Friday, December 14, 2012

The struggle between Good and Evil - Jewish Wrestling

Jewish Wrestling

Since Evil itself has no independent life and only exists by living off the scraps, as it were, of the G‑dly life-force channeled to Good, it is necessary to understand how Evil could struggle for supremacy with Good at all: should this not be impossible?

The answer, however, lies in the fact that G‑d transcends any distinction between Good and Evil. G‑d could just as easily have created a world in which what we know as Evil is superior to what we know as Good. Evil sought not merely to challenge Good, but to challenge the very divine plan by which Good is superior to Evil in the first place.

The mystical correspondence between G‑d's attributes and the major sections of the human body underlies the symbolism of the bodily struggle between Jacob and the angel, in which each embraced the other and sought to topple him.

A strange incident is related in the Torah portion for this week: On the eve of Jacob's crossing the river Yabok on the way to meet his brother Esau, a mysterious stranger appears on the scene and wrestles with him. They struggle through the night and, as day breaks, the stranger reveals himself as an angel of G‑d and begs Jacob to release him. In exchange for a blessing, Jacob does so, and is told that from then on he shall be known as "Israel", a Hebrew name which signifies victory in the struggle.

Everything in life…reflects an underlying spiritual nature…
To appreciate the significance of this, we must consider that everything in life, all that occurs, reflects an underlying spiritual nature. This is especially true of incidents related in the Bible, in which the protagonists were the most pious and saintly figures imaginable. Our divinely inspired forefathers were able to perceive on their own the spirituality of things, the G‑dliness concealed within nature, and often consciously coordinated their actions to be physical parallels of some spiritual concept.

It is in this context that we may understand the narrative of the angel wrestling with Jacob. Our Sages have taught that that angel was the guardian angel of Jacob's wicked brother, Esau, and that the struggle was the very embodiment (in the sense discussed above) of the struggle between Good and Evil.
Yet this itself requires explanation. It is one of the most fundamental principles of Judaism that G‑d is One, and that there is nothing else besides Him. Literally everything in the universe, whether a physical object or an intangible concept or event, can only exist if G‑d so wills it; put another way, since G‑d wills that something should exist, He bestows upon it the spiritual "life-force" which brings that thing into existence and sustains it. This applies to "Evil" as much as to anything else. It is only because G‑d's great and inscrutable "master plan" calls for the existence of evil (in order that we may conquer it, and transform it into good, by observing the Torah) that evil exists at all - but there is no question that its existence is derived from none other than G‑d. Certainly, there is no "independent power" responsible for evil, separate from the One G‑d (as if such a thing were possible).

Moreover, since it would not be fitting for G‑d to directly create things evil, the spiritual life force which gives Evil its existence is "routed" through the forces of Good. This will be explained in greater detail below; suffice it to say here that Evil derives its sustenance from the "leftover" spirituality that could not be used by the forces of Holiness, of Good. For example, a stray dog may derive its sustenance by foraging among garbage in the street. Although it is nourished by leftover food that could not be used by the household, it certainly could not be said that the householders are feeding the dog. Or, the heat emanating from a subway grate may likewise warm stray dogs, but the subway officials, while aware of it, do not intend this result. Evil, however, depends on Holiness even more than in these examples, because while the dog itself already exists, the very existence of Evil is derived from the "leftovers" of the divine life-force which animates Good.

From the perspective of G‑d Himself…Good and Evil are equally insignificant…
In light of the above, the idea that Evil should struggle with Good, vying for supremacy, as it were, with its own life-force, seems more than simply biting the hand that feeds it - it seems as though it should be "mechanically" impossible. How then are we to understand the teaching of our Sages that the incident in this week's Torah portion represented an attempt by Evil to overthrow Good?

In order to comprehend this, it will be necessary to understand in more precise detail the manner in which Evil is "nourished" through Good.

