Jacob’s Wrestling Match: Coping with Struggle and Pain

How do we bear the unbearable? What can we do to help when we know we cannot change the outcome? Our Torah portion this week teaches us about how we can cope with struggle and pain.

Some weeks seem to be filled with joy and lightness. The sun shines, the warm weather beckons and all seems right with the world.

Some weeks seem to be filled with struggle and pain. The temperature drops below zero, the wind whips through the air, devastating typhoons wreak havoc in the Far East. And we get heart-wrenching news closer to home.

Sammy Sommer has relapsed and there is no cure.

We are heart-sick both for those we don’t know in the ravaged Philipinnes and for the Sommer family, who we all hold near and dear to our hearts.

How do we bear the unbearable? What can we do to help when we know we cannot change the outcome?

Our Torah portion this week teaches us about how we can cope with struggle and pain.

Jacob is about to reunite with his brother Esau after not seeing him for 20 years. 20 years earlier, Esau wanted to kill Jacob for stealing his birthright and blessing. Jacob is terrified of this reunion. Perhaps is brother is still seeking revenge. Jacob devises a three part strategic plan to deal with whatever Esau might throw his way:

1) He sends gifts ahead to appease his brother;
2) He divides his large camp in half, in case half his camp is attacked the other half will be be safe;
3) And he spends the night alone, praying to God. With God at his side, he knows that he can deal with anything.

While he is alone, he has a strange encounter with an angel. A mysterious angel wrestles with Jacob all night long. All night long, Jacob struggles through this wrestling match, until dawn is about to break. The angel then says: “I must go, dawn is coming.” Jacob will not give up the struggle until the angel blesses him. But with the blessing, comes some pain: the angel wrenches Jacob’s hip, so that Jacob walks with a limp the rest of his days. His wrenched hip is a reminder of the struggle he had to face. It reminded him that blessings are not always easy to come by. That life is sometimes difficult and painful. But we can persevere, we can go forward and put one foot forward and continue walking – even if we have a reminder of that pain.

Jacob’s encounter with the angel turns him into Israel. He prevailed – limp and all.

So too it is with us. Each of us will encounter our own struggles, our own challenges in life that will leave their imprint and cause us to limp. But we too will find a way to move forward, to live life fully and completely, one step at a time.

Just as Jacob developed his own 3-part plan to help him confront his fears, we develop our own as well:

1) We reach out to community, family and friends for strength and support
2) We can send gifts that will help those in need.
3) We can look to God – not for answers – but for comfort and support as well.

I want to suggest how we can do something for both the Philippines and the Sommer’s family that can be of assistance.

As we are all aware, in the early morning hours of November 9, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines. The equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane, the storm displaced hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and the region’s Pacific Islands. Initial accounts indicate that as many as 10,000 lives have been lost, and authorities and aid groups from all over the world, including North America and Israel, are struggling to deliver safe drinking water, food, and life-saving supplies to disaster zones.

As estimates of the death toll reached 10,000, and possibly far higher, and the scope of devastation caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan had only begun to emerge, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago announced the opening of a special fund to aid the recovery efforts.

“This storm has the potential to be one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory,” Federation President Steven Nasatir said. “Chicago’s Jewish community always has been among the first to respond to such crises, wherever they occur, and we will provide whatever support we can to those in need now.”

Chicagoans may contribute online at www.juf.org/relief, by calling (312) 444-2869, or by sending a check to the Jewish Federation Typhoon Haiyan Relief Fund, Room 3022, 30 S. Wells St., Chicago, IL 60606.

All funds collected will be distributed in coordination with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America. The Chicago Federation will absorb all administrative costs, ensuring that 100% of the local donations go directly to aid those most grievously affected.

The Reform Movement is also collecting funds through the URJ General Disaster Relief Fund. These funds will be distributed to aid groups working in affected areas.

