Dealing with problems is an inevitable part of life. Difficulties come up on a regular basis in one’s marriage, with one’s children, at work, and basically in every situation and relationship in which one may find himself. At times it seems that as soon as we finish dealing with one crisis, another one has arisen. We may become depressed and overwhelmed, feeling that we are more often than not simply ‘putting out fires’ as opposed to making any real progress. How can we survive? More than that, how can we make sure that we are steadily moving along the path of success?
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about an interesting conflict between Jacob and the guardian angel of Esau. The Torah tells us that one evening, when Jacob ventured out alone to recover some lost jars, Esau’s guardian angel took the opportunity to start a fight with him. They fought throughout the night. By the time morning came, Jacob had the angel in a hold. When the sun rose, the angel requested that Jacob let him go, explaining that every angel has an appointed time to sing shirah, praise, to God, and his time had arrived.
The Talmud tells us that this particular morning was this angel’s very first opportunity to sing God’s praises. Why, therefore, would the angel take a chance on starting a fight with Jacob the night before his set time to sing shirah to God? One would expect that he would have been more careful so as not to miss his appointment with God!
Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik (1853 – 1918), the chief rabbi of Brisk, Belarus, explains that an angel is not assigned a specific date and time to sing praise to God; rather, their praise is due upon the conclusion of their assigned mission. Esau’s guardian angel represents the yetzer harah, the evil inclination, and the fight between the angel and Jacob is symbolic of the moral dilemmas in which we often find ourselves. When the Torah states that Jacob won the fight, it means that he successfully overcame his evil inclination and chose the correct moral path. We often think of the evil inclination as a force trying to cause us to sin. In truth, however, it is a force trying to help us grow and become greater people. Therefore, the mission of this angel was essentially to be overcome by Jacob. It wasn’t that he chose the night before his appointed time to sing shirah to begin a conflict with Jacob, but rather his time to sing shirah had arrived precisely because Jacob had overcome him!*
This explanation gives us a new and insightful perspective on any problem that may arise. These situations are not really problems that we have to deal with; they are, rather, challenges to help us grow and become better people. If we approach life with this outlook, we will find that troubles will transform into wonderful opportunities. This perspective will help us be more successful and keep us inspired and motivated to overcome any challenge with which we are faced.
*I have heard this explanation from my father, Rabbi Mendel Freedman, many times over the years, but I have never been able to remember who he quoted as the source. I more recently found it in a commentary on the Torah, Peninim MiShulchan Gevohah which quotes it from Rabbi Soloveichik.