The fact is that the statement above - that it is not fitting for G‑d to give life to Evil, only to Good - is only meaningful from our mortal perspective. To us, it seems inappropriate for G‑d to animate Evil. However, our perspective is severely limited; the truth is that from the perspective of G‑d Himself, Who created the world and everything in it, Good and Evil are equally insignificant. They are both functions of behavior in this physical world, a world which G‑d Himself transcends utterly. We must certainly observe the distinction between Good and Evil, because we dwell in and are subject to the boundaries of this world; to G‑d, however, Who created Good and Evil to begin with, it's all the same. Why then, does G‑d chose to recognize Good over Evil, allowing His creative vitality to flow directly into Good but withholding that vitality from Evil? The reason is that G‑d, in his love of the Jews, allowed us to influence the paths of G‑dly sustenance to the world. In the merit of Jewish Torah study and mitzva observance, G‑d validates "our" perspective by channeling His spiritual life force directly only to those who are subjugated to Him.

This is hinted at by the verse toward the end of this week's Torah portion, "And these are the kings who reigned in the land ofEdom before there reigned a king over the Children of Israel."(Gen. 36:31) The word "Edom" is associated with Esau, representing the forces of Evil generally, and the reference to the kings ruling in Edom is a mystical allusion to the ways in which G‑dly vitality was in fact once found even there. However, this was "before there reigned a king over the Children of Israel" - that is, once the Jews, through their worship, limited the direct flow of G‑dliness to that which has nullified itself before G‑d, the forces of Evil - characterized by a lack of deference to G‑d's Will, and in fact by defiance of G‑d's Will - no longer received their spiritual sustenance directly (as explained above). This latter state of affairs is the mystical meaning of the verse, "There was no king in Edom". (Kings I 22:48)

It emerges, then, that deference to G‑d's Will - "bitul" in Hebrew, which denotes more than mere deference but actual nullification, making oneself completely insignificant, as nothing, before G‑d - is the factor that distinguishes Good from Evil.

Considering how bitul is reflected in our own personalities will help us to understand how this comes about spiritually as well.

…thought has never been capable of observation.
Paradoxically, the highest faculty of man is that which is least "substantial": the intellect. Unlike other organs, whose action is physically observable (whether with the naked eye or on a microscopic level), the activity of the brain - thought - has never been capable of observation. To be sure, medical science has been able to observe electrical impulses in the brain, but actual thoughts, the mind itself, is mysteriously separate from any physical manifestation. Conceptually too, we are hard-pressed to identify the source and nature of the intellect: at its essential level, it is the capacity to conceive ideas and then to develop and understand them, but where do these new ideas come from? They seem to pop into one's mind from nowhere.

The above may be considered characteristic of the quality ofbitul: The intellect is as "nothing" in and of itself. Its own substance or sense of "self", as it were, does not get in the way of its sensitivity to that which is outside itself. It is therefore inherently able to receive input from the source of new ideas (which source is mystically associated with a high spiritual level), similar to the way in which light shines into a room in direct proportion to the transparency of the material covering the window.

Continuing the analogy to our own personalities, the emotional faculties are not as closely associated with the quality of bitul, but are still susceptible to its influence. (Although it is true that emotions per se can not be empirically observed either, they are by definition the emotions of the particular person and manifest that person's sense of self, unlike new thoughts or ideas which seem to come to a person externally.) For example, if the mind contemplates sufficiently the greatness of G‑d, then the emotions of love of G‑d, reverence for G‑d, and so on will be aroused within the person, even to the point where the person puts G‑d above his or her own interests. (E.g. the person may want to read a novel, but out of love for G‑d will read Torah literature instead.) Thus, the emotions too, although initially less "transparent" than the intellect, can be made subservient to G‑d.

