Confronting the Sitra Ahra

Like Jacob's struggle with the unidentified man, each of us must recognize, confront and struggle with our sitra ahra, our darker side.

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By the Way…

Pious people think they are unworthy of God's gift, while others think they are deserving of such gifts, and even more. (Sefat Emet, Itturei Torah, volume 1, p. 293)

It is said that Jacob suffered both fright and anxiety [Genesis 32:8]. Fright--that he might be killed by Esau; anxiety--that he might himself be led to kill. (Rashi)

Suffering in itself does not heal. Only suffering that has meaning and is accepted willingly has the power to heal and to transform an individual into a whole person…. Jung named this process of growth from one stage of awareness to another individuation. Transformation, or real change of character, can take place in a person only when, through suffering, he engages in an active struggle with the Shadow, the dark side of himself. (Esther Spitzer, "A Jungian Midrash on Jacob's Dream," The Reconstructionist, October 1976, pp. 22-23)

Hama bar Hanina said [regarding the "man" who wrestled with Jacob]: It was the guardian Prince [angel] of Esau. To this Jacob alluded when he said to him [Esau], "for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably." (Genesis Rabbah 77:3 on Genesis 33:10)

The essence of a nation is not synonymous with its physical appearance but with its spiritual character. No nation disappears completely until the spirit animating it is destroyed and disappears. The spiritual essence animating and distinguishing each people was personified. Just as the king of a nation represents its visible external linking and unifying factor, so its god represents its unifying and coherent inner essence. (Abraham Krochmal, Guide of the Perplexed of This Age)

The mysterious being whom Jacob confronts will not let him escape. Perhaps it is that very fact that results in the blessing of a new name for Jacob. He has for the first time in his life refused to run away or dissemble and, for that, as a reward, he is now Israel. Jacob's transformation is complete. His very character has turned with the change of name from "heel/deceiver" to Yisrael, explained in the biblical etymology in our own parashah as "one who strives with God" [Genesis 32:29]. (Barry Holtz on Parashat Va-Yishlach in Learn Torah with..., Los Angeles, CA: Aleph Design Group, 1996, pp. 60-63)

Your Guide

Do you agree with the Sefat Emet that the righteous ones always believe that they are unworthy? Does Jacob's confession of unworthiness complete his act of t'shuvah (repentance/turning)? If not, what actions by Jacob would complete this process?

Do you agree with Rashi's implication that Jacob fears his own actions as much as he fears those of Esau? Why or why not?

To what extent is Jacob wrestling with what Esther Spitzer calls his "Shadow"? Whom does the Shadow represent in Jacob's life? Do you agree with Esther Spitzer that only suffering that has personal meaning can lead to individuation and character development?

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Rabbi Burt E. Schuman

Rabbi Burt E. Schuman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel, Altoona, PA.