Have you ever had a dark night of the soul? When you struggled with a challenge you couldn’t see your way out of?
This week’s torah portion, Vayishlach (and he sent), is about the mother of all dark nights of the soul… And it has so much to teach us about how we handle crises…
Last week, our patriarch Jacob dreamt of the ladder, and recognized that God was in that place, and he hadn’t known it…
This week, decades have passed, he is leaving his father-in-law’s house and heading home with his wives, children, servants and herds, about to meet his brother, Esau, long years after Esau had threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright and more important, his blessing from their father.
Jacob sends servants on ahead with initial gifts to his brother, and they return to report that Esau has arrived with 400 men. Jacob is terrified and in great distress. He is sure his brother has brought those men to kill him and his family.
So he prepares for the worst: separates everyone and everything into two groups, moves them, prays… No matter how much planning we do, we are never completely ready for that crisis when it hits, a cancer diagnosis, an injury to our children, the loss of a job. And yet, Jacob reminds us that preparedness is key.
And alone, he crosses the river. Because in a way, in crisis, each of us is indeed alone. We may be holding together as a family or a couple or a community, but each of us has to come through it in their own way, face their demons, or their adversaries their own way.
And the Jacob spends his dark night of the soul… wrestling, with what the torah calls an ish, usually defined as a man, but sometimes as a divine being… but what many commentators believe to be his shadow, those parts of himself he can’t quite own. What he did to his brother many years ago may have been pressing on his conscience. After all, he had spent so much of his life trying to be his brother (holding his heel at birth, buying his birthright, stealing his blessing, trying to look like him…)… Had the actions of his past come to threaten his family? How would he handle the consequences of his youthful actions? He and the unnamed adversary battle until the break of day. Jacob shows us how perseverance is essential. Hanging on, blow by blow, nightmare by nightmare, and even when injured, the battle is not lost. We can suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and be transformed to a higher place.
In the end, injured, Jacob does not let go until he wrests a blessing from the other. Wresting a blessing from a fierce struggle… The deep psychological wisdom of this is overwhelming to me this week. As my daughter Olya recuperates from her trauma of last week, as I reread that verse, I thought of what we all learned this week: what to wear at a forge, how to call on support, and how to let ourselves be embraced by the love that came for all corners of California and beyond. How this community embraces its members. (I heard stories from congregants who had also benefited from the community’s embrace, and looked at offering help as a “no brainer” given their own experiences.)
But the final interesting and useful lesson from Jacob’s dark night of the soul is the blessing he received and its effect on us: his blessing was his name change from Jacob to Israel. Names in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and the bestowing of them are a big deal. We all know what Israel means – yes, one who struggles with God and humanity and survived… We are not the children of Abraham, the children of Judah or the children of Moses. We are b’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel… the ones who struggle with God and humanity and survive… We have never experienced an easy journey, nor do we expect to. We expect to struggle with God, to argue, to walk away, to hold on, to question, to doubt, to yell and scream and cry, and to laugh and dance and sing, and yes, to survive.
We are the children of Israel…
I am grateful for our ancestor whose own dark night of the soul can inform mine: 1) to be as prepared as we can be for what life will throw at us; 2) to recognize that part of the journey has to be done alone; 3) to persevere, even through injury, until the sun rises, because it will; 4) to wrest a blessing from the experience; and finally 5) to remember that we are the children of Israel and we will find ways to survive.