Growing Through Struggle
Readings: Genesis 32:22-32, Secrets of Heave #4274 (see below)
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Photo by Keenan Constance: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-person-in-black-pants-standing-on-a-rocky-river-5690986/
Today we're going to talk about the story of Jacob. Well, we're going to talk about one small part of the story of Jacob. This part of the story is all about learning to accept the path of growth, which is the path of struggle to expand from selfishness to generosity. There are a lot of ways to understand this story, a lot of ways we can apply it to our lives, today I want to consider how it shows up in our relationships. Our relationships with family, close friends, not so close friends, and partners or spouses. But before I get ahead of myself, let me take a moment and put this in context. Remember that Jacob is a twin. He's the younger of two boys born to Isaac and Rebekah. As they are born, Jacob is grasping his brother's heel, and so he is named “grasper” or Jacob. As the second born, he is certainly loved, but he is not the favored one, he will not inherit first, or have the highest honors which his brother Esau is granted simply by being born a few minutes earlier. Rather than accepting his lot, he manipulates the people around him to claim the rights and honors of his older brother. He tricks his brother into giving up his birthright, and tricks his own father into believing he is Esau and giving him a special blessing. He’s what we could call a problematic Hero. He’s the main character, and clearly the one we are invited to empathize with, but he’s a thief and con man at this point. Now what he’s done understandably makes his brother Esau quite angry. In fact, Esau begins plotting to kill him. So Jacob runs away to his uncle Laban in Haran, and lives there for 20 years.
Eventually he hears from God that it’s time to head home again. And by now he has 2 wives, 2 concubines, 11 sons, a daughter, and many many flocks and herds. Clearly he’s done well for himself. But to go home again he has to encounter Esau, the brother he betrayed. He sends messengers to Esau to let him know he’s returning home. Jacob’s messengers come back and inform him that not only is Esau coming to meet him, but he’s bringing 400 men. Perhaps it's this news that leads Jacob to prepare gifts for Esau, and to send them off in batches ahead of himself and the rest of his family. These are incredibly valuable gifts. This lets us know that Jacob is aware of just how badly he betrayed his brother, and is sending a message that he wants to apologize, to make it right.
That is where our story for today begins.
Jacob has camped for the night, and in the middle of the night he gets everyone up, and sends them across the ford of the Jabbok river. It leaves him separated from his wives and sons and all his possessions. He’s probably thinking he may never see his family again. Perhaps Esau will come and take them away. He’s all alone.
In the Swedenborgian tradition we talk about what things represent, Jacob’s family represent truths Jacob had learned as he lived his life. We do the same, as we live our lives we learn things, we develop an understanding of the way things are, we develop a worldview. Jacob himself represents our natural self. The part of us that is oriented to prioritize our own needs - our ego. Our ego and our worldview are the characters in this story so far.
Now what happens when our ego and our worldview become separated? Think of this as being a time when something happens to make us question reality enough to undermine our worldview. The story says Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him untill daybreak. Swedenborg wrote that this symbolizes a time when truth is tested; a crisis of conscience. I’m sure you can think of an example of this in your own life, but here’s an example from mine. And before I share this let me say, while this is in the context of a herterosexual marriage, I think this dynamic can show up in any marriage, and in close relationships of any kind: a friendship, or a family member. So while this comes from a married perspective, I hope it translates into your own life in a useful way.
Several years ago, I realized that my husband Solomon and I had a significant difference of worldview from each other and it was leading to unhappiness. My worldview at the time was built on the assumption that if I needed something I would ask for it, if someone else anticipated my needs that was a lovely surprise. I assumed that Solomon held this same worldview. But I found out that as he saw it, his responsibility was to be attentive to the needs of the people around him, and not think much at all about his own needs. He was also struggling to understand that I saw things differently. He assumed that I would be paying attention to what he might need and offer it. So we were in a lopsided pattern where we were both paying atten to what Tirah needed, and no one was paying attention to what Solomon needed.
We can see that self-centered ego-driven worldview in Jacob’s past actions. He took the birthright and blessing because he knew it would be good for him, and he didn’t care what it would do to his brother. Now perhaps with the expansion of his worldview that came from becoming a husband and father, he’s looking back at his actions and it seems like he’s feeling bad about what he did.
