The Courage to Lose

This past weekend, my family and I went out to eat at a restaurant. We happened to sit near a television which showed a wrestling match. The two wrestlers were locked in a hold. One of the wrestlers wore blue shorts. The other, red. “Go blue!” My five-year-old son Jeremy cheered.

“Why are you cheering for blue?” I asked, wondering if blue was his favorite color or why he had chosen that particular wrestler over the other.

“Because the blue man is smushing the red one. Blue is winning.” Jeremy replied. (I then asked the manager to change the channel, and he kindly obliged.)

This week’s parsha also recounts the story of a wrestling match. The parsha, called Vayishach (and he sent), begins with Jacob sending messengers to his brother Esau in advance of meeting him. Twenty years earlier, Jacob fled from his brother who had wanted to kill him. Terrified of seeing him again, Jacob was up all night wrestling with a man (who many of the commentators understand to be an angel).
Who won this wrestling match?

The Torah doesn’t say. Jacob was injured in the thigh while the angel was unharmed. Nevertheless, Jacob refused to let go until the angel gave him a blessing. He asked Jacob’s name and said: “Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; you have wrestled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

This story could be read as a success story of Jacob refusing to give up until he won, exacting a blessing from his opponent. However, the story could also be understood as Jacob losing the match and discovering a blessing therein.

Like my son Jeremy, we often root for the winning team. We like success stories of how people heroically overcome every obstacle to achieve victory. I recently watched the World Cup speed skiing competition where the races were interspersed with video clips of the winner’s stories of how they worked tirelessly to achieve victory. These uplifting programs make us feel that if we give our all to our life’s goals, then we too will be equally successful.

However, sometimes we give our best effort, to no avail. One friend of mine is struggling to admit to herself and her family that her marriage has failed. Another friend spent six months in tortured agony trying to hold onto his flailing business before finally admitting that he needed to declare bankruptcy and start over. In each case, they had to struggle not only with the loss itself but also with the shame and embarrassment that comes along with conceding defeat.

When we lose, we often feel that we’re alone. Yet the Talmud teaches that even God suffered defeat. The Babylonian Talmud recounts that in one particularly heated debate between second-century Rabbis, a heavenly voice intervened and announced that Rabbi Eliezer was right. In response, Rabbi Joshua cited a biblical verse to prove that the Torah had been given to people and therefore heavenly voices should be ignored. The rabbi used God’s words to beat God in the debate!

What did God do at that moment? “God smiled and said, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’”

Smiling with victory is easy, but true courage is needed to laugh again after defeat. Only through our losses do we become who we’re meant to be. By letting go, Jacob became Israel. As we wrestle with painful decisions, we should remember that our loved ones and God are rooting for us, win or lose.

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