountain, you are a worthy opponent, and I acknowledge your power (see חידושי מהרש”א  סוכה נב ע”א ).”  While we will continually struggle and grow, fall and rise up, we face ourselves anew each time.

May Hashem continue to help us in our personal spiritual evolution to become the best version of ourselves possible and may we persist in the noble task of seeking out the blessings in our lives.

This article was originally published on the Matan website on י”ד כסלו תש”פ (Dec 12, 2019).

Tehillim 91 & Tzuk Eitan

As an adolescent, I used to have this idea in my head that Israelis were just tougher than the rest of us. They are steadfast in their faith, devoted to the land and her people, and fearless of the enemies surrounding them. Without realizing it, some of this notion had remained with me, even after I made aliyah eight years ago. Now it is July 2014, we’ve been bombarded with rockets from the Gaza strip for two weeks and our troops just went in this past Thursday night. For two weeks I have found myself anxious, afraid to leave the safety of my home, nervous to be caught outside during the eerie wailing sound of the siren.  At first I thought maybe it’s just me. Maybe I have not fully adjusted to what it sometimes means to live in Israel. Recently I spoke with an Israeli friend, and she assured me that I was not alone, “not all Israelis are like that, many of us have fears,” she assured me. In fact, someone in my yishuv is selling natural remedies for anxiety and fear to help treat children and adult alike, to native born Israelis as well as to olim.

Knowing that many others are struggling with maintaining normal routine and a positive attitude helps me to feel more normal and that this day to day situation of waiting for the next siren, is somewhat manageable. One day last week I realized that I hadn’t properly exhaled in a long time, I was sort of holding my breath, on alert for the warning to run to shelter. That’s when I forced myself to take a few deep breaths and slowly exhale all the air in my lungs, and I reached for my Tehillim, the book of Psalms.

Saying Tehillim in times of distress is something that the Jewish People have been doing for thousands of years and today is no exception. There are some psalms which are more well-known and even the average four year old in a religious gan (kindergarten) can say them by heart. While some common chapters such as 20, 121 and 130 are typical “go-to” psalms I knew about, I said a few more that I had read on my “Tfilon” app on my phone including prayers to say for our IDF. When I read psalm 91, I knew instantly that this was “the one,” this is the one that I have continued to say daily, the one that seems so incredibly pertinent, and gives me strength.

The number of psalm 91 is referred to as מזמור צא, as the numerical value of צ  is ninety, and א is one. More than that though, these two letters are the initials of the current situation, referred to as צוק איתן , or Operation Protective Edge, and the content is very relevant. Verse 7 reads:

יִפֹּל מִצִּדְּךָ, אֶלֶף–וּרְבָבָה מִימִינֶךָ: אֵלֶיךָ, לֹא יִגָּשׁ.  (תהלים פרק צא:ז)

Translated as:“A thousand fall by your side and tens of thousands fall to your right and they don’t approach you.” The psalm may be understood to be the enemies falling in battle. When I read that pasuk though, it seemed so clear that it was referring to the missiles falling to the right and left of us. At the time of writing this, more than 1,000 missiles have been launched by our enemies in this current escalation and according to the IDF blog, since Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip in 2005, terrorists have fired more than 11,000 rockets into Israel. It is no mere coincidence that the numbers match up.

Sadly, we cannot say that not a single life has been lost. Every life is precious and we are pained greatly that Dror, hy”d, an Israeli 37 year old father was killed this week while bringing food to soldiers in Ashkelon. When I read a few hours ago that a 20 year old soldier named Eitan Barak was killed last Thursday night, it brought tears to my eyes and I prayed that his family should find comfort in this difficult time.