Being married to Solomon, being in a front row seat for how my actions affected him, slowly but surely awakened me to our differing perspectives, and I finally noticed the imbalance. It was not fun. My ego said I had the right worldview, but my love for my husband told me something was not quite right, and my worldview was too small. The internal struggle is what we can call temptation or spiritual struggle. That’s what Jacob was experiencing, as he wrestled with this person all night. and it was exactly how it felt to confront my own self-centeredness. It was very tempting to claim that my lopsided marriage could be solved by Solomon changing. All he had to do was be like me, and we would be fine. We could be side-by-side self-centered people - ‘cause isn’t that what makes a happy marriage? Maybe not. Of course I could just change to his worldview and maybe that would work. We can spend all our time trying to guess what the other person needs, and maybe some of the time we’d be right. The reality is we can’t read each other's minds, so that won’t work either. For me, this wrestling match meant facing my part in that unhealthy pattern, and it was really hard. I floundered for a while.
In the story, Jacob’s hip is injured, when it says the man saw that he could not overpower him. This means that natural goodness - what I’ve been referring to as ego - won the conflict. Swedenborg tells us that Jacob’s ego could not be overcome, meaning that his worldview didn’t expand or connect. This resonates with me, I have been through plenty of times when I have faced an opportunity to expand my worldview, and I didn’t. I have lost opportunities to nurture a relationship, even lost friendships entirely. This story seems to have two endings, one where Jacob doesn’t change, he stays in a self-focused view, his hip dislocated, and another ending where he does change, he expands his view. When we come to these ego and worldview changing moments we have a choice - We can expand our worldview to include the wellbeing of others, or we can make excuses for ourselves, and keep our ego and worldview as they were. This choice is represented by the injury to Jacob’s hip. The hip joint represents where the Natural and the Spiritual can meet and be united. It's the place where we have our worldview, but connect it to the care of others.
Adopting an expanded worldview is an ongoing challenge that is represented by the new name Israel. The name can be interpreted as “One who Struggles”. And isn’t that just terrible and wonderful. To become an embodiment of the effort to evolve, to identify with the messy human process of enlightenment.
Jacob gets his new name, and now he wants to know who this is he’s been wrestling with. He says “Please tell me your name.” But this being doesn’t want to be known and answers with a question “Why do you ask my name?” And then immediately blesses him. Swedenborg gives us two directly contradictory interpretations of who this being is. One says the being is evil spirits, and another says it’s angels. In both cases they don’t want to be known. I think this is describing the way we go through a struggle and we can wonder if it’s a gift or a curse. We need to make our choices to grow, in a state of freedom, and if we are certain that some experience was a message from heaven, perhaps we are a little less free. The blessing he is immediately given is all about the gift of the spiritual growth this experience has provided. Indeed, though facing my faults has hurt, facing them has been the only way to become a kinder, more compassionate person. The human connection that is only possible with compassion is a blessing beyond measure. I suspect that parts of my life that I look at as only tragic, are merely spiritual struggles I have not yet finished with, so I haven't gotten to the blessing part.
Jacob called the place Peniel, which means a state of temptation, of spiritual struggle. He says, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” He realizes he has had a spiritual encounter and lived. It certainly resonates with me and the miraculousness of surviving the shame-filled process of facing my harmful behaviors. In the hardest part of the struggle, there’s a time when it doesn’t feel like something I can survive. And yet, by holding on and not giving up, we do survive, and the blessings on the other side are profound. As Jocob’s story continues he is referred to as both Israel and Jacob. It seems to be to a recognition of the reality that growing is an ongoing process, that we will continue to be graspers, but we will also have success in being strugglers. I am better at thinking of what Solomon might need than I was in the past, but it still takes effort. And he is working with me, telling me more about what he needs, so that I don’t have to guess. As is so often the case, the best path of growth is the one that we take in step with our friends and partners, intentionally working toward greater connection as a team. Jacob does indeed return to his family, though he has a limp, he is reunited to the truths that made his worldview, but he is a different Ego now. We return to our world view, and we are changed. And it doesn’t happen all at once, or once and for all. When we are wrestling with our self-focused Jacob, and working on becoming that Israel-Struggler, limping along doing our best to be kind and compassionate, that's a beautiful imperfect human place to be. Amen
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.
24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.
26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.
32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
Secrets of Heaven #4274
And a man wrestled with him symbolizes a time when truth is tested. This can be seen from the symbolism of wrestling as a trial. Spiritual trial is nothing less than a struggle or fight, because it is an attack on truth by evil spirits and a defense by the angels with us. Our awareness of that struggle is the trial.
We cannot undergo times of trial unless we have a goodness based on truth—that is, unless we have a love or desire for truth. If we do not love or desire truth as we know it, we do not care about it; but if we do love it, we are anxious that it not be harmed. The life of our intellect consists solely in what we believe to be true, and the life of our will, in what we have convinced ourselves is good. An attack on what we consider true is an attack on the life of our intellect, and an attack on what we are sure is good is an attack on the life of our will. When we are being tested, then, it is our life that is at stake.
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