The Struggle Against the Unknown* – Parshat Vayishlach

We have all struggled at some point in our lives. Some of us may even be facing a struggle now. Some struggles have been great while some have been minor. A few of them may have been long-lasting and others were over quickly. We may even be able to point out at some later time what we gained from the struggle or maybe we can't. But we have all been there.

In one of the most mysterious passages in all of the Torah, in this week's parsha, Parshat Vayishlach, we read of such a struggle. Yaakov was alone, on one side of the river bank, at night and struggles with a "man" until the first light.1 Interestingly, Rabbi Berechia points out, we don’t even know who won!2 So what's the purpose of telling the story? Why was there a struggle? Who was this mysterious foe? Why at night? What were they even fighting about? So many questions about the struggle. And the Torah offers few, if any, answers.

Maybe that is the point.

The struggle is the story.

Prior to Yaakov meeting his brother Esav, explains Rabbi Moshe Shochet in the name of Rabbi Soloveichik, he was struggling internally as to how he would face his brother. Will Esav be friendly and brotherly or hostile and belligerent? How would Yaakov wish to confront his brother? Yaakov suffered the struggle that night. He had to undergo that struggle to develop the confidence to face his brother.Perhaps that is why the mysterious man remains nameless – his identity is not as important as the struggle itself. This adversary has no name for it constantly changes.

We struggle almost daily. That struggle can take the form of parnassa, children, relationships, health, personal growth or any other shape. It can meet us at different points of our lives when we feel that we are less or more able to confront this particular struggle. We go through struggles and challenges all the time. The value may also be in the struggle itself. Many times we have been through difficulties and perhaps even cursed the difficulty of the struggle. Yet when looking back we can often see how we grew from that experience.

It should be pointed out that we do not actively seek out the struggle. That would be simply masochistic.4 And being stuck in a state where we lack knowledge of the outcome can be scary - even very scary. But we also do not flee from it.

The great American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson described for us the following concept that life is a journey, not a destination5 while Poet Jon Nelson wrote:

As we journey through our lives,
We all take separate paths.
Sometimes they’re filled with sorrow,
Other times they’re full of laughs.
There’s no exact destination,
We just follow where it goes.
We travel until our journey ends,
When that is, nobody knows.6

Being present in the here and now and living life as it greets us is a refreshing concept. And we can embrace the journey/struggle equipped with the knowledge that the journey/struggle itself has value for us.

*This is an updated version of a previous article.

 L'ilui nishmat my mother, Hentcha Leah bat Yitzchak Lipa, hk"m 


  1. Bereishit 32:30
  2. Bereishit Rabba 77:2
  3. In a relatively short class, Rabbi Shochet talks about the value of struggle -
  4. Dr. Viktor Frankl says this numerous times in his writings on logotherapy and the search for meaning in our lives
  5. Essays: Second Series by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Second Edition, Essay: II Experience p. 65, James Munroe and Company, Boston. 1844
  6. Nelson, Jon -

Have A Great Shabbat!laughing

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