At Odds With Ourselves: The Deeper Meaning of Yacov's Wounded Leg
The Rambam famously taught that the preferable path in life, is the middle path, the path of measured balance. But life is rarely straightforward and more often than not we end up drifting off towards one extreme or another; we end up placing more emphasis than we should on one value or another, we end up over focusing on certain values at the expense of others. This can lead us to feeling like our lives are out of kilter: One moment our emphasis is here, the next we over compensate there, and this leads to frustration, to a diminished belief in ourselves, and to nefilot, to painful personal setbacks.
Esav: At Odds With Ourselves
Deep down, this inner struggle is an outgrowth of Esavs’ wounding of Yacov and causing him to limp through life. Limping is the result of a lack of balance and harmony between ones legs. When one leg can’t quite keep pace with another, just walking a straight line becomes a maddening struggle. The same is true for inner, spiritual limping—tzliya nafshit v’ruchanit—that results in a feeling of being torn between colliding and contradictory inner forces. This inner Esav inflicted wound leads us down a path where we feel like our lives are out of control, like our lives aren’t even ours anymore. We thought we knew who we were, we thought we knew what it meant to walk straight, yashar, thru life, but we can’t seem to keep pace with ourselves. We end up fearing situations and circumstances instead of seeing them as opportunities for genuine self-expression and personal growth.
The reality of life is that it is filled with competing, seemingly opposing forces: Temimut—the pure clarity of being true to ones self—and chochma—the need to be calculating and to carefully weigh options. Intellect and emotion, chesed and gevura, self and community, innovation and tradition, and so many more.
Man of War, Nation of One
Paradoxically, it’s the reality of our confounding inner quarrels that hold the potential for a flowering of self. Like a man and a woman. Profoundly different, with natures that are frequently at odds with one another, and yet, possessing the potential for nothing less than creating life itself.
Am Yisrael is intrinsically connected to the Oneness of God; we know that Hashem Echad created a world that is, beneath everything that seems to proclaim just the opposite, also echad, also unified in the deepest way. And so we yearn for oneness, for connection and harmony. We long to live in a holistic fashion that denies pirud, splinteredness, its victory. But Esav looms large. Esav is the force that declares that at its core life is riddled with irreconcilable contradictions. That life is devoid of simple, pure yashrut, straightness. Klipat Esav insists that life is bent and crooked and broken. That our world is a helpless place of competing, ever battling forces, a world that demands, “al charbecha techyeh-by your sword you will live.” Esav denies the Oneness of the Creator that fashioned a world that is, despite appearances, a harmony.
But How, How?
How can we possibly restore the balance that Esav so brutally attacked and wounded?
This requires a two-staged refocusing on our root selves.
Our first move is to stop, reflect and recall that we are living in God’s world, in God’s presence, and that as His creations, within us there is a core of pure harmony. In our parsha, this is alluded to in the prohibition of eating the gid ha’nasheh, the sinew of the hip socket. The word nasheh has the meaning of “forgetting,” as we find when Yosef named Menashe: “For god has made me forget (nasheni) all my hardship…” (Braishis 41:51)
Esav’s denial of the inner oneness of all existence, of the unified Godliness that permeates all of creation, is the essence of the wound inflicted on us during his battle with Yacov. The consequence of this wound is that we too forget; we lose sight of the ever-presence of God in all things, and everywhere in our lives. And this forgetfulness manifests itself in reglaim, in legs whose nature is to be in sync with one another, but that in Yacov’s steps, and in our inner attempts to move forward, are hampered and even crippled. In truth, this is the root of so much of what plagues us; forgetting God, losing track of what life is all about, and tripping over our own feet. Yet, if we are able to stop, and to remember that Hashem is our loving father, the caring shepherd of our lives, this will allow us to turn our focus back to our inner, root essence, our yashrut, and to rediscover the sense of balance that we know is truly there.
“In all your ways be aware of Him, and He will straighten your paths.” (Mishlei 3:6) Because “God has made man straight.” (Kohelet 7:29).
Our second move is alluded to in the fact that Esav was unable to wound Yacov’s torso, and had to settle for wounding a leg. The torso represents the fullness of the person, the totality of one’s identity. The torso is where one’s heart and other vital organs are. Legs, as important as they are, are secondary. This tells us that though he tried, Esav was unable to wound our core, natural, pristine essence. Our inner yashrut, our straight-as-an-arrow inner integrity, remains what it always was, yashar, straight. Therefore, to straighten our steps, we need to know that there is always an unblemished center of gravity that patiently awaits our return. Deep within our hearts is a region of simplicity; pure, clear and straight.
Sometimes all we need is to close our eyes; to remember God, to know that our limp is temporary, and that it’s not really us at all. We can go inside with the knowledge that what awaits us is our soul, our natural self that is just waiting to blossom.
Everyone a Symphony
Our world is a vast concert hall filled with endless beautiful instruments.
Esav dared to claim, and to try and make us believe, that these instruments have nothing to do with one another. But Am Yisrael knows that’s not true. Am Yisrael, in it’s heart of hearts—in each of our heart of hearts—knows that there is a composer, a conductor and a score that unites every instrument, every one of us, in beautiful harmony. Our hearts are forever perfectly atuned; to God, our true selves, our unique inner melody.
From there we will be able to harmonize the dissonant forces and to reveal a beauty rooted in our inner achdut. And from within that place the morning sun will rise and the light of simple, straight yashrut will shine.
Each one of our personal efforts to “straighten” out our lives is, in effect, our personal struggle with Esav, with klipat Esav. In this battle, each of us plays a part in this ancient struggle between Yacov and Esav. And, in truth, as the children of Yacov, we are all united at the deepest level. At the deepest level, our efforts are not the efforts of individuals, but the intermingled efforts of our collective soul. At the deepest level, our every effort to harmonize the seemingly conflicting forces in life, creates a resonant harmony at every level of existence. A harmony that will manifest itself in the grand symphony of Am Yisrael singing, forever, a shir chadash, a fresh, new song to God.
And on that day of song, “God will be One, and His Name will be One.”
Translation by Shimon Apisdorf