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Tuesday, November 30, 2021
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A society in which technology enables us to deal effortlessly with many of life’s difficulties raises the issue of the value of challenges and struggles. The Torah’s view on this question lies at the center of the account of the struggle between Yaakov and the angel.

According to one midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 77:3), the angel who confronted Yaakov was Esav’s archangel, Satan himself. He came to obstruct and deter Yaakov on his return to Eretz Yisrael. Another midrash, however, says that the angel was Michael, the patron of Yaakov and the Jewish people. To make matters even more difficult, Rashbam writes that Yaakov sought to run away from Esav, and Michael came to restrain him and force him to confront Esav, thus demonstrating to Yaakov that Hashem’s promise to him would be fulfilled.

To resolve these seeming contradictions we must understand the Torah’s view of man’s struggle. Mesilat Yesharim describes life as one of struggle. Hashem put the neshamah (soul) into a physical body in order for it to earn Olam Haba through its efforts to overcome the yetzer hara. It is this struggle that elevates a person and enables him to reach the ultimate goal of achieving the World to Come.

During the struggle the angel took on different disguises. According to one opinion, he came as a talmid chacham. Another opinion says that he came as a robber. Sometimes a person wants to elevate himself, but the satan stands in his way—the robber who seeks to deny the person what he wants. That denial challenges him and causes him to appreciate all the more his accomplishments. On the other hand, there is the angel, Michael, the talmid chacham who tries to pull a person up when he wants to stay put. Yaakov wanted to avoid problems; Michael forced the struggle upon him in order to elevate him higher.

At the end of the night the angel asked to be set free, but Yaakov refused. While at the beginning of the night Yaakov sought to avoid the confrontation, by night’s end he realized that the struggle was essential to his very existence.

The prohibition of eating the gid hanasheh (the sciatic nerve) is a constant reminder of Yaakov’s struggle. The Sforno explains that in throwing away the gid hanasheh we are showing that the place where Yaakov was wounded is not important. That is how a person must deal with failure. When you fail in one area you cannot become depressed over it. Every time a person refrains from eating the gid hanasheh he is reminded not to be overwhelmed by adversity.

Failure, challenges and struggles provide the incentive to rise and continue. Rabbi Dessler points out that the word ra, evil, inverted is ar, awaken. Evil awakens a person. Setbacks and obstacles should not immobilize him, but offer a challenge, something to fight against in order to strengthen oneself and earn one’s ultimate reward.

That, too, is the greatness of klal Yisrael. We deserve Hashem’s blessing because we have the strength of character, derived from the Torah, to be able to struggle even when we are wounded. Yaakov is now called both Yaakov and also his new name, Yisrael: Yaakov when he’s struggling and Yisrael when he overcomes adversity. It is the same for us. Life is full of ups and downs—sometimes we are Yaakov and sometimes we are Yisrael. However, we realize we have the potential of being Yisrael even when we are Yaakov. We may be slowed down by setbacks in life but we do not give up.

Chazal tell us that Eretz Yisrael is acquired with suffering and difficulties. Due to the enormous potential Eretz Yisrael has to offer, it is only through struggling with difficulties that one can derive benefit from them.


Rabbi Zev Leff is the rabbi of Moshav Matityahu, and a renowned author, lecturer and educator. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).

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