The intellect, of course, is associated with the head, while the emotions are traditionally associated with the heart, or, more generally, the torso. Beneath these levels are the legs, which, like the head and the heart, also symbolize particular spiritual attributes. However, these are focused not on the person him- or herself, but rather on someone to whom the person wishes to transmit his or her own influence. For example, one who wishes to teach another must first evaluate the student's capacity to understand the concept, and then formulate the teaching in a way appropriate to that capacity. Or, before giving charity, the giver evaluates the need of the recipient. These considerations - focused on a recipient instead of the person himself - are represented, allegorically speaking, by the legs of a person, which carry the person's own self (the head and torso) forward.

Finally, after formulating the most appropriate plan for transmitting one's influence to another, the person actually transmits that influence. This concludes a process which may be understood as a gradual progression from receipt of a new idea from an external, "higher", source, through the filtering down of that idea to the point where it influences the person (for example, to love G‑d, as mentioned above), and ending with the transmitting of the teaching to someone else. Every step of this process can be imbued with the quality of bitul; however, once the transmitted concept has left the original person and been passed on, it is susceptible to lack of bitul and distortion.

As noted, the above should help us to understand the manner in which G‑d transmits spiritual influence to the forces of holiness, from whence it is possible for the forces of evil to derive benefit as well. As explained elsewhere, G‑d manifests Himself in the world, or transmits spirituality to it, in ten general ways known as the "ten sefirot". Our own characters are fashioned after thesesefirot, so that, by Torah-guided contemplation of our own personalities, we may better understand G‑d. Thus, we refer to the sefirot by names to which our own attributes correspond, fromchochma ("wisdom," or the point at which new ideas come into the mind), through chesed ("kindness"), gevura ("might" or "restraint") and related "emotions," all the way down to malchut(the faculty which actually transmits influence to another).

G‑d wants the world to exist in a form which allows for diversity and multiplicity…
At the highest level - i.e. when G‑d first manifests Himself through the ten sefirot- they are all "batul" (the adjective form of the abstract noun "bitul") to G‑d Himself, and are really one with Him. This state of affairs is described as the spiritual realm of Atzilut. However, since G‑d wants the world to exist in a form which allows for diversity and multiplicity (which would not be possible if everything were seen to be united with G‑d, Who is One and not diverse), He also allows (through the attribute of malchut, which transmits outward) the spiritual life-force to flow beyond Atzilut, through countless, progressively lower, spiritual levels (known in a broad, general sense as the three spiritual realms of Beriya,Yetzira, and Asiya) which are not necessarily completely batul to Him.

(In this sense, it is important to understand that the degree of bitulto G‑d in these spiritual realms is not a measure of how much they "accept" G‑d's sovereignty (for this is not a matter subject to their choice), but a measure of how revealed G‑d is in those realms. The more openly revealed G‑d is, the more "transparent" and batul the inhabitants of that realm; conversely, the more G‑d conceals Himself, the more the inhabitants appear, as a result, to be separate, independent entities - the opposite of bitul.)

Our physical universe is the lowest of all levels (because in it, G‑d is completely concealed from our perception), and the ultimate purpose of the entire progression, because it is specifically in a context within which G‑dliness is not apparent at all (and in fact, in which it appears that G‑d does not rule (G‑d forbid) that the ultimate expression of G‑d's sovereignty can be achieved - by us (the inhabitants of that realm) deliberately subjugating ourselves to Him anyway.

Now, "good" and "evil" are defined by bitul to G‑d's Will. That which is "transparent" to G‑dliness, which does not set itself up as an independent existence but merely expresses and furthers G‑d's Will, is "good"; that which opposes and hinders G‑d's Will, as though it possessed a valid existence in its own right and a will of its own, is "evil." Clearly, on the highest plane of spiritual existence, the realm of Atzilut, evil cannot exist, since at that level, as explained above, everything is one with G‑d Himself and completely batul to Him. However, in order for the purpose of creation to be achievable - in order for us inhabitants of that lowest of realms, in which G‑d is completely concealed, to bring G‑dliness into open revelation by making ourselves subservient to Him - there must necessarily be a concealment of G‑dliness, allowing for a lack of bitul, somewhere along the line. The existence of evil begins, in fact, after the point at which malchut ofAtzilut has transmitted the G‑dly life-giving force beyond that realm of total bitul to G‑d. (This is analogous to an idea being transmitted from one person, whom that idea totally permeated and motivated, to a separate person, where it might become distorted.) The life-force is not transmitted to evil; rather, it is nowaccessible for evil to benefit from, similar to the dog which can get warmth from a subway grating.

