Tol’dot

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Why We Need Conflict

The twin brothers, Esau and Jacob, wrestled each other since before they were born. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we learn that: “Rebekah became pregnant. But the children almost crushed one another inside her.” [Gen. 25:21-22] Both, it seems, wanted to be the firstborn in order to inherit God’s promise to Abraham from their father Isaac. Esau was the one, eventually, to emerge first from the womb even though Jacob was still trying to pull him back as he “came out holding Esau’s heel.” [Gen. 25:26] The two boys grow up to become two clashing personalities; Esau was a “skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; while Jacob was a homespun man, keeping to the tents” [Gen. 25:27] And even though Esau appears to have de-facto inherited the firstborn status, Jacob’s conniving drive pushes him, first, to trick his brother into selling him his firstborn-right; and then—with his mother’s support—to deceive his blind father by impersonating Esau when Isaac pronounces the blessing that, consequently, makes him the leader of the tribe and the inheritor of God’s promise instead of his older brother.

But Jacob’s wrestling doesn’t stop here. In fact, our rabbis argue, Jacob’s whole life will be a life of wrestling; a succession of trials, torments and crises. Some see it as payback for his original trickery. They point to the fact that Torah describes Abraham dying “at a good ripe age, old and content;” [Gen. 25:8] and Isaac dying “old and content” [Gen. 35:29] as well; but that when it comes to Jacob’s last days he, himself, confesses that “few and hard have been the days of my life.” [Gen. 47:9] Yet Jacob who, ironically, is later called Israel—Divine Wrestler—is the one biblical character that becomes the father of the people that bear his name: the B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. To this day, Jews are referred to not as the Children of Abraham or Isaac, but of Israel, of the wrestler.

Clearly, our tradition holds in high esteem the human experience of struggle. We need conflict. Conflict helps us grow and evolve. It challenges our convictions, and shakes us out of our complacency. Yeshiva students are, by design, paired-up to argue over biblical texts from different perspectives because doing so enriches their understanding. At an individual level, there is something deeply powerful when we allow ourselves to push through those inner places of conflict when we are put in a position that challenges our integrity, our beliefs, or our sense of right and wrong. Wrestling supports our continual evolving in the service of becoming the fullest individual we can be, by preventing us from being bogged down by too rigid personal orthodoxies.

Our culture, however, is deeply uncomfortable with conflict. It has equated conflict with clashing, war, violence, winners and losers. But conflict doesn’t have to be any of that. Every conflict is an opportunity to uncover those hidden aspects of self that might be unconscious roadblocks to our personal growth. This is how Yeshiva students approach it. Their wrestling is l’shem shamayim – for the sake of heaven. Ideally, their arguing is not meant to be about finding out who’s the best student, the more learned. No one wins. Their debate is to remain ego-less—ideally. Their purpose is to gain as multifaceted an understanding of a problem as possible by bringing into the conversation as many rabbinic perspectives as possible. The conflict is meant to expand their consciousness. Can we, too, enter into a practice that embraces conflict with love instead of reacting to it with fear? Can we set a Kavanah – an intention for ourselves to step into conflict as an opportunity to learn and grow? Can we learn to embrace differing perspectives on a given subject? Then, we would truly make our practice l’shem shamayim.

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