Tol’dot: Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
“Why we Need Conflict”
The twin brothers Esau and Jacob wrestled each other even before they were born. Both, it seems, wanted to be the firstborn in order to inherit the Divine promise to Abraham from their father, Isaac. “The children almost crushed one another” inside their mother’s womb (Gen. 25:22), and when Esau emerged first, Jacob was trying to pull him back as he “came out holding Esau’s heel” (Gen. 25:26). Growing up, they became 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). Even though Esau appears to have inherited the firstborn status, Jacob’s conniving drive pushes him to trick Esau into selling him his firstborn-right and then—with his mother’s support—impersonating Esau to deceive their blind father into giving him the blessing that will makes him the leader of the tribe and the inheritor of God’s promise to Abraham.
Jacob may have won the birthright, but his wrestling doesn’t stop here. In fact, our rabbis argue, his whole life was 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 both Abraham and Isaac died “old and content” (Gen. 25:8; Gen 35:29), but that in Jacob’s last days he lamented, “few and hard have been the days of my life” (Gen. 47:9). Yet Jacob, who later was named Israel (one who wrestles with God), is the one biblical character to become the father of the people that bear his name: 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 truths, our beliefs, or our sense of right and wrong. Spiritual and intellectual wrestling supports our continual evolution in the service of becoming the fullest individual we can be, by preventing us from being bogged down by too-rigid personal orthodoxies.
On the other hand, our culture is deeply uncomfortable with conflict. It equates 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. Ideally, their debate is to remain ego-less. 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.