Whether or not evil is able to entirely up to us…
(Here is an awesome thought: If evil is defined as the opposition to G‑d's Will, what defines opposition to G‑d's Will? The answer is that G‑d has revealed his Will to us in the Torah: study of Torah and living by its directives, i.e. the mitzvot, are expressions of G‑d's Will, while neglect or violation, G‑d forbid, of the mitzvot are the very definition of opposition to G‑d's Will. Thus, whether or not evil is able to exist - by drawing from the spiritual life force flowing through good - is entirely up to us: if we, G‑d forbid, transgress the laws of the Torah, evil exists; if we obey the Torah, it does not.)

Now that we have examined the way in which G‑d's life-force is accessed, although in a "back-handed" manner, so to speak, by evil, we are in a position to understand the underlying symbolism of the story of the angel of evil wrestling with Jacob.

We said above that the distinction between good and evil is meaningful to G‑d's creatures, but not to G‑d Himself, Who created and defined them to begin with. Charity seems "good" because it was G‑d's Will that the world be structured in such a way; had He willed otherwise, however, He could just as easily have set up a society in which charity is considered wicked and murder, praiseworthy. G‑d Himself is utterly transcendent of all worldly matters, including "good" and "evil." The archangel of Esau, representing the forces of evil, was not seeking to be cut off from its own life force by overthrowing the forces of good; rather, it challenged the very system by which its life force had to be filtered through good in the first place. Its characteristic lack ofbitul, or humility, left evil dissatisfied with its place in the scheme of things: it sought to rise up and, bypassing good entirely, draw its life force directly from that sublime level of G‑d Himself which transcends the distinction between good and evil.

This was manifested in the struggle with Jacob specifically, for it was Jacob whose spiritual accomplishments were rewarded by the investiture of G‑d's life force primarily into the forces of good.

Let us bring this down to earth by relating the concepts, and the specifics of the struggle, to human experience. Evil has no hold over intellect (which, as explained above, is inherently batul); objective intellectual analysis is able to recognize good as good and evil as evil. It is only on the emotional level that a person's own desires and temptations can cause one to "forget" the difference between right and wrong. If one has contemplated at length on such ideas as the greatness of G‑d, one's emotions should be stimulated to desire only G‑d and the performance of His Will. The desire for worldly things should then have no hold even over the emotions. However, without adequate meditation, one's emotions could theoretically be drawn after worldly desires instead of spiritual ones.

Jacob symbolized a thorough dedication of one's emotions to G‑dly matters.
Jewish mysticism identifies Jacob with those levels of G‑dly manifestation referred to as the "emotional" attributes of the realm of Atzilut. Jacob symbolized a thorough dedication of one's emotions to G‑dly matters. The angel of Esau symbolized the corruption or diversion of the emotions to worldly desires. Each tried to topple the other, swaying the emotional faculties of Man entirely over to their side. More specifically, the major emotional attributes of chesed and gevura are symbolized by the right and left arms respectively; thus, each combatant encircling the other with his arms was an earthly manifestation of the spiritual struggle of the evil character traits, on the one hand, to envelop and dominate the personality, and that of the holy character traits, on the other hand, to dominate and convert the capacity for worldly desires entirely to good.