However, to put things in perspective, I read in the Jewish Press that one missile landed in a Kibbutz in the Eshkol region, killing fifty six cows…. Fifty six!?! This is Hashem’s way of reminding us of the very real danger of these missiles. And that was only one missile, out of more than a thousand. Hashem is protecting us. There are open miracles daily and when I stop to think about it for a minute, it is just awe inspiring how much we are loved and protected from Above1. I received a message on my phone (in Hebrew) the other day listing several miracles that have happened in cities all over Israel in the last couple of weeks, including a missile falling in Ashdod in an empty shopping center and another one that fell in Netivot in an empty child care center.  In Beer Sheva  there was a close call, where a large group of youth had just finished a soccer game, when a missile landed on the empty field.  In a more well known incident in Ashdod, a missile hit a gas station and a large fire broke out. Yair Lapid was quoted as saying that a miracle happened there, as an explosion  of the 100,000 liters of gasoline underground could have caused untold damage. Baruch Hashem.

In addition to all of these amazing events, people are lauding the tremendous work of the Iron Dome.While I am so very grateful for the amazing technology of the Iron Dome and soldiers manning it, I realize that it is Hashem who runs the world hidden through the mask of nature. Countless times, the Iron Dome is not used and the news announces: שטח פתוח, איש לא נפגע, a missile was shot towards Israel but miraculously landed in an open area, causing no physical injuries. It lands without hurting anyone, when it could have hurt, G-d forbid, dozens of people. What we are experiencing here is nothing short of miracles and I believe we need to thank Hashem out loud as well as pray for His continuous protection – most visibly seen through the iron dome and IDF – as verse 11 in same mizmor says,

 כִּי מַלְאָכָיו, יְצַוֶּה-לָּךְ; לִשְׁמָרְךָ, בְּכָל-דְּרָכֶיךָ (תהלים פרק צא:יא)

    Hashem will send his messengers (angels) to protect you in all of your paths

Hashem has sent His messengers through our amazing chayalim (soldiers) and the Iron Dome. So, yes, I’m still scared sometimes. Yes, I much prefer to stay indoors with my kids these days. I am not exactly carefree. This is not easy for me or for anyone living here. But I think if I can internalize what David Hamelech has taught me then I will really feel that Hashem is protecting me and I will trust in Him, as it says in verse 2 of the  same Psalm

אֹמַר-לַיהוָה, מַחְסִי וּמְצוּדָתִי; אֱלֹהַי, אֶבְטַח-בּוֹ

I will say to Hashem, who is my refuge and my fortress, my God, I trust in Him

And I will have learnt my lesson, that I am as Israeli as the rest of them. I have fears and anxiety as do all my neighbors who were born and raised in the Holy Land. As this same chapter of Tehillim tells me in verse 5,  לֹא-תִירָא, מִפַּחַד לָיְלָה;    מֵחֵץ, יָעוּף יוֹמָם- Do not be afraid of the terror at night or of the arrow (missile) that flies by day. There is terror at night, I can attest to that, I even had a nightmare about trying to rescue one of my children during a missile siren. But I will not let that fear take over, for I am compelled to look around me and see the hand of G-d, I am compelled to realize the truth in verse 15 עמו אנוכי בצרה, that Hashem is with me in troubled times. In this land of ours, the home of all Jews, regardless, of where you were born and how long you are living here or even visiting here, Hashem is watching over us.2

If you’re looking for one mizmor tehillim to say right now, then mizmor 91, צא is the one.

Sent with love for all of Am Yisrael, in hopes of true peace and love, 40 km for Gaza.

[1]תהילים פרק צא:א  יֹשֵׁב, בְּסֵתֶר עֶלְיוֹן;    בְּצֵל שַׁדַּי, יִתְלוֹנָן

[2] אֶרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ דֹּרֵשׁ אֹתָהּ:  תָּמִיד, עֵינֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בָּהּ–מֵרֵשִׁית הַשָּׁנָה, וְעַד אַחֲרִית שָׁנָה (דב’ יא:יב)  . For the eyes of the Lord are upon it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year (Deuteronomy Chapter 11 verse 12)