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).