“Wrestling with God” Parshat Vayishlach

By Cantor Ben Kintisch
Presented at CJC Friday Night Services 12/1/17

I think the earliest memory I have of wrestling was at the height of the WWF, watching with fascination as Hulk Hogan battled with his rivals. All of them were massive, big muscles and tiny uniforms, which added to the spectacle. Each match unfolded with drama, and ended with more drama. Sure, my skeptical brother asserted it “wasn’t real.” But the men in the ring sure looked like they were struggling – even if it was rather theatrical.

In my own life, during college and into my 20’s, I played rugby. To the untrained eye, this game can look like a wrestling match played with an egg-shaped football. That is not an entirely incorrect description – especially when there is a scrum – an organized mass of bodies pushing against one another for control of the ball. Or better yet, the ruck – when bodies slam into bodies – again, a kind of semi-organized chaos – looks like wrestling for the ball. And it feels like it, too, when you are my size in the middle of a mass of larger men pushing, pulling, and struggling for control.

Wrestling is a kind of fighting, but the most elemental kind. It is a physical struggle with your whole body, your whole being. Other forms of fighting like karate or boxing are hands or feet only. Wrestling is all of you on the line – your whole body struggling against the body of your opponent.

This week’s Torah portion – Vayishlach – features a famous biblical story of wrestling. Specifically, we read the story of Jacob who, while either awake or asleep, dreams he is wrestling (or actually wrestles) with a man or angel of God. As morning arrives, the wrestling ends in a draw. Jacob is blessed with a new name and a brighter future.

But the story of the wrestling is not a fully triumphant one. Yes, Jacob is rewarded at the end of the episode with a blessing. He manages to struggle and avoid defeat. But, we read, Jacob has been badly injured on his hip. According to our literature, Jacob’s injury never fully healed, and he limped for the rest of his life.

We all have struggles in our lives, when we have to wrestle with difficulties. They may be personal struggles with alcohol or drugs, gambling or eating disorders, or mental health challenges. Some of us wrestle with family dilemmas – the loved ones we love because they are family but we don’t like them because of how they treat us or others.

Sometimes we struggle with the injuries or illnesses we suffer along the way.

As one famous self-help author wrote, “Life is difficult.” What we do with that, how we respond to the challenge of our struggles, the pain of our wrestling, is really where we can flourish or flounder.

Sometimes struggles are, well, a struggle. But, as we wrestle with difficulties, we may find ourselves blessed and strengthened by the encounter, especially when the worst of it is over. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” teaches the wise pop singer Kelly Clarkson.

But sometimes when we wrestle, we must endure lots of pain. Sometimes, after the wrestling has stopped, we live with the physical or psychological remnants of those old struggles, like Jacob did with his permanently injured hip. Think about your own body. Perhaps you’ve suffered an injury or illness that has left a permanent scar or pain that lingers in your body. Maybe you found that making it through the struggle brought you strength and hope. Or maybe it was just painful and you’re done with it. Maybe it made you stronger, but it still hurts.

We learn from Jacob’s story that wrestling is not without pain. We can struggle and struggle and not win a clear victory. And we may find after the battle is over, a feeling of blessing comes over us, as we emerge from darkness into light.

May we find strength when we wrestle with the struggles of life’s difficulties.

May we be blessed with wisdom and lessons from the struggles we live through.

And may we find healing when the wrestling is done.

Shabbat Shalom.