Thursday, 18 November, 2021 - 1:34 pm

Life is full of loneliness, misery, and suffering, and it's all over much too soon. —Woody Allen

In one of the most dramatic and mysterious biblical tales, the Torah in this week’s portion Vayishlach presents an unforgettable moment when: "Jacob remained alone and a man/angel wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”

"When he perceived that he could not defeat him," "he struck the socket of his [Jacob's] hip." Jacob, however, prevailed, and as a result of his victory, all of Jacobs's descendants were given the new name of Israel. Israel means to struggle or contend with, "For you have struggled with the divine and with man and you have triumphed.”

Our imagination is captured in the opening line of the verse: “And Jacob remained alone.” At this critical moment, perhaps the most defining moment of his life, Jacob was alone. Amid his greatest battle, Jacob is in solitude.  There is a sense of existential loneliness. In a moment of truth, each one of us must face a profound sense of solitude. And we already learned in Genesis that “it was not good for man to be alone.” Yet, the Midrash presents a fascinating and very different interpretation.

The Midrash interprets Jacob's aloneness, as a precursor to the day when just as G-d will be exalted alone," explains the Midrash, so too, “Jacob remained alone."  The comparison seems strange. What is the connection between Jacob's lonely struggle with his adversary in the middle of the night, to the time when G-d's presence alone will be exalted in the world? This coming week we will celebrate on Tuesday, November 23, the New Year of Chasidut, the 19th of Kislev. I will present the explanation given by the grandson of Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism.

There are two forms of loneliness. One paralyzes, preventing the actualization of the human potential, while the other elicits the entire repertoire of human creativity and courage.

The first is loneliness that is experienced because of trauma, betrayal, disappointment, pain, and fear.

But there is a second type of loneliness—the awareness that I am unique, individual, and alone. Nobody can replace what I do in the world. Nobody can bring into the world light that I can.

The Talmud says in the following words: The first human being (Adam) was created alone in order to teach us "that every individual is obligated to say, ‘for my sake was the world created.’” This is not simply a cognitively motivating tool to enhance one's self-esteem, rather it reflects an essential principle of Judaism, that you must assess and weigh the significance of your destiny as if you were the only human being existent and to constantly be aware of the fact that the universe was created for you to shape its fate. There is something in the universe that only you can repair; there is something in history that only you can achieve. And in that sense, indeed, the entire world was created for you, because without you it is incomplete.

Just as G-d is alone, Jacob understood that he too was alone. And that’s the moment he can become Israel. That is the moment he becomes a new person—understanding that his “aloneness” reflects G-d’s “aloneness.” G-d is alone in the world, and you are alone in the world. Do not live by others’ expectations, nor should you think others can shape your destiny, or that others can do your job.

Twins are never alone. He comes out of the womb holding Eisav’s heel. He wins a blessing and a birthright by pretending to be someone other than himself. Jacob says the words, “I am Eisav,” to his father. On a much lower level, and in a more personal way, think of the insecure person who is constantly measuring himself against others.

The Torah presents the moment when Jacob becomes individuated. It is the moment when I realize that “competition is for losers,” as a wise man once said. I stop imitating others, by discovering that G-d has a special mission for me, that my soul and body are unique, that I can’t live anyone else’s life, nor can they live mine. By detaching myself from the shadow of Eisav and the notion that I must outcompete him for some scarce resource, I can reconcile with him.

Rabbi Chaim Kreiswirth, the famed and brilliant chief rabbi of Antwerp, once related that when he was preparing to flee Europe at the onset of World War II, a Jew approached him and told him that he had a fortune in cash and valuables sitting in a Swiss bank account. It was an astronomical sum. This Jew was unsure if he would make it out of Europe, and he begged Rav Chaim to find any of his relatives and pass the account information on to them. Rav Chaim agreed and took the account number with him.

Nearly 20 years later, now living in Antwerp, Belgium, Rav Chaim was approached by a destitute Jew named Aaron who needed money simply to live. He was begging the rabbi for charity. After conversing with Aaron for a few minutes about his family background, Rav Chaim suddenly realized that the man was a relative of that wealthy man from Europe!

‘Aaron,’ he exclaimed, ‘you are not poor at all. You are a rich man!” The man could not fathom the words. Rav Chaim said, “you have more money than you can imagine!” With that, Rav Chaim handed him the paper with the Swiss bank account number written on it. Rav Chaim concluded the story: This man thought he was impoverished. Little did he know that he simply was unaware of who he is and what he possesses in his life. People can walk around their entire life thinking they are poor; when in reality, poverty is in their own mind.

People often think they are poor, not realizing they are richer than they’d ever believed. This was the primary message of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe: You are infinite; you are an ambassador of Hashem in this world. The world was created for you. G-d Himself, all the angels, all of history, and the entire world is dancing around you and with you, waiting for your next move to lift the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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