Evil's mistake, however, was in failing to recognize the true nature of Jacob. The emotions can only be swayed to material desires when the influence of the intellect is lacking, for, as noted above, the objective intellect can discern right from wrong. However, Jacob was not merely the embodiment of the dedication of one's emotions to G‑d; he embodied also the influence of the intellectwhich permeates the emotions and motivates this dedication. This is hinted at by Jacob's name, "Yaakov" in Hebrew. "Yaakov" is spelled by the Hebrew letters yudayinkuf and beit. A yud is written as a simple dot, representative of that mysterious "point" at which ideas enter the intellect. The latter three letters of "Yaakov" spell the Hebrew word "eikev", meaning "heel", the very lowest part of the body.

The name "Yaakov", formed by combining these two elements, symbolizes the fact that in Jacob (Yaakov) and his descendants, the Jewish people, the influence of the yud - the intellect and itsbitul to G‑d - permeates and pervades the entire personality, extending even to the lowest level. For this reason, the evil angel was no match for him, and could only injure Jacob in the thigh (as recounted in the Biblical story): the thigh, as mentioned above, is a part of the body associated with relating to another, as opposed to being intrinsic to the person's own self.
Not only that, but Jacob actually overwhelmed the evil forces, subjugating the inclination to do evil - the desire for worldly pursuits - to the inclination to do good - the desire for spiritual pursuits. (This is what is meant by the exhortation expounded from the Shema prayer that we should struggle to love G‑d not only with our inclination to do good, but also with our desire for worldly pursuits: even our capacity to appreciate physical, mundane matters should be used in the furtherance of holy objectives.) In mystical terms, Jacob - the embodiment of the emotional attributes of Atzilut, the capacity for dedication of one's emotions to G‑d - overwhelmed and elevated the emotional attributes of kelipa, the capacity for diversion of the emotions to worldly desires.

…when people engage in a fierce physical struggle they kick up clouds of dust.
Finally, we should note that the Biblical incident mirrors these spiritual themes in all its details. The Sages teach that the Hebrew word used here for "grapple" or "wrestle" - "vayeavek" - is etymologically related to the word for "dust" (in Hebrew, "avak"), because when people engage in a fierce physical struggle they kick up clouds of dust.

Based on this, the Sages say that Jacob and the angel "raised up dust unto the Throne of Glory [G‑d's throne]." The raising of this dust itself symbolizes the ideas discussed above, and carries them one step further. The difference between "dust" and "dirt" is that dirt, despite its position at the relative bottom of the ecological ladder, nevertheless possesses the miraculous ability to grow plants, thus making it the very foundation upon which the vegetable, animal and human kingdoms depend. Dust and ash, by contrast, are not really endowed with this quality.

Spiritually, this is because dirt (which is the physical manifestation of the divine attribute of malchut), like intellect, is as nothing - to the point where it is trod upon by all - and therefore "merits" the revelation within itself of that same spirituality which shines within intellect. (This is in accordance with the Kabbalistic principle that "the beginning is wedged in the end" - i.e. the very highest level is, paradoxically, expressed specifically within the very lowest.) Dust and ash, however, symbolize what remains after all useful material has been extracted, for example, after all a material's substance has been consumed by fire.

The symbolism of Jacob and the guardian angel of Esau "raising dust unto the very Throne of Glory" is thus as follows: Jacob (Good) and Esau (Evil) battled for supremacy, each bodily embracing the other and trying to overwhelm it. Evil was no match for Good, and was itself overwhelmed, resulting in Jacob being renamed "Israel" in recognition of this victory. The victory was so complete that not only were the emotional attributes of kelipa, of the evil angel, subjugated and elevated to the emotional attributes of Atzilut, but even the "useless dust" of evil, mystically derived from malchut of kelipa, was "raised", i.e. elevated, unto malchutof Atzilut, associated with G‑d's Throne of Glory.


Adapted by Yitzchok Wagshul from a discourse in Torah Or;
Yitzchok D. Wagshul /

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