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Wrestling with Ourselves

Rabbi Sarah Marion
Parshat Vayishlach
December 4, 2020
“Wrestling with Ourselves”

In Torah this week, Jacob is on the run. And, rightfully so. In the portion that we read two weeks ago, Jacob took advantage of his father’s ailing eyesight when he dressed up as his older brother, Esau, and then tricked his father into granting him the coveted firstborn blessing. Esau’s violent reaction to Jacob’s manipulation caused Jacob to flee for his life.

This week, Jacob is still wandering – lost and alone, in more ways than one. He knows his brother is coming after him, and he is filled with shame, regret, and the weight of having to come to terms with what he has done. And then – he begins to wrestle. The text tells us that Jacob was alone, when a “man” – in Hebrew, an “ish” – wrestles with him until dawn. During this wrestling match, the man gives Jacob a new name. “No longer shall you be called Jacob” – the man says – “but, from now on, you shall be called Israel – a name that means, to wrestle – because you, Jacob, have wrestled.” At some point during this exchange, we read that the man strikes Jacob’s hip socket, causing Jacob to emerge, limping, from the encounter.  And so as a result this pivotal wrestling match, Jacob is permanently changed. He emerges not only with a new name, but, also, with a new scar that will always be a part of him.

Who was this “ish” – this “man” – that Jacob wrestled with? The text is unclear. Some interpreters say that it was Esau who Jacob wrestled with that night – others, say it was God, or an angel. But the interpretation that I resonate with, the most, is the one that says that Jacob, in fact, wrestled with himself.

I gather that many of us know what it is like to wrestle with ourselves. I gather that many of us have our own inner demons that are capable of keeping us up at night. And, I have a feeling that many of us – probably more than we may think – know, intimately, the kind of self-wrestle and self-struggle that accompany mental illness, either from our own experience, or from the experience of caring for a family member or a loved one with mental health struggles of their own.

And, yet, even though it is so unbelievably common, mental illness is another one of those topics that often seems “taboo” to talk about. For whatever reason, it is another one of those things that we often feel compelled to suppress or ignore – perhaps because we are ashamed that it is a part of who we are; perhaps because we are worried that we will say the wrong thing to the friend or the loved one going through it.

Or, perhaps it is because there is a stigma around the term “mental illness” itself; and maybe it would be more helpful, and more beneficial, to instead say that all of us can always benefit from taking measures to improve our own “mental health;” and that each of us, in some way or another, is always on our own, individual “mental health journey.”

But regardless of the root cause of our reticence to talk openly about this issue, I wonder what might happen, if we were to strive to become more open and more accepting of our own inner struggles; and I wonder what might happen, if we were to strive to become more open and more accepting of the inner struggles of those around us.

I began to struggle with anxiety during my third year of rabbinical school. Somehow, at some point during that year, I actually became terrified of public speaking. I know – an aspiring rabbi scared of public speaking – it felt like nothing could be worse. My hands would get sweaty and clammy before delivering a sermon, and while I was giving a sermon I would feel sick to my stomach. This anxiety reached its peak during a Friday night service at my student pulpit. When it was time for my sermon, I walked slowly to the pulpit; my heart was already racing and I could already feel the nausea coming on. I opened my mouth to speak – got a few sentences out – and then, I bent down and I began to gag. It was the ultimate rabbinic nightmare come true. From then on I knew that it was time to accept and confront whatever it was that my subconscious was wrestling with. Following that episode, I began working with a practitioner to try to understand: What was going on? Why was this happening to me? What was I so afraid of? It was both talk therapy and medication that got me to the point of being able to give a sermon without gagging. And, since then, I’ve come a long way, but I do still have medication on hand that I use when I think that I need it.

Like Jacob’s experience, mental health challenges can change us. Sometimes they leave us with real or  metaphorical scars that will forevermore be a part of our story, or the story of our family. Sometimes they change our relationships with others, sometimes they change our life path, and sometimes they change our understanding of who we are – giving us new insight into the courage, the strength and the resilience that we never knew we had. Though I still cringe at the thought of that Friday night at my student pulpit, I am proud of what I have learned about myself since then, and I am proud of how far I have come.

It feels strange and vulnerable to be telling you this – and that, I think, is exactly the point. Mental health  challenges are so common, And so normal, and yet, they are so rarely discussed and they are so rarely  acknowledged in the open. But now, probably more than ever, they are so important to talk about, because there is no doubt that this pandemic and has generated, and exacerbated, so many mental and emotional struggles among people of all ages – and there is no doubt that the havoc that this pandemic has wrecked upon our inner psyches will continue to be felt for months and years to come.

And so by talking about this and by sharing my story, I hope that I am able to open a door – or a small window, even – into a world in which we need not feel ashamed or alone with our inner struggles; and I hope to open a small window into how we might best support our loved ones through the inner struggles of their own.

In the immediate aftermath of Jacob’s internal wrestling match, Jacob looks up and sees his brother, Esau, approaching, and Jacob is filled with fear. How will Esau react? What will he say? What will he do? Jacob is right to be afraid – but, remarkably, in a beautiful moment of brotherly love and reconciliation, Esau extends his arms and the two brothers embrace and then burst into tears. A few verses later, the brothers begin to negotiate what happens next. Can we go on, together, in light of all that has happened? One could expect Esau to be hesitant or skeptical of spending too much time with his brother. But, instead, Esau says something beautiful and remarkable to Jacob: “Let us start on our way. I will go at your side.”

Let us start on our way. I will go at your side. You are not alone.  For those of us wanting to support our family members, friends, and loved ones throughout their internal struggles, this is, perhaps, the best place to begin. Let us start on our way. I will go at your side. Or, to put it another way: I’m here for you. Though I may never  understand what you are going through, I am here to walk with you, throughout your journey, throughout whatever comes your way. 

The festival of Chanukah begins next week. One of my favorite Chanukah traditions is the notion that our Chanukah candles must be visible, in our windows, for all to see. Within the glow of those candles is the courage of our Jewish ancestors, who, generation after generation, have put their menorahs in their windows in order to unashamedly say, “This is who I am.”   

This Chanukah, and in all the days and months that will follow, may we, too, find the courage and the strength to be able to say, more and more: “This is who I am” – And may we not be ashamed to seek help when we need it.

And this Chanukah, and in all the days and months that will follow, may we find the courage and the strength to be able to say more and more to one another: “This is who you are, and I’m here for you. Let us start on our way, and I will be at your side.”

All of that, to me, would certainly be a true Chanukah miracle.