Vayishlach: The Must-Win Match

There are times in history when losing is not an option. One such time was the world's greatest wrestling match, between Jacob and Esau's angel...

5 min

Dennis Rosen

Posted on 24.11.14

Jacob arrived at the River Yabok, which is the Hebrew word for wrestling. He was about to enter the match of his life with the guardian angel of Esau, the personification of the Evil Inclination. I’d like to review the events from the vantage point of a former high school wrestler in the hope that we can gain some tips to help us match up with our own individual Evil Inclinations.

We need to practice and prepare vigorously for upcoming matches.

Much of our wrestling workout was repetitive focusing on fundamentals and conditioning. Similarly in our spiritual workouts we often say the same prayers multiple times each day.  The purpose is to condition our minds and hearts to prevent us from sinning and motivate us to achieve optimal service to Hashem. These prayers contain powerful insights that must be on the forefront of our consciousness to prevent the Evil Inclination from scoring a take down.

We also have many commandments that are part of our daily work out. According to Sefer Hachinuch – our character is shaped by our actions. For example in giving charity the Rambam advises rather than giving one large amount to give small amount numerous times. This will create a greater impact on our character and help us go on the offensive against the Evil Inclination.

Finally, Hashem desires that we adopt a personalized conditioning program and spend an hour every day talking with Him. During this time we thank Him for our many blessings, judge ourselves, and ask for His help in improving ourselves.

Tough opponents make you stronger.

In practice or in matches, wrestling with a tough opponent makes you stronger and helps you work towards your potential. Hashem sends us just the opponent we need. The Angel took Yaakov to the limit and then some. The greater the person the greater the challenge to help him reach his potential. Hashem never sends his wrestlers more than they can handle. He calibrates each individual yetzer with just the right amount of strength to bring out our personal best.

Remember – When you win a few matches – Hashem sends you tougher opponents so you’ll have to work harder and grow stronger. I used to hate it when my coach would say “no pain, no gain”, but now I realize he was 100% right.

In a grueling match you have to be determined to keep going and not allow yourself to be pinned even under great pressure

Jacob incurred a serious injury. Somehow he hung on with excruciating pain in the darkness and confusion of the night. When we have tough times we need to emulate Yaakov. Rabbi Lazer Brody writes that when we are under severe pressure our desire and perseverance can become supercharged when we engage a certain afterburner – emuna. We do this by talking to Hashem. (See Six Days to the Top).

A tough match demands your full attention minute by minute.

According to Sforno, Yaakov Avinu was injured when the angel momentarily diverted his attention by informing him that he would have wicked descendants.  In his distress he stopped concentrating on Hashem and the task at hand. Fortunately Yaakov Avinu made an amazing comeback.

From this we learn two lessons: Worry is one of the Evil Inclination’s most potent tools and we must constantly cling to emuna that Hashem is running the show, doing everything for the best and for a good purpose even if we don’t yet understand. In the meantime we concentrate on our job and leave the worrying to Him. That’s His job not ours. Secondly we learn that no matter how severe the setback there is never room for despair. We can make a new beginning and with Hashem’s help mount a successful comeback.

There is no room for sadness. Hashem wants us to get up off the mat and keep wrestling.

When you lose a wrestling match you can get depressed and lack the confidence to continue. Similarly when you lose a bout to the Evil Inclination you’ll find that he’s not a gracious winner. The Evil Inclination says you’re a bum, you’re no good, and you’ve let Hashem down so many times He no longer cares for you.

Our high school coach didn’t expect us to pin every opponent in the first minute of the first period. How much more is Hashem patient with us. He created us and understands that change is a process.

What happens when you realize that you lost because you were negligent, lazy, or made foolish choices?  You can do teshuva with love for Hashem, because you don’t want to disappoint Him again and want to please Him. In this way, the loss gets put into the win column and our sins become merits. You may have scars from being beaten up by the Evil Inclination but with repentance you can turn your scars into stars.

We can’t defeat the Evil Inclination on our own without help

Many times we lose a match because we forget we need Hashem’s help as the Evil Inclination is too strong for us to wrestle one on one. Remember Hashem personally attends all your wrestling matches – when you need help He can come down from the stands and get on the mat to help you – you just need to realize that He is your real strength and salvation and call out to Him.

The bad news is that you can’t win on your own – The good news is that with Hashem in your corner you can overcome any foe or challenge no matter how big or how tough. If we realize that our salvation rests with Hashem and only if we realize this and call out to Him – we can defeat our enemy consistently.

We need to evaluate our performance after a match.

As part of our daily hitbodedut we need to evaluate our performance during the prior day’s matches. We need to identify where we fell short and make a commitment to improve. We need to identify our weaknesses and ask Hashem’s help to strengthen ourselves in these areas.

Our goal should be to become strongest in our weakest places.   Sefer Chovos HaLevovos teaches that the area where you have the most difficulty is precisely what you were sent here to fix – that’s your soul correction.

Listen to the Coach

Our high school coach would always give us constructive and helpful criticisms after each match. We all need to have a Rabbi with whom to share life’s experiences and be willing to listen to and accept no holds barred criticism. This is the key to self-improvement and to avoiding serious errors that may cause us to lose major bouts.

Let’s remember:

* We are all on a wrestling team – Hashem’s wrestling team. He expects us to work out every day with a consistent regimen of Torah study, structured prayer and personal prayer

* Hashem sends us strong opponents to make us work hard and improve, but he never sends his wrestlers a challenge they can’t handle

* By hanging in there when things get tough, like Yaacov Avinu we can prevail if we look to Hashem as the Source of our strength

* During our tough matches we need to keep our minds fully focused and leave worry about the future to Hashem – that’s His job, not ours.

* Be sure not to get down on ourselves when we lose a bout – as long as we keep trying, Hashem will have patience with us and help . When we repent we can turn a loss into a win and our scars into stars.

* Give ourselves a good going over every night with “checks and balances” to evaluate our efforts and chart the way to greater progress. Don’t forget your successes and good points and thank Hashem for them. This gives us the encouragement and optimism we need to do our best.

* Listen to Hashem’s coaches, our Rabbis, seek and accept their advice, even when they tell us things we don’t want to hear

Let’s remember all Yaacov Avinu endured to earn the name Israel for us. Why did he do it? – To implant the capacity for greatness in our spiritual genes. How can we ever think of letting him down?

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