When disaster strikes, Reform Jews trust the Union for Reform Judaism to distribute donated funds to agencies that are most effectively helping those in need. The Union retains no funds from relief efforts, with the exception of direct costs, such as credit card fees. Recent relief efforts have included hurricanes, storms and wildfires in North America, Haiti, Israel Emergency and Sudan. The URJ’s General Disaster Relief Fund enables the URJ to respond quickly and swiftly to all types of disasters as needed. Please visit the URJ website: http://urj.org/socialaction/issues/relief/

Let’s read this prayer together, written by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Paul Kipnes:

A Prayer for Flood-filled Days
Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes

Eloheinu velohei avoteinu v’imoteinu,
Our God and God of our fathers and mothers,
The flood waters came, wreaking havoc upon our cities, our homes,
our rescue workers, our sense of security,
And we turn to You for comfort and support.
Help us to differentiate between floods of destruction
and down-pouring of Your love and comfort.
We know that waters can destroy.
In a world decimated many times before,
having been submerged in waters
from the Florida hurricanes, the Asian tsunami, and …
each of Biblical proportions,
we remember the destructive abilities of these flood waters.
Recalling now that the world, though filled with Your Glory,
is not equal to Your flawlessness,
we strive desperately, sometimes without success,
to move beyond the impulse to blame You.
Keep us far from apocalyptic thoughts, for we know that You ask us to care for
each other, an awesome responsibility.
We also know that we can seek You in the waters.
We recall Your Loving Hand, guiding us in our infancy:
From a barren rock, You brought forth water to quench our thirst,
In the midst of a journey through the wilderness, You showed Miriam a
myriad of wells which healed our parched throats,
You guided us through Yam Suf, the Red Sea, moving us past destruction
toward new life and new beginnings.
Through Your love, we found our way.
Be with us now, during these deluged days.
Draw us close to those harmed by these waters, hearing their
cries, responding to their needs.
Lead us to support those who will fix the cities,
care for the displaced, who bring healing to those suffering.
Though our attention spans seem so short, may we
be slow to forget those who were in danger.
Please bring a warm wind and hot sun from the heavenly realms
to help dry up the flood waters.
And may we all embrace at least one lesson spoken aloud by so many who –
facing the floods – rushed to pack up their valuables:
That memories of love and of time spent with family and friends
are priceless, holy and sacred.
This can never be taken away.
As we rush to meet the challenge of living in this
imperfect world of ours,
May we slow down enough to cherish those who are truly valuable –
kadosh /holy – to us.
Baruch Ata Adonai, Hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol .
Blessed are You, O God, who differentiates between the truly
Valuable and everything else.

While there is no cure for Sammy Sommer, we can raise funds for research for pediatric cancer and raise awareness as well. One of the organizations the Sommer family has been actively supporting is the Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer. To donate to the MACC fund, please visit:


Founded in 1976, Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer, Inc. (the MACC Fund) is dedicated to funding childhood cancer and related blood disorder research. The MACC Fund is an approved – See more at: http://www.maccfund.org/AboutUs/#sthash.MFsKtYtr.dpuf

Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, Sammy Sommer’s mom, writes in her blog, Superman Sam:

“We might not answer your calls, your texts, your emails, your messages.

But thank you for them. They lift us up and hold us steady. Your presence means so much to us, even when we cannot even begin to acknowledge it. We feel our world holding us in a big heartfelt hug.

We might not update this blog. I don’t know. Then again, we might update it all the time because it helps us to write and reflect and record and remember. There’s no playbook and there’s no manual. The world is bright and harsh-feeling, and we are all so very fragile. We can’t answer your questions any better than we can answer them for Sam and Yael and David (and Solly, but luckily his questions are more like “why can’t I have donuts every day for breakfast?”) or even for ourselves.

Your support along this journey has been one of its most incredible blessings. We couldn’t have made it this far without you. We will desperately need you as we go forward. From now on, Sam will lead us, he will tell us what he wants and we will try so hard to give it to him. From now on, we will hold on tightly to each moment, we will celebrate and we will play and we will laugh and we will create a lifetime’s worth of memories and moments in the time that we have left.”

We will conclude tonight, by reading a prayer for strength and healing for the Sommer family, for Sammy and for all of us who hold them near and dear:

For Strength and Healing
Give ear, O Eternal, to my prayer,
Heed our plea for mercy.
In our time of trouble, we call You,
For You will answer us.
When pain and fatigue are our companions,
Let there be room in our hearts for strength.
When days and nights are filled with darkness,
Let the light of courage find its place.
Help us to endure the suffering and dissolve the fear,
Renew within us the calm spirit of trust and peace.
Baruch atah Adonai, sho-mei-ah t’filah.
We praise You, O God, who hears prayer.