Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.
Even an over-anxious cad like the Bible's Jacob can teach a lesson about resilience. In this week's Torah portion (Vayishlach), he teaches six.
It turns out that anxiety – seemingly a mainstay of modern life – can have spiritual purpose by cuing us to build our capacity to face dissatisfaction, uncertainty and fear. Anxiety that paralyzes us asks professional support, but other anxiety can catalyze growth and teach life lessons if we pay the right kind of attention. Here are Jacob's six resilience lessons:
1. Rethink how you think. Jacob's anxiety was that his brother Esau, whom Jacob duped by swindling his birthright, would exact fatal retribution. Jacob was wrong – Esau would greet Jacob lovingly and the brothers would weep in each other's arms (Genesis 33:4) – but Jacob's anxiety saw only a worst-case scenario. Our worst fears often aren't reality: rather, our worst fears depict how our vision and thinking are clouded. Thus, our fears invite us to look deeply at how we see and how we think, and this capacity is key to resilience (Meir Leibush / Malbim Gen. 32:8).
2. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. As head of a growing tribe, Jacob was both family man and political leader. Fearing Esau's war against him, Jacob divided his clan in hopes that half would survive any attack (Genesis 32:8-9). As the modern State of Israel (named for Jacob – we'll get to that) taught so often in her early decades, pragmatism is a vital resilience tool.
3. Let yourself ask for help. Though a self-reliant man of action, Jacob next asked for help: in his anxiety, he humbly prayed for guidance, support and protection (Genesis 32:10-13). However self-reliant we are or think we should be, nobody is omnipotent. Jacob's resilience lesson is to twin claiming the agency to do all we can with the humility also to reach out (and up) for help.
4. Lead from generosity. Threat and scarcity often trigger our instinct to pull back and close up. Jacob did the opposite: he sent gifts ahead to Esau (Genesis 32:14-19). While Jacob's ploy was more tactical than generous – Jacob hoped to blunt what he wrongly thought was Esau's revenge impulse – it also reflected Jacob's sense of agency and capacity. It feels good to give, even and especially when we think we're under threat. Try it: you're more resilient than you know.
5. Let yourself wrestle. Jacob famously wrestled a "man" overnight (Genesis 32:25-29), and stories abound about why. Was it a dream? Was it an angel? Was it his fear of Esau? Did it happen only because he was alone? Was it to prepare Jacob for his encounter with Esau? We'll never know, but we do know that Jacob's wrestle opened his eyes to see holiness in a new way (Genesis 32:31). When we reimagine our life wrestles like some use resistance bands to tone muscles, suddenly our life wrestles can be tools to build resilience – and we suffer less for them.
6. Let yourself change. Jacob emerged from his overnight wrestle with a new name and a limp. His wrestling companion renamed Jacob "Israel" for "wrestles with God" (Genesis 32:29), and wrenched Jacob's hip (Genesis 32:26, 32:32) Jacob was never the same, but that's less the issue than what we make of these changes. We can choose how we respond to the inevitability of change: we can clutch what is, or willingly receive new ways (even if our identity changes, even if we limp). When unpleasantness and suffering seem inevitable, we can compound our suffering by clutching fixity. (Buddhists call it "the suffering of suffering" and the "suffering of change." Like the willow, we become more more resilient when we let ourselves bend and change.
Israelites are named for this pivotal moment in Torah and its resilience lessons. They've stood the test of time against incredibly long odds. They've inspired millennia of wisdom, heroism, vibrancy and beauty. We owe it all to resilient Jacob.
– Rabbi David Evan Markus